As a consultant and an entrepreneur, I have been marketing myself virtually my entire professional career. Given that stretches well over two decades now, you would assume that is something I would have become relatively good at. And in certain contexts I arguably have. Particularly in personal discussion I can usually demonstrate a level of understanding of a prospective client’s situation, outline the framework of a proposed approach forward (assuming I am in a position to help them) and provide them with some assurance of my experience and expertise.
That conversation is less about marketing, however, then it is about demonstrating credibility and competence in a particular situation with a particular person. The larger challenge of marketing is about being able to answer the relatively general question of “What do you do?” in a way that is clear, concise and compelling. And, depending upon what you can do, that can be awfully challenging. Not only is “What do you do?” the bane of cocktail party chat the world over, it is a question that often quite frankly makes otherwise sane consulting professionals recoil in fear.
My original answer to that question was an astonishingly long list of activities that I could support. I did strategic planning, project planning and business case development. Prioritization? Yup. Systems analysis? Data analysis? Business analysis? Sure. Project management? Definitively. Program and portfolio management? Without question. Change management? Can do. And so on, ad nauseum. My early marketing efforts basically read like a litany of roles, functions and buzzwords. The implication of that long list of activities was the suggestion that whatever you were looking for I could probably make happen.
Another marketing strategy common amongst consultants is to focus on particular industries. From this, we wound up with a whole jargon that centred on what ‘space’ you focussed on. Whether the IT space, the finance space, the insurance space or the retail space, identity and relevance was a product of industry vertical. Interestingly, this has never been a way that I have marketed or defined myself. In reality, I have worked with an incredibly broad array of industries, and gotten great satisfaction from that variety. My target client group was not an industry; it was any organization going through significant change that had come to the realization that they couldn’t manage successfully in the future the way they had managed in the past.
The challenge of how I communicate what I do has once again emerged to the fore as I have gone through my most recent transition. Not only have I shifted city and province, but—to a certain extent—I have shifted focus. Historically I focussed on project management. More particularly, I defined myself as focussing on project management. Project management was the ‘niche’ that I assiduously endeavoured to carve out for myself; although this can be broadly defined, it nevertheless has some identifiable aspects. And while the breadth still provided a great deal of latitude in terms of determining what work I take on, the ‘niche’ of project management has become a little more limiting as I have taken the time to explore the work that I particularly enjoy doing and do particularly well.
What I have come to appreciate, over the last few weeks and months of reflection, is that what I do better than just about anything else is facilitate. What I facilitate—just like what industry I managed projects in—can be fairly broad. It could be a strategic plan. A program plan. The development of a business case or feasibility study. I could facilitate the planning of a project, or the articulation of a portfolio. I could be called on to facilitate the solving of a problem, or the development of a new and innovative product or service opportunity. But the overall theme of what I am doing is facilitating the process of exploration, of guiding a group through having a meaningful, important and relevant conversation.
The interesting conundrum here is that what I provide is a function: facilitation of a group of people working through the exploration of a problem, and aligning the expertise and perspectives of those in the room to arrive at a solution. In other words, I do stuff. The challenge here is that people don’t buy stuff, they buy results. And while I do—without question—deliver results, it is through a structure process of outcome identification, collaboration, synthesis and analysis that comes from taking a bunch of experts, putting them in a room and getting them to think about a problem in a unique and relevant way. Selling that capability is an interesting challenge.
All of us have to sell ourselves, whether we are employees or consultants. Looking for a job, lobbying for a project or seeking a new customer all involve the process—in varying degrees of visibility—of selling. We need to present our capabilities in a way that resonates with those we are offering our services to. The most relevant way that we can communicate what we do is by identifying the results that we attain. Arguably, looking back, I have delivered an array of results for a variety of teams and organizations. What those results are, however, depends upon the problem at hand. How those results are attained depends upon what outcome is actually sought. How directly those results are realized depends upon the expertise within the room. My being able to communicate my value requires synthesizing those various results into something that is compelling and relevant.
Going back to where we started, whether we are internal or external consultants, we cannot sell our services on the functions that we perform. Whether analyst, consultant, advisor or facilitator, just listing what we do results in an undifferentiated list of skills and abilities. It doesn’t describe what makes us special, unique or valuable. Our value is a product of the outcomes that we deliver. The problem is that those outcomes are at times abstract and ethereal, which makes them hard to define and harder to measure. In other words, just getting ‘broad agreement’ or ‘good discussion’ or ‘strong satisfaction’ really doesn’t add up to much. It still leaves the question of what, really, came out of that meeting?
By way of example, I can point to specific meetings in recent weeks and months where I can point to very specific outcomes: “A strategic plan that the executive adopted and embraced with significantly less debate than in previous years.” “A defined set of norms that we can use to hold the executive accountable to its stated objectives.” “A clearly defined decision that lets us make an informed choice about the options in front of us.” “Objective insight into how our practices do and don’t measure up to industry norms.” All of these take the specific deliverable that came out of a workshop, and answer the question “So what?” In other words, they explain how the results of the meeting were actually relevant to the organization.
The implication is that we need to reframe the question “What do you do?” and instead answer the question “What value have you delivered?” What are the business results that you have supported delivering? How does the organization benefit from your activities? How does your role contribute to improved functioning within a team, department of business unit? When you are confronted that question, don’t tell people what your role is. Don’t describe the functions you perform. Tell them the value that you have delivered. And in defining the value that you provide, make it specific, make it tangible and make it relevant.
In other words, “What have you done for me (lately)?”