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How to Build Your Consulting Firm Faster by Rethinking Your Relationship to Time

Time. It’s a critical factor in your consulting firm’s success. However, how you think about time may hide the bigger, more important picture.

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word “time”? I mean after you picture Morris Day and The Time’s unforgettable slide in the video for Jungle Love?

More importantly, how do your clients think about time?

It turns out your clients look at time in four different ways, and you’ll benefit greatly by keeping an eye on all four and prioritizing the one that matters most.

The Four Dimensions of Consulting Time

Time = Effort

Effort is the dimension of time most consulting firms obsess over. You should understand how much effort different types of projects absorb, because this affects your profitability and your capacity planning.

However, overall, effort is only relevant to your clients because consulting firms have trained clients to look at effort.

That training is unfortunate, because clients aren’t really hiring your consulting firm to “spend hours.” They’re engaging you to achieve an outcome. Clients who constantly monitor your consulting firm’s hours are working against their own best interest.

Even if you’ve entered into a time and materials contract, which is generally a poor choice, effort is ultimately unimportant to clients. (The exception is when your variable fees approach their budget limit–then effort takes center stage.)

Since effort is largely irrelevant to consulting clients, it should be largely irrelevant to you too.

Action step: De-prioritize the effort dimension in your planning, monitoring, contracts and conversations with clients.

Time = Duration

Duration comes into play when your consulting firm is being hired in an ongoing advisory capacity.

For instance, if you’re supporting the CCO (Chief Chocolate Officer), your client may ask, “How many months is this engagement?” (The correct answer is, of course, “We’ll stay until the chocolate runs out.”)

Duration is sometimes confused with speed. When clients are asking, “How long will this take?” or “How long will you be here?” it sounds like duration; however, the underlying question is about speed. The question they mean to ask is, “How quickly can you achieve the outcome?”

Action step: Consider duration when you’re scoping an advisory relationship and, in those cases, win the longest duration engagement you can (annual contracts beat the heck out of monthly renewals).

Action step: After you’ve signed the contract, duration should rarely cross your mind.

Time = Speed

How long does it take your consulting firm to deliver the phenomenal outcome your client engaged you to produce? That’s speed.

Intuitively, it’s obvious that speed creates value.

Every day you can carve off a new medicine’s launch timeline is worth a bazillion dollars. Solving an attrition problem in two weeks saves a fortnight of heartache compared to a month-long effort.

Strangely, though, your consulting clients typically don’t value speed as highly as you’d think. Or like.

If your deliverables are linked to a pivotal deadline or they’re on the critical path for your client’s top-priority, high-visibility burning initiative, then speed is paramount. That’s rare.

In most cases, your client probably doesn’t mind if the timing on your initiative slips.

A couple of extra weeks or even a month or two is fine and dandy. (As long as the fees don’t increase.)

Because your consulting firm may value speed far more than your client does, there’s a good chance you’re promising faster timelines than you need to. And that unnecessarily strains your capacity and your staff.

Action step: Before you promise an accelerated or aggressive timeline, thinking your client will be super thrilled with your amazing delivery, check in to find out how much they really care.

Time = Responsiveness

How quickly you circle back to your client after you’ve promised something or they’ve reached out to your consulting firm is your responsiveness.

In consulting, responsiveness rules.

Your clients’ perception of working with you is extraordinarily influenced by responsiveness.

They notice how quickly you return their texts, emails, phone calls and instant messages.

They pay attention when you turn around requests late at night and early in the morning.

They judge you based on how swiftly you deliver materials, introductions, data, articles and anything else you promise during a conversation.

This dimension of time, more than any other, is your ticket to delighted clients, repeat work and referrals to new consulting prospects.

Action step: Set up systems and processes that enable you to be over-the-top responsive to your clients.

Looking at hours, days, weeks and months from your clients’ perspective and focusing on responsiveness is your road to a healthier, happier consulting firm.

How do you think about time when dealing with your clients?

  1. Michael R
    October 21, 2020 at 9:46 am Reply

    Great article David, you are so right, clients care about results and responsiveness. How much effort and hours you put into a project aren’t relevant to a client unless you are selling hours. The real problem in selling hours is that everyone has hours to sell, hours are a commodity and commodities always sell at the lowest price.

    • David A. Fields
      October 21, 2020 at 10:27 am Reply

      Exactly, Michael. Hours are, indeed, the ultimate commodity. Also, since they’re non-renewable, consultants get all caught up in maximizing the use of the commodity. That quickly turns into upside down thinking.

      Thanks for your feedback on the comment.

  2. Liz Steblay
    October 21, 2020 at 12:12 pm Reply

    As always, excellent food for thought. (Maybe it was all the cookie references.)
    I also think about time in terms of duration of the relationship. When we gain a new client, it’s our goal to keep them as a client as long as possible — not the actual engagement, but the overall relationship. We nurture that relationship so the next time they have a need or situation, they call us first.

    • David A. Fields
      October 21, 2020 at 12:40 pm Reply

      That’s a good perspective, Liz. It’s possible there’s no end to a relationship. We view our clients as lifetime partners, whether we’re actively engaged with them or not.

      Great addition to the concept of time, Liz, and I’m glad you raised it.

  3. Rick
    October 21, 2020 at 4:55 pm Reply

    I knew I had to prioritize responsiveness in my consulting business but I had a full-on-mind-blown-moment reading this quote, “Because your consulting firm may value speed far more than your client does, there’s a good chance you’re promising faster timelines than you need to. And that unnecessarily strains your capacity and your staff.”
    Given that “my staff” is…me…I’ve felt that pressure due to self-set aggressive timelines in order to delight a client. Sure they were pleased with the delivery…but delighted? Was it worth the effort?
    This is a great reminder to truly understand the *client’s* needs/wishes rather than assume they’ll be delighted with a super-fast delivery.

    • David A. Fields
      October 21, 2020 at 5:18 pm Reply

      Bingo! Extra points for lasering in on the most important line in the article. Many, many firms operate exactly like you and will benefit from taking the same step back that you’re taking.

      Hooray for highlighting the key point, Rick!

    • Laurie
      January 28, 2021 at 11:26 pm Reply

      Another perspective on responsiveness: in general, we are very responsive to client requests via email, phone, etc. But it’s important (especially if you’re in the same time zone as the client) to be businesslike, have some commonsense boundaries and save one’s sanity by NOT responding in the middle of the night if that’s when an email comes in. Better to give it some thought (get your sleep) and respond in the daytime.

      • David A. Fields
        January 29, 2021 at 8:10 am Reply

        Boundaries are important, Laurie, and also negotiable (in most cases). For instance, you might agree to be on call 24/7 for a client who pays you $1m/year. (Those fees let you set up systems so that 24/7 responsiveness isn’t painful.)

        You make a good, and important point: You and your team are important clients and you need to treat them well. If you don’t take care of yourself, you’re missing the point of being in this profession!

        Thanks for highlighting that idea, Laurie!

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