Episode 1: David A. Fields on winning clients

April 16, 2017

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David A. Fields is the author of The Irresistible Consultant’s Guide to Winning Clients: 6 Steps to Unlimited Clients & Financial Freedom, one of the best books available on business development for independent professionals.

David runs a consulting consortium and serves as an advisor to independent consultants and boutique firms. In this episode, we dive into some of his key pieces of advice for client development, including right-side-up thinking, defining your firm’s impact, building your visibility, how to have a context discussion, and tips on pricing.

You can read more about David’s work and sign up for free content on his website: http://www.davidafields.com/

David provided a list of books he recommends:

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert B. Cialdini

The Trusted Advisor, by David H. Maister and Charles H. Green

The Go-Giver, by Bob Burg and John David Mann

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, by Chip and Dan Heath

Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely

Strategy and the Fat Smoker, by David H. Maister

Managing the Professional Services Firm, by David H. Maister

We’d love your feedback on this episode. Email us at unleashed@umbrex.com

Unleashed is sponsored by Umbrex.


Will Bachman: You’ve just published The Irresistible Consultant’s Guide to Winning Clients: Six Steps to Unlimited Clients and Financial Freedom. I’m a huge fan, and fascinated by your practice of being a consultant to consultants. Could you give us a quick bio? 

David Fields: I did the better part of a decade in corporate with GFK, then about 20 years ago I started in consulting with a boutique firm. I created my own little practice inside the practice, then a few of us spun off and formed our own group.  I loved the business of consulting but was constantly being distracted by everyone else’s genius, so I created the Ascendant Consortium. I would win projects, then find geniuses who were unique in how they approached different problems — breakthrough thinkers. That put me in the unusual position of being both a client and a consultant on every project. Some of the consultants started asking how I was winning projects, and almost as a lark I said, ” I’m happy to coach you on this.” You can learn more about it at my website, www.davidafields.com, but that lark has turned into over 75% of my business. I fell into this. I can’t say it was a grand plan. 

What are the most common things you’re advising your clients on? 

 Independent consultants and boutique firms face three problems. The first is how to generate more rain and create more revenue, especially if they’re a boutique firm. If it’s a founder owner, they’re good at creating business, but once they get to a certain point they need to spread that out. Even in a one-person shop there’s always a question of how to create a more reliable new business engine?  

The next problem is how to scale and set up a business that allows you to grow and produce more value, capture more revenue, create more profit without working around the clock, or if I want to add people, how to do that efficiently? That sort of ties in to the third common problem, which for boutique firms is how to attract and retain outstanding talent?  

With a solo consultant it’s how to bring in more revenue and reduce labor intensity. 

How do you work with an independent, solo practitioner?  

Everybody needs something different, at a different time. Most consultants need to look at their offering, at their value proposition, at what I call a fishing line. Most think they have a visibility problem but in fact they have an impact problem. It’s not that they’re not seeing enough prospects, it’s that they’re not having any impact when they’re in front of those prospects. If they can create more discipline and consistency in attacking what I call the marketing musts, business starts to appear.  

What are those marketing musts? 

There are five marketing musts. They are speaking, writing, networking, digital presence and trade associations. They build on each other, and you have to do at least two. The one that’s nonnegotiable is networking. This is a relationship business, it’s a human business, it’s a people-to-people business. If you won’t pick up the phone, if you won’t talk with folks, walk down the hall, meet people, look into people, become interested in people, it’s going to be a really difficult business for you. If you’re willing to do that and you combine it with at least one of the other musts, you can generate business. 

How do you start reaching out to people?  

You identify your network core based on two dimensions. One is relationship strength and the other is the level of influence on making a decision? Every contact’s a good contact, but when you have limited time and limited energy for networking, you have to do a little triage. You have to say, “Where should I spend my time?”  

Once you decide who to call, how do you get past the problem of making time or feeling uncomfortable with making the call? 

If you’re busy I would change your frame of reference. You have a client that you’re not recognizing, and that client is called new business, and it has demands. You have to seriously say, “New business is a client that demands roughly 20% of my time, and I have to live up to my commitments to that client.”  

As for the discomfort, the hardest call to make is that first call. I would probably call and say, “This is David. We haven’t talked in forever, which is totally my fault. Have been out of the loop and I would love to just catch up and find out what’s going on.” It’s right side out. It’s not about me, it’s about him. No one objects to someone being interested in them. If you are genuinely investing in the relationship, then it’s not so uncomfortable.  

How does writing work as a marketing must? 

Writing has a few benefits as a marketing tool and as a practice building tool. It is a long-term strategy, not a fast path to cash. Of the five marketing musts, writing is probably the slowest, but it has some other advantages. It helps you understand your own subject matter better because you have to make sense to yourself, so it forces you to think through your own knowledge and your own expertise.  

Trade journals are absolutely where you want to write. You can bet that the people who are reading those magazines have very specific problems that you can address, and they’re reading those magazines because they read about issues that are relevant, specifically to the challenges they’re facing.  

What do you recommend for asking for a referral? 

I’m not going in asking who you know that has a problem I can solve and that I can sell to. Instead, I would simply say, “I love talking to you. I’m glad we reconnected. I bet you’ve talked to some really fascinating people in the past couple of months and I’m curious, who’s the most interesting person you’ve talked to in the past two months?” You say, “If she’s that interesting and intriguing to you, I would love to meet her. Would you be willing to broker an introduction?”  

I’m not worried about whether they are a perspective client or not. I’m going to meet her and we’re going to create a relationship and she may know somebody interesting. What I know from experience is interesting people are fun to know. That’s where you learn. That’s where you grow as an individual. They’re also interesting people, movers and shakers.  

One of the most powerful parts of your book is the context discussion. Could you walk through it 

It’s my belief that to become the obvious choice to a prospect, it boils down to discovery. If you conduct discovery in a way that allows you to understand your prospect better than anyone else — and perhaps better than your prospect himself — it becomes easy to tailor your offering in a way that makes you the obvious choice.  

Your prospect has to have brought up a problem or an aspiration that you can actually help with, and not something general. If he says, “We’re really having some efficiency issues,” that’s specific. Now I can say, “Would you like to have a conversation around how we might be able to work together to solve that?” If he says yes, now I’m going to have a context discussion.  

I’ll say, “I’m going to cover six topics and that will allow me to to determine whether it makes sense for us to work together. I want to understand your situation a little bit better. I want to know the outcome you’re trying to get to and how we’ll know whether we’re there. That’s the third topic. I want to talk about any concerns you have, any risks you see to this project. Fifth, I want to understand the value. Why even bother doing the project? And sixth, let’s talk about any parameters. Would that work for you?” Their answer 100% of the time is, ” That sounds great.” Then I’m going to dive in to each of those topics.  

The parameters, to be completely fair and transparent, is somewhat of a foil to get to budget. I want to know about all the different boundaries around the project, but I especially want to understand their budget concerns. 

When discussing budget, you mention “the heart attack question.” What is that? 

I’ll often say, “At what number that I come in with will you have an absolute heart attack? Will you just like, keel over?” I use that to get an upper boundary and to reset their own reference price and inject a little bit of levity. If someone was thinking, “Gosh, I hope this project’s $100,000,” and I say, “Just let me know, so that I don’t go crazy and I don’t kill you here, what number will give you an absolute heart attack?” Then they’re going to go, ” A heart attack? If it came out at 250, we would have a major problem.” I’ve just raised their reference price from 100,000 to 250,000. 

What do you do with the context discussion once you’ve asked these six questions? 

You summarize it into a context document summarizing the six things. Most of the time it needs tweaking, not because you captured it wrong but because you’ve forced your clients to think through their own situations in more depth than they thought through it before, which is part of the reason that I’ve been able to create more valuable projects over the years. You do a little tweak and once you have agreement on context, it’s really easy to create a proposal. The extra step allows you to alleviate concerns and demonstrate that you’re deeply engaged in what they need, not in what you need. The close rate is much higher. 

You use a hybrid pricing structure that includes value-based pricing. What is that? 

Pricing is tricky, especially when you go into value-based pricing. If I’m producing $11 million dollars in profit for a company in two months, why would I charge $30,000, especially if it’s based on my particular IP? If I say, “You told me, in our context discussion that if we do this it means $11 million to you. For this work that I’m going to do for you, I was thinking 180 grand,” because through our discussion of the heart attack price I’ve got a sense that 180 he’ll probably go for. It’s got nothing to do with how many months, how many days. It has everything to do with what I think he will pay based on the value he’s receiving.  

 My margin on projects is a heck of a lot higher and importantly, my ability to do whatever is necessary to get that client to their end goal is far higher if I’m being paid 180 than if I’m being paid 30. If I say 180 then that’s fixed. If I say, “You know what? I’ll take 10% of whatever profit I create,” that’s a success fee. When we determine at the end, we actually did $11 million dollars, then I’ve got a $1.1 million fee. Most clients won’t do that.  

I’ve found that the ideal fee structure is a hybrid on value based between a flat fee and some success fees, where you go in and say, “Here’s what I’ll do. We can do it 150 or $180,000 or, I’ll do this project for $100,000 fixed. That’s the flat fee. And I will put $80,000 of it, almost half, at risk and if we are successful,” and we have to agree on what success looks like, “Then my bonus will be 150.” You only pay that if you’re achieving your $11 million of success. 

On a value-based project where you’re doing a hybrid structure, you should be able to live with the flat fee portion of it. Not happily, but you’ll live with it. The reason this works is because we’re good at what we do. We deliver on our promises. The advantage of a value-based structure is, you have the room to deliver on your promise.  

What are the one or two books that you haven’t written that you think every consultant ought to read? 

 If you haven’t read The Trusted Advisor by David Maister and Charlie Green I think that’s important. The Go-Giver by Bob Burg and John David Mann. Bob and I have a lot of common philosophies. Thinking of others first, as you can imagine with a title like The Go-Giver. It’s a good book. It’s a fable. It’s an easy read. Influence by Robert Cialdini. It’s a classic book. Chip and Dan Heath’s book Made to Stick. If you just happen to think how people act is interesting and want to be more sophisticated in how you market, Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. He has some really interesting observations on pricing and pricing comparisons.  

If you had a chance to put something up on a billboard for every consultant to see, what message would you put up? 

 It’s not about you, it’s about them. 

"Episode 2: Ravi Rao, Author of Emotional Business"