The Ultimate Business Development Guide for Consultants

blog article Mar 28, 2024

Estimated Reading Time: 19 minutes

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What you will learn in this guide

As a consultant, you're an expert at delivering top-notch solutions for your clients. But when it comes to running your own business and consulting business development specifically, it’s easy to drop the ball. 

Succeeding as an independent consultant isn't just about doing impactful client work. It's also critical to master the skills required to be a successful consulting business owner. This might seem daunting, but that's where this article comes in. In this article, I dig into the hurdles you might face when generating leads and new consulting clients, and I share the consulting business development strategies that work for independent consultants specifically. 

Ready to feel more in control of your consulting business development processes and results than you’ve ever been?

Let's dive in.


What are the business development challenges that independent consultants face?


There are 5 challenges that independents typically face when it comes to consulting business development.

Challenge 1: Lack of time

As an independent consultant, you're wearing a lot of hats. Not only are you the expert for your clients, but you're also handling all the tasks required to run your business, including driving leads, selling new work, and keeping up with administrative tasks.

Balancing all of these is no easy feat, but it's essential for running a thriving consulting business. 

It's common for consultants to prioritize client work over working on their own businesses. While it's important to deliver high quality for your consulting clients, it's also crucial to allocate time to business development for your consulting firm. Even though time can be a constraint, it's important to find a balance so that you don't neglect one at the expense of the other.

I know you already know this. The challenge is finding out how to successfully balance consulting business development with client delivery. I'll share more on how to do this later in the article.


Challenge 2: Getting the timing right

Nailing the timing for business development in consulting can feel like a game of Tetris where you're trying to perfectly fit all the pieces together.

The best-case scenario is to have your next consulting client lined up at the moment you wrap up with the current one so you don't have a gap in revenue or cash flow. But that's easier said than done. When you land a new client too soon, you could end up juggling more work than you can handle. On the other hand, if the next client comes along too late, you're left with a gap in your revenue and income.

This timing challenge in independent consulting is a balancing act.  


Challenge 3: Not sure how to create leads for yourself without relying on 3rd parties like recruiters or marketplaces

As a consultant, you're an expert in your field. You likely feel confident and in control with respect to client delivery.

But, on the other side of your business, when it comes to uncovering leads and filling your pipeline, you may feel inexperienced and incompetent. This is common, as most consultants haven’t shouldered the responsibility for selling new business in their past roles. And as a result, you might not know where to start or what tactics would work best to generate leads and sell your consulting services.


Challenge 4: Aversion to selling, especially selling yourself

As a consultant, you may find yourself experiencing a distinct aversion to selling, which can pose a real hurdle to your consulting business development. This feeling is more common than you might think. The idea of 'selling' can often bring up images of pushy salespeople and aggressive tactics, which can feel uncomfortable and inauthentic. 

This aversion can make the process of landing new clients feel daunting and stressful. Overcoming this hurdle is an essential part of your consulting business development and ensuring a steady flow of clients for your consulting business.


Challenge 5: Self-sabotage

When it comes to business development, consultants can be their own worst enemies, falling into patterns of self-sabotage that impede their success. 

One common pitfall is perfectionism. Striving for perfection can be a double-edged sword. While it can drive high-quality work, it can also lead to paralysis and inaction, especially when it comes to tasks outside your comfort zone, like networking or selling to potential clients. Perfectionists often hesitate to take action until conditions feel just right, which can significantly delay or even prevent progress.

Another form of self-sabotage is underestimating the value of your services, leading to underpricing, which can limit profitability and growth potential. Consultants may also neglect to create a structured, strategic plan for business development, relying instead on sporadic efforts. This lack of strategy and consistency for your consulting business development can lead to an unstable pipeline of prospects and unpredictable work and income. 

Recognizing and overcoming these self-sabotaging habits is a critical step toward more effective consulting business development.

To do so, you can implement the 10 consulting business development best practices.


10 business development best practices for independent consultants


1. Define and implement an effective, repeatable, and sustainable consulting business development process for your business

The first best practice for your consulting business development is to develop, test, and iterate your consulting business development process from end-to-end so you know exactly how you land new consulting business. To do this, you will first want to get clear about your ideal end state, including what are the attributes of your ideal client, what types of consulting work do you want to take on, and what makes you uniquely qualified to work with your clients. Then, from there, you'll want to build out your lead generation approach, including the types of lead generation activities and the frequency. Next, you'll design your step-by-step sales process, including how you'll convert contacts into leads, how you'll run your discovery process, your standard pricing, what will trigger you to write a proposal, and what you'll include in your standard proposal. Finally, you'll want to build an evaluation process so you're able to consistently adjust and improve the quality of your pipeline, your sales close rate, and your average sales cycle.


2. Prioritize business development in your weekly business owner routine

The next best practice for your consulting business development is to prioritize your business development routine, on a weekly basis, to consistently build your reputation and maintain a healthy consulting pipeline. The Pareto Principle, or 80/20 rule, is an easy rule of thumb to follow when it comes to your consulting business development routine. When you look at your week, allocate 80 percent of your time to client delivery and 20 percent of your time to business development. One specific way consultants achieve this balance between working on their business and working in their business (I call this the WOB+WIB routine), is to schedule client delivery work  Monday through Thursday, and then set aside Friday for their consulting business development activities.

Another tool that is helpful when it comes to prioritizing your business development activities is to explicitly choose which "lead generation mode" you're in, based on the quality of your pipeline and your availability to take on new clients. For example, if you're currently fully utilized as a consultant, you'll be on a "run/maintain" mode for your lead generation routine where you're maintaining relationships and building new relationships with potential clients, referrers, and collaborators. On the other hand, if your pipeline is empty and you have immediate availability to take on consulting clients, you'll want to be in "sprint mode". Or, if you're somewhere in between, you'll want to be in an "Active" lead generation mode.

You can learn more about the three lead generation modes by listening to the Grow Your Independent Consulting Business Podcast Episode 156 - The Three Lead Generation Modes for a Healthy Independent Consulting Business Pipeline.


3. Don't let timing become an obstacle for landing new consulting clients

The next best practice is to develop your consulting business processes in a way that supports the ability to handle new business at any time, so you don't have to throttle your business development based on your capacity. It's common for independent consultants to try to perfect the timing of landing a new client. The problem is that it's virtually impossible to thread this needle, to find a high-quality lead at just the right time, to navigate them through a sales process, to ensure they need the exact amount of capacity you have to give them, and to have them sign a contract that coincides with your desired start time. Trying to control all of these elements within your timing can be a fool's errand.

Having more consulting business than you can handle is a good problem to have. Consultants worry about letting down a potential client, or that their reputation will be damaged when they land business they don't have time to support. These are valid concerns. AND, you can solve for these concerns. The solution isn't to avoid business development. Instead, the solution to this potential challenge is to build out your playbook for handling these types of business overages. For example, you can

  • Simplify your service offerings so they're easier and faster to deliver. This will help you avoid getting embedded and beholden to a single client.
  • Build a virtual bench of consultants who you can refer business to, or who can work for you as a subcontractor. For more on this, listen to Episode 130 - The Surprising Reason to Build a Virtual Bench for Your Consulting Business.
  • Design your service offerings such that you can you can take on multiple clients at one time
  • Be clear and consistent with managing your capacity and utilization calendar
  • Bring on non-client-facing resources to support you, and to free up more capacity for client delivery
  • Incorporate expectation-setting and timing-related questions into your sales process so the potential client understands your availability and can help drive the decision-making process to that timeline


4. Focus on strengthening your consulting business development skills

Being good at selling isn't genetic. In other words, you're not born lacking the ability to sell. Selling is a skill you can develop. The key is to build out a professional development plan for yourself such that you can develop the core consulting business development skills, including lead generation and selling. Put yourself in the shoes of the Director of Learning and Development (L&D) for your business. Then, from that role and headspace, design your specific learning plan so you can become skilled at landing new consulting business.


5. Realize you're not selling yourself

As we discussed in this article, consultants frequently have an aversion to selling themselves. They don't want to brag, boast, or oversell. And as a result, they end up avoiding selling or underselling themselves. You may relate to this.

The good news is that, even if you're a solo consultant, you're not selling yourself. In fact, this is less selling than you've likely done when you've interviewed for a full-time role.

Instead of selling yourself, you're understanding the potential client's goals and challenges. Then, you're proposing solutions to help them achieve the outcomes they're looking for. This isn't about you selling yourself as a solution for the client. Instead, you're focused on selling the results the client wants to achieve.


6. Purposefully cultivate confidence in your consulting business development skills

The next best practice is to purposefully and proactively cultivate confidence in your ability to succeed with your consulting business development efforts. It's common to think that confidence comes from being successful at something. For example, you might think you've earned the right to be confident after you've landed at least five consulting clients without relying on word of mouth. The opposite is true. It requires confidence ahead of time to successfully land consulting clients for your independent consulting business. The best practice is for you to implement a consistent practice to build confidence in your ability to sell and deliver the ideal consulting work you want to land at the pricing that fits your business goals.


7. Proactively build a business owner awareness process to avoid self-sabotaging

The next best practice is also mindset-related. It's about proactively implementing an awareness practice that will help you recognize and avoid (or mitigate) self-sabotaging yourself and your business. As we discussed above in the challenges for consulting business development section, it can be very common for consultants to self-sabotage themselves. This usually comes from the subconscious desire to avoid moving out of your comfort zone, to take on new perceived risks. Fear sets in and can take over if you allow it to. That's why it's important to have a consistent and effective practice for recognizing ways you could be self-sabotaging your business and to mitigate and avoid them so you don't make running a business any harder than it needs to be. 

You can find more on this type of awareness mindset practice in the Grow Your Consulting Business: The 14-Step Roadmap to Make Your Independent Consulting Goals a Reality book. Click here to download the free ebook and then look for Chapter 16: The Consulting Business Owner Mindset System.


8. Maintain your motivation for your consulting business development tasks

Continuing with the theme of consulting sales mindset, the next best practice is to purposefully maintain your motivation for consulting business development-related tasks. You can create and maintain motivation through several approaches. The first is to be clear about WHY you're running your consulting business in the first place (as opposed to working full-time in corporate) and keeping your eye on this big picture. The second is to focus on all the ways your business development activities ARE WORKING instead of ruminating over what isn't working. This will keep your mind in a productive, solution-oriented, and more motivated state. The third way to maintain your motivation for consulting business development is to stop making it about you (e.g. your self-doubt, your perceived limitations), and to make it about the ideal clients that you're excited to work with and to help advance their objectives.


9. Leverage your personal brand to make consulting business development easier and more effective

The next best practice for consulting business development is to invest your time and attention to building an intentional brand for your consulting business. This may be a personal brand if you're a solo consultant or it may be a business brand if you're building a micro consultancy or boutique consulting firm. To build your consulting brand, you want to focus on being clear about what you want to be known-for and sought-after for, and then putting the messaging, positioning, and marketing processes in place to become visible to your ideal clients, channels, collaborators, and referrers. For more on building a brand for your consulting business click here to read the article Personal Branding for Consultants.


10. Avoid the trap of thinking someone else can do your business development better than you can

It's common for consultants to want to avoid business development altogether, thinking that a professional marketing agency or salesperson can generate new consulting better than we can. This is simply not the case most of the time, especially when your business is newer and when you're not crystal clear on your ideal client, your positioning, your messaging, and your unique value propositions. Trying to delegate this important journey of clarifying what you do as a consultant, who your target market is, and why your offerings are key to their success will end up costing you both time and money.

Instead, dig in. Know that this is part of what you signed up for when you decided to become an independent consultant. Use an experimentation process and mindset to figure it out for yourself. There's no substitute for your expertise and hands-on experience.


What are the benefits of business development for an independent consulting firm?


It likely goes without saying that business development is core to your success as an independent consultant. Even then, let's take a few moments to explicitly spell out the benefits. There are five key benefits to building a predictable, sustainable, and effective consulting business development practice for your consulting business.

Benefit #1 - Make more money

Business development activities like networking, lead generation, and cultivating relationships help create a consistent flow of clients. This regular stream of work means steadier income and reducing the 'feast or famine' cycle that can be common in consulting work.


Benefit #2 - Land more fulfilling work

Having a strategic business development process in place enables you to attract higher-quality clients. By targeting your lead generation efforts on ideal consulting buyers, you can connect with ideal clients who have interesting and challenging work, understand the value you bring, and are willing to pay for it.  


Benefit #3 - Full control over the results of your business

Consistent and effective business development truly puts you in the driver's seat of your consulting business. This sense of control primarily comes from a reliable stream of leads and potential clients, reducing reliance on any single client or third party such as recruiters, marketplaces, or platforms.  

This diversified client base enables you to be more selective about the projects you undertake and avoid the trap of accepting work simply because it pays the bills. 

With a robust business development strategy, you also become more resilient to market fluctuations, always equipped with a clear roadmap to attract clients. Ultimately, these factors empower you with a strong sense of control, stability, and confidence about the future of your consulting business.


Benefit #4 - Create a compounding effect for your business

By continuously developing your consulting business, you’ll be able to identify new opportunities and expand your services, allowing you to charge more over time. This could involve targeting new industries, offering new services, or positioning yourself as a thought leader in your field.


Benefit #5 - Become sought-after

As you improve at business development, you become more efficient and effective in your business development efforts. This means less time spent generating leads, higher close rate, and more time working on profitable client work. 

As you build a brand for yourself through business development, you’ll become sought-after and it will be easier, more cost-effective, and more lucrative to acquire new clients.


Business development for consultants: Everything you need to know to get started

Business development ideas for independent consultants


Business development, though it may seem complex, is actually quite straightforward when broken down into its three core components. 


 The three components of an effective business development process are:

1. A System to Uncover Opportunities

First, a successful consulting business development process requires the ability to uncover opportunities. This involves identifying potential clients or channels, recognizing their needs, and understanding how your services can address those needs. I've created the Ultimate Guide to Lead Generation for Consultants to help you with this.


2. A Process to Lead The Consulting Buyer Through From Initial Conversation to a Proposal

Secondly, it's about leading the consulting buyer through a decision-making process. This requires curiosity and the ability to build out impactful, compelling solutions for your potential clients. I've created the 50 Essential Questions to Ask Your Consulting Prospects and Clients to help you with this. Click here to download it.


3. A Process and Mindset to Drive the Potential Consulting Buyer to a Decision

And finally, it comes down to your ability to get the consulting buyer to make a decision, one way or another. This is where your consulting skills come into play, helping the consulting buyer fully understand their challenges, get a clear picture of their goals, and agree to the best path forward with you.

Mastering these three components can streamline your business development process and significantly enhance your success as an independent consultant.


Business development strategies for consultants

There are several effective business development strategies that you can leverage to attract more clients and grow your consulting practice. The key is to choose the best business development strategy that marries your strengths with what resonates with your ideal client types.

First, let's discuss the consulting business development strategies that are most effective. Then, we'll dive into the steps to choose the best business development strategy for your consulting business.


The 7 most common business development strategies for consultants


1. Networking

Networking, both online and offline, is a potent tool for your consulting business development. Networking involves creating relationships with potential clients, collaborators, referrers, and others in your industry. 

With a robust network, you have access to opportunities, invaluable advice, and potential client referrals. 

Networking is about creating value for others, listening to their needs, and positioning yourself as a solution provider. It could be as simple as maintaining an active LinkedIn presence, participating in industry forums, or meeting with people one-on-one for a virtual coffee.

Regularly nurturing and adding value to your network can come back to benefit you in surprising ways.


2. Speaking

Speaking is another effective strategy for independent consultants to generate leads. Speaking at industry conferences, webinars, or local meetups establishes you as an authority in your field and increases your visibility to potential clients. 

A well-delivered presentation can demonstrate your expertise and your unique approach to solving problems, making you a desirable choice for those in need of your services. 

Additionally, speaking opportunities allow for networking and direct interaction with potential clients.

Here are two podcast episodes, from the Grow Your Independent Consulting Business podcast, to help you implement a speaking lead generation strategy for your consulting business development:

  • Episode 112 - Land Speaking Opportunities to Grow Your Consulting Business
  • Episode 113 - Convert Speaking Opportunities Into Consulting Leads


3. Attending Events

Regularly attending industry events, trade shows, and conferences is vital for staying up-to-date with trends, meeting potential clients, and maintaining visibility in your field. 

These events also offer opportunities for learning, networking, and showcasing your expertise. 

By actively participating, asking questions, and engaging in discussions, you can position yourself as a proactive, knowledgeable professional. 

Always follow up with the connections you make at these events to keep the conversation going and potentially open doors to new opportunities. 


4. Writing

Writing, particularly in the form of articles, blogs, or white papers, is a fantastic way to share your knowledge, express your views on industry trends, and showcase your expertise as a consultant. 

By consistently producing valuable, high-quality content, you can attract potential clients, build trust, and establish yourself as a thought leader in your field.  

Your writings can be shared on your website, social media platforms, industry publications, or through an email newsletter. Each piece of content you create is an opportunity to connect with your audience and reinforce the value of your services.  


5. Expanding business with existing clients

Deepening relationships with existing clients is another form of consulting business development. This looks like designing an intentional consulting client journey, so it's well-defined how and when you offer continuation work to your existing consulting clients. An effective business expansion strategy can include:

  • Offering work in parallel to existing engagements you're delivering (e.g. to other business units in the same company), 
  • Offering continuation work to the existing stakeholders
  • Keeping in touch with past clients so you're top-of-mind 


6. Offering a highly valuable initial service offering to make it easier for your consulting clients to say yes

It can be effective to build out a simple, entry-type service offering that helps you get your foot in the door at new consulting clients. This approach can help you build a relationship more quickly, have something easier and more tangible to offer, and help you reduce your time to revenue with a new consulting client. For example, you could create simple, quick-hit, entry-level service offers such as:


7. A well-defined consulting sales funnel

Having a well-defined, step-by-step sales funnel is key to your consulting business development success. The term "sales funnel" refers to the steps a potential client takes from the time they become aware of you to the time they make a decision about engaging your consulting services. When you map out a comprehensive, end-to-end consulting prospect-to-consulting client journey, or funnel, it will give you clarity on the specific steps and questions that are most effective for you to land ideal consulting clients for your specific consulting offers. To get started, here is a list of 50 questions consultants ask their consulting prospects and clients. Click here to download it.


Each of these seven (7) strategies, when utilized effectively, can play a pivotal role in your business development efforts, attracting more clients, enhancing your reputation, and ultimately driving the growth of your consulting business.

Here's the process to determine the best business strategy for your consulting business.


How to choose which business development strategy is best for you


Choosing the most suitable business development strategy, whether it's networking, speaking, attending events, or writing, hinges on your personal strengths, your target audience, and your consulting business's nature. Here are the steps to choose the best consulting business strategy for you and your business.

1. Start by assessing your strengths and preferences.

Ask yourself - do you excel in building relationships, or are you a compelling speaker, or an engaging writer? Your natural talents can guide you toward a strategy that aligns with your skills and what you enjoy. 


2. Understand your potential clients and your field.

Ask yourself where your clients are likely to be and how they consume information. Depending on your industry, certain strategies may be more effective. For instance, regularly attending events might be vital in a rapidly evolving field, while writing detailed articles could be useful for explaining a complex service.

Also, your ideal clients may already be seeking advice and services from consultants who do work that's complimentary to yours, from other companies, and from associations. Identify these organizations as potential channel partners for your business, and a way to more quickly and effectively get in front of your ideal consulting client's decision-makers. To start, I have my consultant coaching clients answer the question "Which organizations, companies, and/or associations have already built an audience of your ideal clients?"


3. Pull Together Your End-to-end Sales Process

Finally, you'll combine your strengths and preferences with what you believe is most effective for your ideal consulting clients into an end-to-end sales process or funnel that will set you up to predictably grow your consulting business. Think about implementing a multi-faceted approach where you’re mixing short-term lead generation strategies with longer-term strategies to build your reputation.


4. Remember that your chosen strategy isn't set in stone. Running a successful consulting business is a constant experiment.

You can experiment with different tactics for your consulting business development strategy, gauge their effectiveness, and tweak your approach as needed. With time, you'll find a blend of strategies that work best for your consulting business, helping to attract consulting clients and drive growth.



Outsourcing Business Development: Should you use a business development service to generate leads for your consulting business?

So now that we've covered the foundations for your consulting business development processes, let's address one of the common questions I hear from solo consultants. They ask me if they should hire someone to generate leads for their consulting business. They also ask if they should hire a dedicated salesperson to bring on new business.

I touched on this a moment ago in the #10 best practice for consulting business development. It's important to dig further into whether or not to outsource your consulting business development practice.

It's incredibly rare to successfully outsource business development, whether it's lead generation and/or consulting sales.

If you do want to test out outsourcing as a solution, I highly recommend having a key pre-requisite in place. The pre-requisite to outsourcing consulting business development is that you've created a successful lead generation process and a successful sales process first. Do not rely on someone else to figure this out for you. You are the one with the expertise and the relationship with your ideal clients. It's important to figure out how to initiate and build these relationships. Then, after you've figured out how to successfully sell your own consulting work, you can identify areas of your process that you could delegate to others.


How to jump-start your consulting business development activities

To jump-start your consulting business development, you simply need to start. Taking action is the best way to learn and evolve into an effective salesperson.

You don’t need to do anything to be ready. You don’t need to perfect your website. You don’t need to have a slick brochure. You don’t need sexy marketing materials. All you need to jump-start your business development activities is to set aside the time to work on business development consistently and then follow through on what you planned to do.

Schedule time on your calendar every week and then commit to it.

This business development plan for your consulting business can be incredibly straightforward. Yet, it's common for consultants to second-guess themselves as they're working on their business development activities. And then, because of the self-doubt and second-guessing, they end up being dependent on third parties for work, taking on work that’s lower-paying and less fulfilling, and even worse, they end up burned out and returning to full-time employment.

I want to help you avoid these traps that consultants frequently fall into. Here's how. To jump-start the business development activities for your consulting business, you’ll want to:

  1. Know what type of work you want to land. This is your niche.
  2. Then, identify the top 20 companies that you’d like to work with
  3. Next, figure out how to have a conversation with a decision-maker, or an influencer, or someone who's impacted by your focus area.
  4. Then, have that conversation, ask a lot of questions about their as-is and to-be states.
  5. Then, work with them to formulate a solution(s).
  6. Finally, help guide them to a decision about moving forward with your services. 

Your success depends on pulling this into a consistent consulting business development routine so you’re able to take small, consistent action that compounds. 


How to achieve work-life balance while actively doing business development

 challenges of balancing client work with business development efforts as an independent consultant. 


More resources for your consulting business development process:

Now that you've read the Ultimate Guide to Business Development for Consultants, you'll likely want to leverage additional resources. Here's a list of those key resources for your consulting business development system, including the links to download them:

  1. Click here to download the best-selling book Grow Your Consulting Business: The 14-Step Roadmap to Make Your Independent Consulting Goals a Reality. You'll find that chapters 9 and 10 provide you with specific steps, strategies, and mindsets to make your consulting business development process effective, consistent, and successful.
  2. Click here to download the Routine Builder for the Independent Consultant
  3. Click here to read the Article: How To Get Consulting Clients With This Weekly Routine
  4. Click here to read the Article: Mastering Work-Life Balance as a Consulting Business Owner. It outlines how to achieve work-life balance while actively doing business development.


Get help prioritizing the right business development strategies and actions for your independent consulting business

You know that business development is vital to the success of your consulting business. And now, through this article, you have a deeper understanding of the challenges that most consultants face when it comes to business development. You’re not alone.

It’s possible for you to become skilled at consulting business development, and I’ll go so far as to say it’s possible to enjoy business development. I know that might seem like a stretch right now but it’s possible. I can personally attest to that as someone who’s transformed from avoiding selling myself to someone who’s passionate about mastering business development for myself and for my coaching clients.

Click here to learn more about how to get help with your consulting business development processes.

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