Your consulting firm could be working on larger, juicier, more profitable projects. We’ve often seen firms double or triple their average project size. Achieving that goal may not be as distant or difficult as you’d think.
Author’s note: The following article was originally published in 2015. Occasionally I update old articles; however, this one seemed worth repeating without edits. Agree? Disagree?
Ahab, a world-renown fishing expert from Piscandi Consulting receives the following email:
Hi Ahab, I’m Ishmael from Beldad Industries. Our catch rate is down 12% versus last year. Can you help us?
If you’re Ahab, could you close that project? Should you?
Well, I’ll tell you what I think…
I have no idea. You see, I don’t know whether Ishmael’s project is a minnow, a redfish, a yellowfin tuna or a whale shark. And neither does Ahab, despite the fact that he is angling to be an authority in his industry.**
When a prospect presents an easy-to-solve, familiar problem, most consultants’ temptation is to say, “Yes, I can solve that!” and jump into closing the project. I’ve given that temptation a name:
The Irony of Expertise
The Irony of Expertise is the tendency to use our knowledge to answer the question at hand and, therefore, to miss the larger issue. Consultants are particularly susceptible to this challenge because we are natural problem solvers. Quickly resolving challenges is in our DNA and whenever we see the hint of a problem we can solve we want to jump in and work on it.
In my experience the Irony of Expertise is the number one reason most consultants don’t bring in larger projects. It is powered by dual, psychological motors: the desire to appear competent and the desire to win projects.
Unfortunately, that twin-engine design propels us past large schools of tuna while we race to net the single redfish we see jumping.
The solution to the Irony of Expertise is six words:
“I don’t know. Tell me more.”
When Ishmael inquires whether Ahab can help, the response, “Yes, I can!” will yield a small project; however, replying, “I don’t know yet, tell me more about what’s going on” opens the door to a larger project and, importantly, a deeper relationship that could spawn additional engagements.
The second reason consultants don’t reel in bigger fish is they fill their pails with minnows. A project with ten times the fees does not take commensurately more effort to sell or deliver.
Every small project you hook takes the space of a larger gig you could have tackled.
In this case, our psychological barriers are our desire for security and the comfortable embrace of our perceived limits. Small projects are easier to win, and in a business where income can be painfully inconsistent, the halibut in hand is often more appetizing than the promise of two cod in the coral. Plus, a frighteningly large project threatens our self-definition:
- It carries a risk of failure.
- We could be “found out” as imposters rather than experts.
- It implies the sin of hubris which, we know from the movies, will invariably lead to doom.
The secret here is surprisingly simple:
Regularly raise the limits of your maximum and minimum project size.
If you’ve accepted four-figure projects in the past, set a $10,000 threshold going forward. If the low end of your annual pool of projects has been $125k, set your new minimum at $250k. (The exception is “pilot projects” that are explicitly tied to a larger engagement.)
Setting a maximum project size may seem counterintuitive or downright un-American. However, as Ahab might tell you, chasing Moby Dick can destroy your ship. While there’s nothing wrong with being audacious, unless you’ve built the infrastructure to handle a project 20 times your average gig, landing such an enormous engagement can quickly overwhelm you and drown your reputation.
In addition, a thoughtfully defined upper limit works as a psychological cushion, buffering you against those self-definition threats.
I recommend you set new minimum and maximum project limits each year. Turning away minnows might be scary for a while, but when you’re feasting on yellowfin, you’ll be a happy fisherman indeed. (As for Ahab, he sent a reply: “Call me, Ishmael.”)
What’s an example from your practice of escaping the Irony of Expertise or setting new limits?
Text and images are © 2023 David A. Fields, all rights reserved.
wow, this is so true it hurts! thank you for the reminder David. I am putting this phrase in print on my desktop…”the halibut in hand is often more appetizing than the promise of two cod in the coral”. A habit that needs to be broken! The time suck of smaller projects gets in the way of larger project focus (in middle of same as I write)
Well said, Frank. Yesterday’s big catch is tomorrow’s bait fish. You either need to let the little fish swim by so that you can focus on larger prizes, or come up with an uber-efficient way of processing a bazillion anchovies.
I very much appreciate your posting your reaction, Frank!
What Frank said!
Your article is very timely! I was recently asked by a new client to sell them a training course. Easy to sell a course and move on, but after deciding to ask a lot of questions I found the course they thought they wanted would have done nothing to solve the performance gap. We settled on a training program covering several courses over multiple years. We have a saying that we sell a service, not a product.
Great example, Bob. Your case study exactly mirrors an example we use when teaching “Same Rain, Bigger Drops.” A client may think they want something small; however, what they need (and you can win) may be substantially larger.
Thank you for sharing that illustration, Bob!
Thank you for helping, as you often do, in restructuring my thinking so I can reframe it and thus be more effective for prospects, clients and myself.
I’m a natural question asker, sometimes overwhelming others, yet the gold for the prospect, client and myself is in questions, especially the better ones.
“I don’t know. Tell me more.” That can help me relax and not have my mind feel put on the spot.
As for minimum and maximum project fees, wow, that was a mushroom cloud in my mind. Thank you.
You’re absolutely right, Michael. Simply saying, “Tell me more” relieves pressure on you and keeps the spotlight where the client wants it: on them and their problem.
And yes, minimum/maximum project fees are a surprising and useful framework for many, many small consulting firms.
Thanks for joining this conversation, Michael!
David, It’s funny how in sync your posts can be to my position at the time. I just turned down a current client to renew an SOW and two new clients due to not meeting a minimum of $50k over a three year time period. This is the first time I’m doing so. My goal is to have long term partnerships and not episodic ones that the administrative costs are a larger portion of the whole. It felt awesome to turn them down and kept me from wasting time on having qualifying discussions and onboarding that I don’t have right now. I highly recommend it!
Congratulations, Susan! You’ve taken an important, empowering, firm-building step. Turning down business is not for the faint of heart, and you’ve demonstrated you have the will and vision to build your firm.
I’m sure other readers will be inspired by your example, and I’m glad you shared it, Susan!
A few years back a mentor of mine asked me to consider raising my project fees significantly. He felt the income I was receiving was not representative of the value I was delivering. So the next project that came in I doubled my “normal” rate expecting them to find an alternative solution. To my surprise, they signed without a whimper! I have since steadily raised our rates and have yet to find client resistance, except for my very smallest client who I had to say goodbye and good luck.
Smart mentor, Tom, and doubly smart you for listening and taking action. Clients are generally willing to pay more for excellent value. And do you really want the clients who are focused mostly on price and who view your services as a commodity? Nope.
Thanks for posting your experience, Tom.