You can lead a consultant to market…

Confession

Something to aim for

Here is a confession: I am a consultant. I am consulted about tax issues and I am consulted about business problems. Luckily my potential clients know where to find me. Luckily? Well, maybe not. I have to market to get business. It is obvious really.

I know quite a few other consultants. Many people who are consultants have retired from a long term job, or have been involuntarily “retired” through redundancy. Often such people have very valuable skills to offer and they want to work, or they need to due to pension disasters of which there are many in the private sector.

So often our consultants have no idea how to find business. It is often better not to call oneself a consultant for fear of being a butt of the many jokes.  So disregard my earlier remark that I am a consultant. I am someone who has a good deal of expertise and can really help you and your business. I also can help you find just the specialist you need.

Available for work

We have established that there are many very experienced people looking for freelance work. So many of them have no idea how to find this work and surprisingly for many who may have so recently had a job and had to use IT or ICT are technophobes with regard to the on-line stuff. Sadly for those people, that is where so many potential customers look for specialists if they haven’t found them through networking and word of mouth.

Action now!

So what to do? In many ways it is obvious:

  • have a website
  • have valuable content on the website in the shape of articles
  • have a blog

Content marketing is a main driver of visitors. The technical content on my main tax website is popular. It is also self-tuning in letting me know what people are looking for because I know what was in their search, which I know through Google Analytics and StatCounter.  In fact I don’t have to write articles very regularly if I make sure they are really valuable.

Then there is this place, On Our Bikes. It attracts prospective clients and it helps keep me up the search rankings. I am easily found on a name searchof course because my name is not that common, but there are for more instances of me than of the other guys with the same moniker. So there is no doubt about my name brand but my name would have to be known in connection with what I do for this to be really effective.

It might be better to search for my expertise. If we look for “tax Essex”, but without the inverted commas I am still high up  on the first page. If we enter “tax return Essex”, at the time of writing my business is the first of the entries which have not been paid for on the first page of Google.

So the answer in terms of driving the on-line marketing is through having websites and blogs which are entirely WordPress based. And WordPress is relatively inexpensive to manage though I recommend you do get some help in managing it. The results are really brilliant.

Don’t be Billy / Billie no-mates

I cannot understand how so many “consultants” sit around and wait for business to arrive somehow when they make no effort. Having a LinkedIn profile can help quite a lot. And any profile can help because I keep some of my photos on Flickr and the Google search entry for my Flickr says “Tax practitioner, business connector, freelance writer, blogger at On Our Bikes, Jon Stow Consulting Tax Blog and Jon Stow’s Posterous …” So you can keep your photographs backed up and have a profile mentioning your expertise. And it’s free, though I do recommend that any person with expertise makes more effort than that.

If you are a specialist, you can do a lot at relatively low cost to be found on-line. You do have to make an effort and not be scared of getting out there. Look at what others do, and adapt their tactics to your own skills.

Preferably you should pay a marketing person who knows what they are doing, so get a recommendation. I think that at a minimum you ought to have a LinkedIn profile and a website with a few specialist articles so that visitors can see that you know your stuff. Then talk to someone about how you can be found on-line ahead of other people (that’s called SEO).

Do it!

Just don’t do nothing. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. There really is no excuse especially when the alternative is poverty. Do you need a consultant, oh sorry, specialist?

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How much is a consultant worth?

Barclays on Queen Street, Morley, West Yorkshire

Image via Wikipedia

Naïve question

A consultant in my network asked what rates he should charge as he was looking for additional work. I guess he was thinking about a day rate, which is a really old-fashioned way of thinking. Our friend also has a serious disadvantage in having no on-line brochure or marketing material in the form of a website, but that’s another story.

My reply in part was as follows:

“You need to think about value rather than rates. How much value can you bring to the party, how much will you improve the client’s business, how much comfort will the client pay for to have you by his / her side? The old idea of £500 per day or whatever is outdated.

In my business I either quote a fixed fee for my assignment based on value to the client, or I assess the client as to how much he or she will pay for the comfort of having me, but still with an eye to what I can deliver in terms of value. You have to be adaptable.

A couple of days work might be worth £250 or it might be worth £2,250. It is for you to judge and sell on value.”

Bank on value

Of course a couple of day’s work might be worth a lot more than £2,250. It really depends how much value in terms of either profit or comfort or both the consultant is delivering.

Don’t think I am leaping to the defence of the bankers, but there is a row about Barclays Bank paying their chief executive, Bob Diamond, a bonus of quite a few million but the bank has just posted profits of over £6 billion. We may not like the bank’s charges and think they have let us down (although the bank was not bailed out by the Government). However, the bank, board and shareholders may credit Mr Diamond with being responsible for quite a slice of the profit, and that’s a big profit. Hence he has a value to them of a greater amount than most of us will ever see.

Consultants and indeed anyone offering a service should think in terms of what value they can deliver to the client when making a proposal. How much better off will the client be at the end of the assignment or how much value going forward will the client benefit from?

If a client will be £500K better off, a system to achieve this could be billed at £50K even if the setting up of a system or the work involved is comparatively little. If the client is £50K better off, he or she will be happy to pay £5K. It is not the work involved (and if you are selling a system you put in a lot of work at least once), it is always the value to the client which should be billed. If it is a one-off job it may deserve to be billed a lot more than the cost or a now obsolete normal day rate.

Small beginnings

The fixed day rate idea always was a bit absurd. If a consultant needs the money and is not busy, it would be sensible to take work at £150 a day or less (if that is all the value was to the client) rather than turn down a job and get nothing. Start-up consultants may turn down work because they think they are “worth more” but it is better to keep their hand in for when the big money saving or profit increase for the client brings the matching big money.

Perception

Of course to get the fee on a value basis it has to be sold to the client, but that will be a lot easier if the client understands what the value is. It is better to sell on that basis of “my fee will be £10,000 and will save you at least £50,000 this year, and next year and the year after”.

The day-rate basis (“my fee will be £1,000 per day”) will result in your being shown the door.

Value-billing is the way to go. What to you think?

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Why we need to assess the risk in our business assignments and projects

In my last piece I talked about the danger of adapting business agreements and contracts when we do not have the specialist knowledge as lawyers, or indeed as (in my case) a tax practitioner. I suspect that those who are driven to do this are either out to impress their clients or are motivated by the prospect of getting a larger fee than if the work is shared with a professional in the relevant field.

However, even for those who may be very well qualified in terms of understanding what is required in an agreement or contract or other project of any description, the risk in undertaking some assignments may simply be too great. It is sometimes best to pass on a project, and, I believe, take a commission as long as we are up front with our client as to what we are doing.

Let me give you an example. When I was in the larger corporate world the sort of work I did included devising share plans for companies to reward their staff. The idea was that the employees would receive bonuses in the form of shares in their employer, and at the same time the company would save a great deal of money, particularly in terms of tax, in doing so. One project I did took me about three weeks working exclusively, and I remember that my employer’s fee was about £50,000. During the period I was developing the share plan, whilst I knew what I was doing, I had the benefit of peer review and also checked with lawyers that I was on the right lines and that the plan was “watertight” and that it would work.

The client company was looking to save millions, so their Financial Director was not worried about the fee they were paying, and my employer stood to make a tidy profit.

Now I am a principal of a small business. I still have the expertise to do a similar project. What I lack is the opportunity for sufficient peer review and the backing of a large corporate employer. I would not undertake such an assignment and would pass it on to a bigger player, of whom I know a few. After all, it is not just when we mess up that we might get sued. If other things outside our control go wrong it is human nature (and all businesses are run by humans) to look for someone to blame, and even being on the wrong end of misdirected litigation can be very expensive and very worrying. We are also unlikely to have a sufficiently large professional indemnity policy to save ourselves or our company and reputation from ruin.

My message is that not only should we not undertake business activities outside our professional competency, even if we believe that we can rise to the challenge intellectually, we cannot afford to take the risk if there is a lot of money at stake. With a small business it is better to refer on to a larger provider with a more considerable financial clout and be happy with a commission. Our clients will respect us more for our professional approach and we do not need to let our pride line us up for a fall.

© Jon Stow 2009

Business cards, letters and first impressions

In my last post I talked about an embarrassing scene in which a miscreant alienated the entire meeting with his rude treatment of a guest. At the same meeting I was given a business card which might even have been passed round by the same person. At least, the card was not passed round but was put where I was sitting at the table, together with further cards in the other fifteen or twenty places.

The business card in question obviously showed the consultant’s name, and it was followed by five sets of letters relating to his qualifications, and there was at the bottom of the card a reference to a further accreditation. The trouble was that I have never heard of any of the (presumably) professional bodies to which they refer. I could not tell you what they are about except that I suppose they must relate to the practitioner’s particular discipline. I have counted up my qualifications too, and I have only four sets of letters plus one accreditation to my name, so the other guy is one up if we are counting. How many letters of qualification do I put on my business card? Precisely none and the reason is because they would be absolutely meaningless to anyone outside my business, in other words to my target market.

There is good reason with certain qualifications to put them on a business card, but only if they tell the recipient something about the person whose card it is. I have no problem with FCA or ACA for a Chartered Accountant, FRICS or ARICS for a Chartered Surveyor, or FRCS for a surgeon. Even here with the latter two examples you can see how all this can become confusing. However, if we already know what these letters stand for we have a start in understanding what these people do.

Even if someone is a Chartered Surveyor, it would be helpful to have on the card what the person actually does having gained the qualification. More to the point it should say what the card owner can do for his clients for customers; in other words, not talk about the offering but what service or help the client gets. To put it in sales talk, tell us the benefits and not the features.

My respective business cards (I have more than one business and more than one card) have my name, my business / company name and my position in it. On the reverse are the reasons why my clients need me and the benefits they will receive from engaging my firms’ services. The cards are nice thick ones you can get a grip on. I am not a business card expert; I have learned from others and I am sure my cards could be further improved.

So one of my first impressions of the business card placed around the table last week was that the owner was something of a peacock showing off all his letters, but that it told me nothing about what he could do for me or for my clients. Then again, “business card” was perhaps the wrong description of this scrap of what was little more than thick paper, and which was probably printed at home. My other immediate impressions were that the person was cheapskate and unprofessional, and certainly not very giving.

© Jon Stow 2009

Bankers, untimely schadenfreude, and how to avoid their fate

I felt a little sorry for the ex-banking chiefs being quizzed by the Treasury Select Committee yesterday. They are genuinely bemused by the state in which their former employers, the banks, find themselves. We are talking specifically about the two Scottish banks, RBS and HBOS though others took risks and have made considerable write-downs of assets.

The reason I feel a small amount of sympathy is that they are akin to drivers who have been careless in the maintenance of their vehicles. There have been annoying rattles, and maybe the car has not been serviced. If there is a major failure in an important component (and in this case the wheels came off) then one should not be surprised that there is a nasty crash. Just the same, the actual event is shocking to the drivers and these guys are not over the smash, which has been very traumatic.

While it is easy to be wise after the event and we as spectators might have indulged in a little schadenfreude had we not been so badly hurt as passengers in the car, it is a lesson to everyone to make sure that we know every part of our business, and what is working well and what isn’t. The bankers took their eye off the ball. Northern Rock was by no means the first bank to fail. We had the grisly spectacle in 1995 of an old traditional bank, Barings, being brought down by the reckless actions of one man, Nick Leeson, the famous rogue trader.

The recent banking debacle was more of a cultural accident in that they were doing what everyone else was doing in the sub-prime market in the US. At the same time no one apparently thought of the risk, or what would happen if the US economy had a downturn and the domino effect on the market. Those of us in small business knew months before the initial crash in 2007 that the UK economy was struggling too, and we commented on it.

Anyway, we should all look at what we are doing in our own businesses; what works and what doesn’t, and what we should change now because it is going to stop working very soon and need to be replaced. I have stopped using Yellow Pages and Thomson’s because directories do not work for me. They work for other people but not for my businesses. Don’t do things just because other people do them. I am constantly reviewing my marketing, and need to think about whether other people getting on their bikes in the light of the large job losses which actually give my business more competition.

What about you? Do you take a step back and look at your business? Are there areas of risk you should try to eliminate? Is your marketing for purpose in the current climate?

I am taking my own advice anyway. If you need another perspective on your business ask an outsider; even ask me!

Owning our mistakes–not an earnest business blog

We all make mistakes. We try not to, but admitting to failure is a way of helping us to do better. Fortunately for most of us, the errors we make will be relatively minor in our work activities, but a big blooper can be a source of considerable worry. I remember getting something badly wrong when a junior manager back in the eighties. I was terribly upset, and it took me months to put it right, though I did without any damage in the end. It was coming up with the solution that took a lot of thinking. I learned from it, firstly to be more careful, and secondly to give myself more time with testing issues. With hindsight, I had too much work put on me because of the resignation of a colleague at the time and the long term sickness of another. There was a lesson there too in that one needs to know the pressures on staff, which my senior manager and bosses were unconcerned about. Those mitigating circumstances were not enough to let me off the hook in my view. The actual mistake was mine.

I can also think of mistakes I have made either in making career moves or not making them at one time or another. It is however no good thinking “if only I had done this” because if I had done something else at any point I would not be where I am, which is quite happy even if not a billionaire (yet). In business for myself, I have made mistakes, mainly in persisting with the wrong sort of advertising way after it should have been clear it wasn’t working.

Someone whom I knew and alas is no longer with us was a man full of bright ideas; indeed he was a very clever man. He was good at inventing new processes and was an excellent engineer. Something he was not very good at was business, exploiting his ideas or indeed being able to understand whether there was a market long term for the concepts he came up with. He would have been better working with and trusting someone who had a better business brain than he but because of his considerable ego he always knew best; he thought anyone who doubted his abilities to turn his ideas into money-makers was obviously wrong, and consequently his companies would go bust. Ultimately he was risking not only his reputation and means to carry on future projects, but also the security of his loyal family who ultimately had to pay a considerable price because he thought he was always right.

This brings me to the British Government. We have a major economic “downturn” as they call it, but it is clear that we have a serious recession perhaps even comparable with the crash of the early thirties. The Prime Minister blames events in America, and of course they have had a huge impact on all of us, and I am not going to bore you by going through that which you already know. Nevertheless, we (in UK) are much less able to ride the storm than our compatriots in other Northern European countries, largely due to the level of borrowing the Government already has, and the even higher level it is facing in an attempt to buy its way out of the slump with building projects etc. to create jobs. These splurges of our money are described as investments, but we all know that investments have to be in viable long term projects that will return a decent amount in the future. There really is no way of calming a storm once you are in it. You have to ride it out. The expenditure announced by the Government is enormous compared to the likely return even if these expensive jobs which are being purchased are viable long term. Of course the savings to income ratio in Britain is amongst the lowest in Europe, and of course not encouraged by Gordon Brown’s pensions grab, his first act when becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1997. The same move also hit small income investors in British business, who were denied the privilege of reclaiming the tax credits on dividends as had the pension funds. Therefore people have not rushed out to take advantage of the ill-judged and expensive cut in VAT. Few have any cash to spare until the storm blows out.

Coupled with all these mistakes is the failure of the regulatory bodies to do their job, partly because of the splitting of responsibilities. We had the Equitable Life failure over seven years ago, which should have woken up the FSA (whose faceless members later failed to spot the dangers of the US sub-prime market and the practices of the lenders). The FSA, the Bank of England and the Treasury needed to take swift action over the Northern Rock affair which was the first serious breakage, but dithered. The “independent” Bank of England’ was obsessed with the housing market (not translated into wondering where the mortgage money was coming from) at the expense of business, and it was apparent in early to mid-2007 that interest rates were actually far too high. I discussed this with colleagues at the time and found the other day an email on the subject.

The Government is complaining that somehow it is not its fault that the economy’s wheels came off along with those of some other nations, but they did not spot the wheels were loose and tell other nations about their loose wheels. Now we have crashed and we are more badly hurt than many. The consequences for the UK and (which I will talk about soon) the knock on effects for Third World nations who depend on us to a greater or lesser degree are frightening. Somehow the Government and its ministers are not taking responsibility for their blunders, and surely they cannot do so unless they acknowledge them like the rest of us. Their egos are their weakness, but that is why they are politicians. They are no different from my engineer with the bright ideas and no inkling as to how to harness them. They may understand that they are wrong but won’t own up.

Sky News has been trailing their new programmes fronted by Jeff Randall, former BBC business Editor latterly with the Telegraph. Jeff says in the clip “If I were Prime Minister I would resign”. So would I, but that would amount to taking responsibility, wouldn’t it?

© Jon Stow 2009

Referral networking and serendipity

Once upon a time, well in 1985, Dr. Ivan Misner, my fellow Ecademy BlackStar more or less invented referral networking, at least in the formalised way we see it today. Following my accreditation course to a well-known network of business advisers, or management consultants as they were more likely known twenty or thirty years ago, I was assigned a coach. I had weekly telephone meetings with him to assess my progress in getting work and to help me with my marketing. Remember, this was still in the Dark Ages of 2003.

One day, Coach said to me “You should think about joining BNI or BRE”.
“What are they? I asked.
“I don’t know” said Coach “but they are on the list of marketing tips I am supposed to mention”.

Well, even though it was the Dark Ages they had invented search engines and I would have used Yahoo in those days. I tracked down the local BNI franchise and after a false start try-out with a bunch (or a Chapter) which had totally lost direction I joined a pre-launch core group which was to become a full blown BNI chapter with whom I had breakfast every week (and attendance is essential unless you can send someone to stand in for you).

The big advantages of referral networking are that you learn to get on your feet and sell your business in (usually) one minute and, because it is expected of you, you learn to sell not just your own business but that of the other members all the time you are out seeing your clients. It is a huge confidence booster especially when you are feeling your way in business, and it is great to feel you have the support of other members.

I have to say, though, that BNI was not a great success for me in terms of promoting the business adviser – management consultancy type business, which is ironic given that Ivan was a management consultant when he came up with the idea of BNI. The members of our Chapter were all rather small businesses themselves and not my ideal customer. That was in itself fine, because the aim in BNI and clones of it is that the other members sell your services by passing your business card to their clients or customers, recommending you and promising that you will call. No, the problem for me was that the other members of the Chapter were B2C businesses whereas for me it would have been much better if they had been B2B offering office cleaning, industrial electrical contracting, office furniture fitters or something akin to that, meeting owners of larger businesses with a number of employees. I had similar issues with another referral networking group I joined subsequently.

Still, I was nearly three years in BNI, and stayed mainly because I enjoyed the atmosphere and liked most of the members. I was Membership Coordinator (VP) twice and in my second time ran the meeting for four months after the Chapter Director (President) upped sticks and left. I enjoyed that immensely, which is amazing for someone who was nervous of doing his sixty seconds, let alone a 10 minute presentation when he first started out. Towards the end of my tenure the Chapter’s printer cane up to me at the end of the formal part of the meeting and told me it had been the best run in his three years in BNI. I must have been doing something right! It still did not help me get any business and eventually I decided to leave because of the huge time and investment which was no longer paying off.

Why “no longer paying off”? Didn’t I say that I got very little business advisory work? Well, that’s true. However, this was where the serendipity factor came in. When I joined the core group there was already an accountant filling the relevant category which included the area of my particular expertise, which is direct taxation. He and I became good mates and as tax was not his forte I provided a sounding board for him. My friend was in the process of taking a step up from his small local firm (just him) to joining a firm of accountants in London. They had inherited a major tax investigation into the affairs of one of their clients and when my friend joined they had no one of sufficient experience to deal with HM Revenue & Customs (as they now are) in such matters. I was called it to work solely on this one client, for whom I obtained a very good settlement.

Anyway, I earned for myself over a period of nearly four years some tens of thousands of pounds from this work, which was not related directly to what I was marketing in BNI. The point is to get out there because you just never know.

While I was not a great success in marketing the business helping-hand work I had diversified into, I learned a great deal from BNI though the philosophy of “Givers Gain” which is basically the art of giving in order to get. It is a hard thing to get used to for some, but in fact one can get great pleasure from helping others; I always have, but in case you think I am building myself up here, I have to say that giving is fun. My Grandfather used to say that giving was selfish because one really did it to please oneself. Combine that with giving in order to receive and that is doubly selfish, but it is a great way to go about business. Knowing that one has referred many thousands of pounds of business is in itself very satisfying too.

Give BNI, BRX as BRE has become, or a similar organization a go, especially if you are B2C and dealing directly with the public. Remember you have to be at the meetings, not just because the rules say so, but because you need to gain trust and be seen as reliable and reachable in case there is any slight problem with a referred customer of client. Know that your BNI or other colleagues will work hard and do their best for the referred client or friend because otherwise they will let you down too. Give out as much business as you can and if you receive a fraction of that you will be happy and prosper. And there’s always serendipity. You just never know.

© Jon Stow 2009

Surviving the recession blues

These are strange times. There is constant news of job losses in the UK and of course in the US, and no doubt in may countries around the world. We hear of “rescue” packages launched by Governments, the most recent being that announced in Germany this morning. I wonder about all these stimulus measures taken by central government. One cannot create large numbers of jobs in sectors where products or services are not in demand, and throwing taxpayers’ money at something is in the end not in the interests of the greater population who have to pay for it.

Let us not get too depressed though, because the real answers will be found by business itself, and by those who may be condemned as short-term opportunists, but whose business acumen in spotting those opportunities will be what pulls our economy and the world’s economy round, Only this morning, Tesco has said it will create a further ten thousand jobs. That’s quite a lot even for a supermarket chain that is by a street the largest in the UK, and was at the last count I saw the second largest in Europe behind Carrefour.

There will be other large companies who will move quickly. Fast feet are useful to have in a changing and difficult market and where there is a possibility of filling in gaps left by failed businesses who were less adaptable. That is where the new jobs will come from, and where the root of the recovery will be.

In the meantime there are a lot of people who find themselves without a job, and many of those are finance professionals who worked for banks, in insurance, and in accountancy etc. I myself worked for various firms of accountants, small and large over the years. There is an irony that many firms of accountants, especially larger ones, call themselves “business advisers” and yet many of those who have been laid off from that sector will not have a clue what to do. It is a big leap from being employed with a monthly salary you count upon having to having no job and not knowing how to start making money again in a weak job market.

I have written elsewhere that when I found myself in the position the newly redundant in our sector are now in; seven years ago I did not want to be without a job and indeed thought I was a pretty good performer. It was all a complete surprise. It took me the best part of a year to reconcile myself to running my own business. Now of course I would not want to do anything else, but it required a complete change of mindset in order to start a business in the area which I knew most about. I had no choice in many ways as it was a question of survival at a time when prospective employers could enjoy window shopping for employees and wasting everyone’s time, whilst discounting those more mature candidates who might know more than them and show them up. You would think they could look beyond that to the valuable experience they could draw into the business, but that is human nature.

My concern for many financial professionals is that their particular skill will not adapt well to a small business environment. One cannot easily set up a bank on one’s own, and corporate finance or even corporate tax on their own are not areas for very small business. This type of work has to be part of a package with other services. I was lucky in that I could adapt much of what I already knew, though it has been a long march. Adaptability is key though, and the sooner our newly redundant can change their mindset the better. After all, being redundant is not to be taken personally. It is nearly always an accident as mine was, and it is important after initially licking one’s wounds to reestablish one’s self esteem. We always have skills someone else will need.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (I can always rely on him) said “We do not live an equal life, but one of contrasts and patchwork; now a little joy, then a sorrow, now a sin, then a generous or brave action.”

The brave action is what is needed and in future pieces I shall discuss the generous element required when talking about my networking experiences, starting with referral networking six years ago.

Jon Stow