How do you get consulting work, part 2

Working on project for a new client and I was thinking about how we get work, which is a question I get asked all the time both from consultants and people interested in entering the consulting business.

It may be a self-fulfilling prophecy that we have received very little work from the latest marketing innovations of search engine optimization and social media strategies since we spend almost no time on those efforts, as a brief look at our website will tell you. So, where DO we get business?

1. Personal contacts – this is far and away the winner. These come from people we have written grants for in the past who now want us to do the evaluation piece – we have a LOT of clients we work with over and over for a decade or more. We get business from people referred by previous clients, former students, former professors, former employers who want us to come back for a specific project, former employees whose new employer needs a consultant. Of course, the longer we are in business, the more current clients, former clients and former employees there are, so personal contacts become more and more of an asset.

2. Conference presentations – this probably counts as personal contact also but I listed it separately because for all of the conference presentations I ever did – and I lost count but I bet it is around 100 – I had only received one contract. (There are other reasons for presenting at conferences.) That one contract was enough to cover all of my conference costs for life. Oddly, in the last year, we received two contracts from people who attended conference presentations, and met two others who want to hire us. I expect to get a contract from one of those two shortly. I have no explanation for this sudden change.

3. Central Contractor Registry – occasionally, someone sees us in CCR , needs a small business partner, contacts us and we work out something mutually beneficial.

4. Federal grants – this is second only to personal contacts in the business it brings in. Often, we’ll work with a client to write a grant and be included as a consultant to develop on-line training, or conduct the analysis. We do NOT write any grants on contingency with the agreement that if the grant gets funded we’ll get the work. (Short answer on why not: We have people willing to pay us on contract with 100% probability of being paid. Therefore, doing grant-writing that is unpaid for a less than 100% probability of getting paid for other work in the future is a bad business decision. Yes, other people do this either because they have excess capacity at the moment or because they are over-billing for the evaluation to compensate. Usually, both.)

5. Serving on committees – this hasn’t brought in business for me personally but a few small contracts have come from committees our other consultants have served on.

6. LinkedIn – I’m not very active on LinkedIn but I have received some work from people who I’ve met personally and then kept in touch with on LinkedIn.

I’m sure the answer to the question of how you find work depends on your industry and your services. We primarily do five things;

  1. Program evaluations, including quantitative and qualitative analysis,
  2. Statistical analysis, either a complete project or assistance with parts such as research design or programming,
  3. Grantwriting
  4. Development of blended (on-line plus on-site) training
  5. Delivery of blended learning offerings in ethics for Indian reservations and training in disability issues and services

We occasionally will do a contract for under $5,000 but the vast majority of our work comes in five- or six-figure contracts. With grants and program evaluations, our findings and our results may determine whether several people keep their jobs. Given that, what matters most is how comfortable clients feel that we can be trusted to deliver. It’s a very different environment than selling a purse or designing a business website or fixing someone’s home computer.

(Before the business website people get all snippy and tell me how important their work is to sales, let me point out that you can re-design a website tomorrow if it doesn’t quite work, but if your grant isn’t as perfect as can be by the deadline you’re screwed. )

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