Your Consulting Frustrations: 3 Steps to Identifying What’s Really Going On

Egyptian CarvingI am very lucky – I get to spend a lot of time with community benefit consultants. As a recovering consultant myself (now an organizational founder), I cherish that I get to spend so much time with people who have chosen their work based on their passion for making the world a better place. After all, if consultants were in it for the money, they wouldn’t be working for community benefit groups!

But still, consultants do need to make a living. And now that a big part of my role is teaching consultants to be more effective at their work, I tend to hear more about their frustrations in that regard.

Most of these begin with “I love consulting, but…”
… I want to be working with more sophisticated (or otherwise different) clients.
… I wish I could get clients to do what I suggest.
… I keep getting turned down for gigs I thought I was going to get.
… I wish I could raise my rates.

No, I don’t have a magic formula to fix all that. But what I can share is a way to find out what’s really going on. Because embedded in all those wishes is the question many consultants are afraid to ask: “What am I doing wrong?”

Imagine a client coming to you with a similar problem with their fundraising. The first thing you would request is information – data. “Let me see 12 months of fundraising letters, and the results from each one – how many gifts, what size. And etc….”

Now it is time to gather the data that will allow you to turn your consultant lens on your own work!

The intent in gathering this data is not to solve the problem – at least not yet. The first goal for gathering that data is to have data! Once you have an objective analysis of what is happening, you can begin to move beyond “What am I doing wrong?” to aim for the results you want.

Egyptian carvingStep #1: Find the data: Prospects that did not become clients
Unlike a client’s fundraising campaign, most consultants don’t have the data they need readily available. So start with making a list of the last 10-20 prospective clients you pitched for work but didn’t get the job.

Perhaps they hired someone else.
Perhaps they decided they wouldn’t do the work at all.
Perhaps you pitched them a big piece of work and they hired you to do just a tiny portion of it without even the thought of doing the rest.

If you didn’t get whatever you consider “getting what you’d hoped for,” put that person’s name on the list.

Step #2: Digging into the Data: Finding the point of “tone change”
For each of those clients, note the point in the process when the tone of the interactions changed.

Usually we get signals before the final “no” – signals we may have ignored, or pushed through, or wondered about, or simply not seen at all. What we want to discover in this step, for each of the names on your list, is the point where you felt that tone begin to change.

You may have noticed a shift from friendly to silent. Or from excited to cautious. Or it could be that it felt like nothing changed and then “suddenly” they said “no.”

Egyptian carvingWhat we are seeking is the point in time, where before that point, things felt positive and possible; and after that point, things felt somehow different. In our office, we call that the “Shoulda Known” point – the point at which, in hindsight, we can see that things had shifted, but we were too involved in the budding relationship to see it clearly at that time.

Create that timeline for each of the people on your list from Step 1, identifying the point at which you noticed the dynamics had changed.

This exercise will take some quiet contemplation. It may help to use a flow chart or actual timeline of the relationship, to draw the path – this happened, then that happened. “They called, I sent an email, they responded, we met, I called to follow up, they suggested what they wanted, I sent a proposal, etc.” It may help to go back through your emails and notes, to find dates and see what really happened. It may help to draw it on a marker board.

Again, this step is not to establish blame. It is simply to establish the facts. What happened all along in the relationship, up to and including the point where you felt the tone change? Or if you never noticed the tone change, up to the point where you suddenly found yourself up against a “no thanks.”

Step #3: Analyzing the data
Now that you have all the data, it’s time for some analysis. This will require looking directly at YOUR role in the interaction (yes, it takes two to tango, but the only one you can control here is you, so let’s focus there!)

  • What action did you take immediately before you felt that change in relationship occur? Note that action for each interaction. Did the tone change after you provided your proposal? Or was it when you suggested possible actions they might take? Or was it early in the relationship, when you talked about how you might address their problem? Or…?
  • Are there similarities between the various interactions? Has the change of tone occurred at the same time in every case? Or are the “no”s all coming at different points in the relationship?
  • When the group eventually tells you “no thanks,” are they giving similar reasons, or is the reason in each case different? For example, are they consistently saying your price is too high? Or that the work you proposed didn’t feel like a fit (even if you thought you were proposing exactly what they had asked for)?
  • What else might you be noticing in this data? What else is standing out to you – about those prospective clients, and especially about their reactions to your actions?

Egyptian carvingStep #4: What’s Next?
As you know from your consulting work, you cannot figure out how to help a client until you have a solid idea of what’s going on with them. And as you also know from your consulting work, the answers to a client’s problems often depend on the client and the consultant – the specifics.

Which is to say that the next step is to use what you’ve learned to begin trying something new. Just as you might suggest to a client who was just beginning to think about things in a new way, you might keep an eye out for classes or webinars about what you found in the data. Or you might join a consultants learning community – either in your community or online – where you can feel comfortable asking how others handle similar issues. (Consultants find Creating the Future’s Facebook group for consultants hugely helpful for these kinds of issues.)

Regardless of what actions you choose, you will be starting with a clear picture of the real issues. And just as it is with your clients, understanding the real issues is often the first step out of frustration and into the next stage of reaching for your potential.

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