Consulting

How to Earn a Seat at Another Company's Innovation Table

Innovation is the buzzword on everyone's lips these days. It no longer matters only whether companies succeed, but also whether they do it in a more innovative manner than their competitors.
How to Earn a Seat at Another Company's Innovation Table
Image credit: Maskot | Getty Images
Guest Writer
Co-founder and CEO of Catalant
6 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

The rise of innovation consultancies has underscored this shift in mindset. But the talent space is wildly crowded right now, and a lot of vendors make impressive claims to their clients and prospects. It’s perhaps unsurprising that many “pure innovation firms” have been acquired over the past year and that the trend has even invaded firms serving the federal sector.

How do consultants emerge from the crowd as qualified partners worthy of trust? It all comes down to their ability to convince clients that they’re relevant, credible and differentiated.

‘If you don’t have a seat at the table, bring your own chair’

When we founded Catalant, we realized that seats aren’t given in a crowded field -- they’re earned. It became clear that we would need to make ourselves convincing and memorable as advisors to businesses looking to scale, increase their inventiveness and approach problems differently. We went to work tackling the relevant, credible and differentiated trifecta.

1. Relevant: Our first objective: to prove that we were solving problems that were extremely important to the people we were solving them for. This would convince prospects and clients that we had relevant knowledge of their field and could be trusted to tackle the right problem at the right time.

We gained insights into companies’ concerns by letting customers and prospects tell us about their industries, their competitors and their struggles and successes -- we heard about everything from how they were dealing with price competition to how they were grappling with social media customer service. Rather than brag about our style of doing things or issue false reassurances about why our methods were best without any data to back them up, we wanted to frame our possible solutions in the context of how they’d impact the exact companies we were talking with.

Related: 5 Ways Entrepreneurs Can Gain A Competitive Advantage

Showing how our solutions would create a cause-and-effect relationship for our clients -- highlighting how our steps would take them from Point A to Point B in a logical manner, taking into account any obstacles we may have to prepare for -- convinced them that we had something to offer them in particular.

2. Credible: Once we’d persuaded prospects to take a chance on us, we were in a position to deliver results for them that earned credibility for us among others who could use our services. We solved problems for Procter & Gamble, GE, Staples and thousands of others, and those household names surely helped drive customers through our doors.

But most impressive was the historical record we built for ourselves. We focused on high-quality work, knowing that maintaining high standards would showcase more value and usability. Metrics are incredibly valuable in a crowded marketplace, quantifying the claims vendors make. By maintaining these standards, we built up a track record that showed that if we’d completed 10 projects for a company, there was a very high chance that all 10 had gone well.

That company would then stay on to keep consuming the service that drove great outcomes, and that long-term relationship established further credibility. This was the kind of proof prospects wanted to see, regardless of vertical: that we provided enough ROI that businesses continued to allot part of their budget to our services.

3. Differentiated: Our corner of the world -- focused on the on-demand, or gig, economy -- is particularly fraught with competition these days, and it became essential for Catalant to not only be associated with good value, but to also be perceived as a high-end player. After all, everyone expects great outcomes from their consultants, but not everyone trusts the quality of the work that went into delivering those recommendations or projects. Being known as the high-quality option translates into an instant reputation (with the aforementioned credibility to boot).

One way we were able to do this was by refusing to isolate our solutions to a simple recommendation: switching software, hiring a new role or restructuring a unit of a company. These are all individual elements of a bigger problem, and addressing only one element is a failure to deliver a full solution, which would likely encompass software, staff and high-level insights about structuring and organizing a team.

Related: 4 Steps To Building A Successful Team

We highlighted this deficiency in the marketplace and showcased the importance of locating a consultant capable of spanning the entire spectrum, developing a strong take on the best solutions and delivering them well. Educating our prospects about how they could best meet their needs -- and best use their funds -- had a payoff, regardless of whether they ultimately chose to work with us. If they didn’t, they remembered us as the helpful company that informed them rather than sold them, meaning we were top of mind when they were ready to pull the trigger.

Let others tell your story.

The upside of becoming relevant, credible and differentiated is that others are compelled to tell your story for you. It’s the best way to earn a seat as a trusted advisor -- not just inside your customers’ companies, but in others as well.

Related: 10 Places To Find Mentors and Advisors for Entrepreneurs

Stories of the success you’ve achieved for your customers go a long way. Many vendors present themselves by focusing on features or comparing a specific solution to a competitor’s: “Our software does this, but theirs only does that.” They fail to focus on the true value they can offer or the benefit the client is hoping will be delivered.

For example, after working with us, Sue Siegel, CEO of GE Ventures and the chief innovation officer at GE, said, “Catalant’s talent network, delivered through its world-class technology, has become an enabling resource for GE. It empowers our employees by giving them streamlined and efficient access to the right expertise, helping us to work smarter and faster.” Her choice of words -- “enabling resource,” “empowers,” “right expertise” -- spotlighted the direct benefits her company gained in a way that may have been hard for us to capture.

Becoming a trusted partner is challenging. Earning a seat at the innovation table is a three-part effort focused on proving that your brand is relevant, credible and differentiated. And in a crowded marketplace, that chair is earned by showing, not telling, companies how they can benefit. After all, companies looking for trusted partners need to know you have your eyes on the same horizon.

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