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9 Steps from a Small, One-Off Gig to a High-Value Consulting Engagement

Sambar “Sam” Whitetail, CEO of Ungulate Chocolates asks your consulting firm to facilitate a one-day work session. Wonderful. You generally don’t fawn over executives who offer small engagements; however, Sam’s well connected and Ungulate’s owned by a PE company with a herd of prospective clients.

After conducting the Context Discussion, you suspect Ungulate could use your consulting firm’s help beyond your standard, one-day session; however, Sam doesn’t respond to your hints about broadening the work. Ultimately, you forward—and Sam signs—a proposal for the work session.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with tiny, routine consulting gigs, of course. Not every engagement can (or should) be a moose. A steady inflow of little, pudú-sized contracts can smooth your consulting firm’s workflow and reduce your client portfolio risk.

On the other hand, deriving too much of your consulting firm’s revenue from cookie-cutter, one-off deals diminishes your firm’s health.

For instance, constant client churn is expensive. Plus, you want your team leaping into every new client engagement bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and overly repetitive work (like the same, one-day workshop over and over) bores consultants.

Therefore, how do you transition Ungulate from a one-time, inconsequential customer into a larger client with follow-on projects worth big bucks for your consulting firm?

The same question—and same solution—applies to any initial consulting engagement that’s very contained and has a narrow scope.

9 Steps from a Small, One-Off Gig to a High-Value Consulting Engagement

1. Think Long-Term

Imagine your consulting firm is being paid by your client to look for project opportunities with them.

With that perspective, you may invest more into delivering the small engagement and earn lower margins; however, you’ll also increase your consulting firm’s odds of winning massive, follow-on work.

2. Seed the Ground

Before the project starts, ask your client for permission to talk about opportunities you uncover. Rare is the consulting client that doesn’t want to hear about opportunities—particularly if you talk to their customers.

3. Research

Interview anyone and everyone remotely connected to your one-off consulting project. External interviews (e.g., with your client’s customers, vendors and partners) often yield richer insights than conversations with your client’s internal staff.

4. Analyze

Collect, review and analyze every piece of data you can get your hands on that’s related to your consulting client.

If your client is a large, public company, focus in on the specific group your one-off project is with so that you don’t drown in syndicated data and articles.

5. Determine Needs

Establish your client’s major challenges and potential opportunities.

Stay Right-Side Up! This step is not about uncovering opportunities for your consulting firm. Rather, steadfastly focus on how your client could be better off.

The subtle difference between those two approaches (upside down vs. Right-Side Up), is hugely important.

6. Identify Collaboration Opportunities

Recognize where your consulting firm can play a role in closing the gaps you pinpointed in Step 5.  Those are opportunities to collaborate with your client. (Not all Collaboration Opportunities will turn into projects, of course.)

7. Present

During a meeting you’ve specifically set up for this purpose, reveal to your client all the high-priority opportunities your consulting firm has uncovered.

Three traps to avoid in this step:

  • Focusing only on Collaboration Opportunities
  • Arrogantly assuming you’ve uncovered needs your client isn’t aware of
  • Selling

8. Prioritize

During the meeting you hold in Step 7, solicit your client’s perspective on priorities. This critical step gauges Want and Urgency, and helps you avoid pushing for projects that are good for your consulting firm but generate little interest with your client.

9. Propose

Finally, during that same Step 7 meeting, ask your client whether they’d be open to exploring how you could work together to solve the high-priority, collaboration opportunities.

Boom, just like that, you’re discussing a large project—or string of projects—with Sam. And Ungulate may turn out to be a giant hippo of a client for your consulting firm.

Do you win a lot of small, one-off projects?


12 Comments
  1. Toopan Bagchi
    September 9, 2020 at 8:44 am Reply

    Fantastic advice, especially adopting the mindset of getting paid to discover the opportunities even if you’re between projects.

    • David A. Fields
      September 9, 2020 at 9:00 am Reply

      As with everything in consulting (and life?!), it starts with the right mindset. Being paid by a client to learn about their business is, to me, one of the greatest wins in consulting. Everyone gains.

      Thanks for sharing your reaction, Toopan. It’s helpful to hear what you and other readers are thinking.

  2. Heather Heefner
    September 9, 2020 at 11:01 am Reply

    This is wonderful advice. I needed to hear this, “Stay Right-Side Up! This step is not about uncovering opportunities for your consulting firm. Rather, steadfastly focus on how your client could be better off.” Thank you.

    • David A. Fields
      September 9, 2020 at 11:17 am Reply

      We all need to be reminded to stay Right-Side Up pretty frequently. Every personal and business instinct screams at us to focus on our needs and the needs of our consulting firm. To put the client first, you have to override those instincts.

      Good for you, Heather, for being open to the change! I appreciate you sharing a piece of your journey with me.

  3. Troy Edelen
    September 9, 2020 at 11:56 am Reply

    It works! I was engaged by a long-time client to conduct a two-day “Digital Roadmap” workshop. I brought a Digital Marketing SME with me to add some external depth to the conversation. After delivering the Roadmap, we extended the SME to lead the RFP/ vendor selection process for a new Customer Data Platform (step 1 on the Roadmap).

    • David A. Fields
      September 9, 2020 at 12:32 pm Reply

      Cool beans, Troy, and congratulations on the project extension. That’s an excellent case study, and I’m glad you posted it!

  4. Michael
    September 9, 2020 at 1:30 pm Reply

    David, I really appreciate how you create processes to follow, they are always helpful.

    Somewhere in step 2 or 3, I like to ask the question “If we were meeting here one year from today, September 2021, what has to have happened over the year for you to be thrilled with your company’s progress?” This is all about them and it gives me the opportunity to see how I may be able to support them in getting to the future that they envision.

    • David A. Fields
      September 9, 2020 at 1:44 pm Reply

      That’s a great question, Michael, and one that can be used at many stages in a relationship with a client or prospect. My guess is many readers use that sort of question when they’re first trying to win a client; however, they forget to reintroduce the question as part of a small engagement.

      Thank you so much for enhancing the process and sharing your wisdom, Michael.

  5. Sarah Sonnenfeld
    September 9, 2020 at 3:59 pm Reply

    Such helpful framing! Stumbling into this now and love the distinct “present” stage to share all opportunities _without_ selling. Really helpful…

    • David A. Fields
      September 9, 2020 at 4:20 pm Reply

      Serendipitously, as your comment posted I was on the phone with a client and he was singing the delights of “selling without selling.” Since he’s closed about $4m in business this year using this approach, it’s easy to see why he likes it! Keep your thinking Right-Side Up and magical results await.

      I’m glad you posted your reaction, Sarah. It means a lot.

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