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Lead Generation for Consulting Firms: 4 Essential Rules to Follow

If your consulting firm had more leads, you’d close more projects. Therefore, investing in lead-generation activities and programs seems logical for your consulting firm, right? Maybe. Let me share what my team and I have learned.

Every day, consulting firm leaders much like you tell me that lead generation is their number one obstacle to growth.

Sharon, for instance, one of two founding partners at an operations strategy consulting firm, asserted to me last week, “We need more leads at the top of our business development funnel.”

“Almost all our business comes from personal relationships, and that’s not sustainable,” Sharon continued. “Thought leadership marketing is unreliable and too slow. We need leads. Once we’re in front of a prospect, we almost always close them.”

Sound anything like you and your consulting firm?

Over the past year, my firm experimented with some of the lead generation approaches that are frequently promoted to firms like yours and mine.

You know the ones: they promise to produce huge amounts of business through LinkedIn campaigns, automated email sequences, scripted outreaches, free chocolate sundaes, and so forth. They don’t depend on carefully nurtured relationships or impressive thought leadership.

We’ve learned four essential rules (so far).

4 Essential Lead Generation Rules for Consulting Firms

Rule 1: Cold Outreach Can Generate Leads!

Your well-crafted messaging campaign for email or Linkedin can spark conversations with completely new prospects—contacts with whom your consulting firm had no prior relationship.

Conversations are, of course, the starting point for uncovering and pursuing consulting project opportunities, so this is good news.

Net: Don’t reject cold lead generation efforts immediately. They do have merit.

Rule 2: Expect Long Cycle Times and Low Close Rates

When you attempt to pull in prospects through SEO or you start a cold outreach campaign (a.k.a. lead generation campaign), your close rates will drop precipitously.

Most of the leads you currently close start as warm contacts and they’re well-qualified. You’re winning business from people who already know you or are referred to you. They trust you to some degree when you step into the business development journey with them.

In contrast, prospects your consulting firm engages via cold lead generation efforts require more conversations over many more weeks or months before they sign on the dotted line.

Net: Budget for considerable incremental time and effort when you’re evaluating whether to launch a cold lead generation campaign.

Also stock up on endorphin-inducing chocolate to compensate for the harder, longer, more discouraging sales cycle.

Rule 3: Leverage Current Awareness

Cold lead generation approaches produce better results if you already have some renown.

We found that a disproportionate percentage of the individuals who responded to our lead generation campaigns previously read my books, followed my articles, or subscribed to my monthly chocolate truffles service. (Just kidding on the truffles. Sorry.)

Not surprising, in retrospect. If a prospect has already heard of your consulting firm, read your books, or seen you speak, then your email or LinkedIn message isn’t actually cold.

Net: Execute on your thought leadership marketing before you invest in a cold lead generation campaign.

Rule 4: Lead Generation Isn’t the Solution to Impact Woes

Remember Sharon? She also told me, “We need more leads. Our offering is really hard to sell.”

Wait. What?

She says her offering is hard to sell and her conclusion is her consulting firm needs more leads? No. She needs better product/market fit!

And yes, this is the same consultant who claimed her company closes most prospects.

She’s not unusual. The vast majority of consultants significantly overestimate the percent of opportunities they close.

In other words, pay attention, because this is relevant to your firm too:

Most consulting firms that believe they have a lead generation problem actually have an Impact problem!

If you’re turning to a lead generation campaign because your consulting firm is not winning enough business, then you’re likely to be dissatisfied with the results.

First, confirm that your consulting firm is solving the Right Problem for the Right People with the Right Solution at the Right Time; that you’re Fishing Where the Fish Are.

When you consistently win over 40% of all warm opportunities that your consulting firm surfaces, then consider embarking on a lead generation campaign.

Net: Increasing your consulting firm’s volume of leads isn’t a good strategy to combat a poor-selling offering.

One additional rule we’ve learned from our clients: lead generation is slightly more effective if your offering is fairly commodity and low fee (i.e., under $10k). That doesn’t apply to my firm, though, and probably not to yours.

Have you tried cold, lead generation campaigns? If so, what’s worked or not worked for you?


18 Comments
  1. John Ennis
    December 9, 2020 at 6:16 am Reply

    This is an excellent point:

    “If a prospect has already heard of your consulting firm, read your books, or seen you speak, then your email or LinkedIn message isn’t actually cold.”

    Thank you for another helpful article, David!

    • David A. Fields
      December 9, 2020 at 6:52 am Reply

      You highlighted a key point, John, that’s important for every consulting firm to understand. Thank you for your feedback, John. It’s much appreciated.

  2. Ron Tracy
    December 9, 2020 at 8:43 am Reply

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, David! As a LinkedIn sales trainer, I applaud you for hitting the nail on the head. While I can help a client to gain additional exposure and authority (i.e. sending out invitations to a banquet and getting them to sit at the table), I cannot make anybody eat lousy food – especially if there’s no chocolate! Get the product/service/offer portion of your business right and then look to embark on the lead generation journey.

    • David A. Fields
      December 9, 2020 at 9:01 am Reply

      Bonus points for the darn good metaphor, Ron: invitations to the banquet vs. good food at the table. (1.5x for the chocolate reference.)

      Input from someone who’s in the lead generation (or lead generation training) business is an important perspective. I’m glad you added your voice to the conversation, Ron!

  3. David Burnie
    December 9, 2020 at 9:27 am Reply

    We are a boutique consulting firm and each month we have a leads generation contest. Over the course of a week each senior leader tracks the # of times they’ve reached out to a lead, focusing on A1s, A2s and B1s. We set both individual and team targets and the top leads generator is anointed the “Leads Gen Champ” for the month. Reaching out to one’s network should be just a core part of your day-to-day, but the focused effort and the addition of some competition really helps.

    • David A. Fields
      December 9, 2020 at 9:54 am Reply

      What’s particularly noteworthy about your example, David, is that you’re not relying on a cold, lead generation campaign to magically deliver prospects into your funnel. Rather, you’re attending to your firm’s Network Core and committing to “Step 4: Connect, Connect, Connect.” That’s the most consistently effective approach to surfacing new projects.

      Shining a hot spotlight on an activity (i.e., tracking it and rewarding performance) does have a way of making folks get involved. Nicely done, David. (Plus, while you didn’t mention that the Leads Gen Champ of the month gets a box of chocolate-covered espresso beans, I’m sure that’s part of the program.)

      Super helpful comment, David!

  4. Elaine
    December 9, 2020 at 10:36 am Reply

    Always great to read your emails! In addition to leads don’t discount follow-ups. I get about 20% of my business by following up on leads. Sometimes over months of touching base here and there. It doesn’t have to be a big deal either I have a couple form emails I just customize a bit and send. Sometimes I make a quick call instead.

    • David A. Fields
      December 9, 2020 at 10:43 am Reply

      Absolutely right, Elaine. Follow-up is crucially important once you have a lead. Whether it’s ongoing connection with a contact or shepherding a potential project through the pipeline, you’re responsible for ensuring there’s energy and momentum.

      Thanks for adding expanding on the topic, Elaine!

  5. Mike
    December 9, 2020 at 10:49 am Reply

    Hi David –
    On point article – no surprise there.
    But surprisingly, to me at least, cold outreach has delivered several six-figure engagements in the last year or so. Maybe more surprising was that they were C-suite contacts at large companies and took much less time to close and I’ve seen a 100% close rate when the CEO raises their hand and agrees to a context discussion. They don’t engage for long, and after the initial context discussion, immediately get me and a copy of one of my books over to the executive on their team that I need to work with. One actually asked if it was OK if he invited the relevant exec for a joint context discussion.

    One key to making this work has been making the message relevant to my ideal client (Technology & Industrial Manufacturers who are tired of throwing resources at new product delays) and making it sound very different from every other sales message they get (problem-based/ right-side-up)

    So it’s a viable approach, but is it enough? Not for larger engagements – it’s just too hit and miss for your message to arrive at the right exec at the right time when they are frustrated enough by the problem. Direct outreach to my network and warm lead generation through my books, articles, diagnostics, etc. are still important parts of my marketing mix.

    • David A. Fields
      December 9, 2020 at 11:01 am Reply

      Fabulous case study, Mike. Thank you for sharing! Your point is a much-needed expansion of Rule #1. Buried in there is the assumption that you have a well-crafted message; i.e., tightly targeted and either Right-Side Up or a compelling, Aggressive Reframe.

      More importantly, you also elegantly illustrate the role of Impact in this process. You were able to win business (surprisingly) quickly because you were speaking to exactly the Right People about exactly the Right Problem.

      Thank you so much for contributing your case study, Mike!

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