Branding and positioning

What You MUST Do Differently As A High-Value Consultant

By Brennan Dunn

I want to talk about engagements today.

Specifically, I want to talk about what our role as a high-value consultant is when working on client projects, and what makes the details of high-value engagements different from the typical, run-of-the-mill freelancing gig.

One of the questions I’m asked the most is, “What’s the difference between a freelancer and a consultant?” I’ve never really had a good answer for this. I mean, I knew that consultants played a more active role in the business behind the project. I always thought of the distinction a bit like the difference between a chef and a cook; the former directs, combines, and creates, while the latter just follows recipes.

But on Sunday, while returning from a much needed week away in the woods (with literally zero internet and no cell reception — I had to drive 30 minutes to the closest town in order to send off last week’s newsletter!) I think I finally figured out what separates a freelancer from a consultant.

Consultant = Freelancer + Coach

We’re all good at the freelancer part of that equation. Give us a project that needs to get done and the corresponding requirements and we’ll do it. But coaching is an entirely different beast. Coaching requires you to think about the needs and wants of your client, and to play an active role in steering the project. It means you’ll challenge assumptions, take few things said to you at face value, and regard the relationship you have with your clients as that of equals, breaking free of the client-vendor stereotype.

What, then, does it mean to coach a client?

So let’s look at what exactly changes about an engagement when you incorporate coaching into the way you work.

The most important change is that you’re going to need to really immerse yourself in the business of your clients. If you’ve followed the steps I outlined in the last post of this series (or spelled out over 50+ pages in Double Your Freelancing Rate), then you’ve already founded the relationship you have with the client on the bedrock of their business needs.

Practically, this means you’re going to want to value conversation more than you value the work you’re doing. The work you do is the byproduct of the conversations you have with your client. When kicking off a new engagement, your primary focus should be in establishing constraints: “What is the business goal this project needs to achieve, and what are the boundaries I need to stay within to achieve this goal as quickly, efficiently, and cost-effectively as possible?”

Let’s say that you’re tasked with redoing the website for a local business.

If you weren’t incorporating coaching into your engagement, the end would be the website. You’re there to redesign, rewrite, and replace whatever’s already there. Since there are  few natural constraints outside of the obvious — it’s a website, accessible by a web browser — there’s plenty of opportunity to slip and be distracted by bright and shiny objects (a new plugin you heard about, some hot Javascript framework, or writing for the sake of adding more words to the page).

But when you have a business goal, you’re going to want to make it your #1 priority to constantly refine, reduce, and find shortcuts to that goal. You do this through ongoing discussion with the client, where you share with your client not only the work you’ve been doing, but — most importantly — how your latest set of deliverables helps get us closer to solving the problem we’re all here for.

Therefore, when you’re working on redesigning that local business’ website, you first need to establish what the goalpost is: “We need to generate more leads to hit our numbers.”

With each line of code, each design element, and each word, your mission is clear: Generate more sales leads. This is your constraint, and this is what makes you better than your competitors, who don’t have boundaries setup between themselves and their available skills.

Knowing this goal, and what steps need to be taken to reach it, requires you to be unashamedly curious. Be open with your client. Don’t be afraid to raise doubts around what they’re wanting you to do. Don’t worry about saying, “Mrs. Client, let’s talk about how this thing you’re asking me to do will get us closer to getting you more sales leads.”

At first it might seem wrong. After all, you’re being hired to execute on their project — so what gives you the right to doubt and poke back? What gives you the right is that this is the responsibility of a great consultant. Pro coaches know that they’re doing their client a disservice if they simply agree and support to everything their clients say and do.

And, believe me, your clients will respect you for pushing back. Make it clear that your job is to be the custodian of their budget; you’re here to ensure that it’s used wisely.

How I killed a dead-on-arrival social network

Back in the early days of my agency we had a client, Mark, who wanted us to build him a marketplace of sorts that would connect local musicians with venues. It was easy for me, and especially easy for Mark, to dream big and think about how a bunch of bands could be chatting back and forth with venues and booking upcoming gigs.

But I knew better. I knew something Mark didn’t know.

It’s really stinkin’ hard to build a marketplace. It’s almost like a chicken-and-egg situation. Mark needs to recruit both the bands and the the venues, and make sure they overlap nicely and have a great experience on the website. This often requires big marketing budgets and a stroke of luck, both of which Mark — a full-time accountant, husband, and father of two — didn’t have.

So I stepped in and told Mark that he needed to axe all the social stuff (direct messages, forums, etc.) until he had enough people on the site to warrant building the community aspects of the site. And then I gave him marching orders on how to recruit one side of that marketplace first, and allow them to get value out of the website without depending on the other half of the site being there yet.

And this ended up saving Mark tens of thousands of dollars. And I ended up looking like the hero, because I simply relayed stories that I had picked up from a bunch of failed startups. Because it’s my job, as a consultant working in technology, to have a good grasp of the State Of Things, and assume that I know more than my clients about those Things.

I coached Mark through his project, and ended up saving him a lot of money and a lot of misery.

The most important deliverable

As a high-value consultant, you need to do more than just restrain yourself and focus on the goal at hand. You also want to show the client, whenever possible, that what you’re doing now pays off in dividends later. Not every project has a clear financial motivation, so read this and this first before reading more if these are the sort of projects you work on.

But before you break ground on any new project, any new feature, or any new requirement, ask yourself:

  1. How will this help us solve the problem at hand, and get us closer to our goal?
  2. How will the money spent on this yield an ROI (return on investment)?

I question each and every thing I do when on a consulting engagement. And I make it known to my clients that this thought process is happening. One way to really make it obvious that you’re doing this, and to memorialize this process, is to draft up a simple, end of week report that talks about what you did this week, what struggles you faced, and how everything you did fits into the bigger picture (that is, how what you did got the project closer to the goalpost).

Very few people do this, and this is exactly what your clients need. They deserve to have you as the custodian of their budget, and as someone who’s not only doing the work to get a project out the door, but also as someone who has a real interest in the immediate and long term success of both the project and the business.