How to Save Your Consulting Business by Shifting Online
With an increasing number of people working from home or practicing other forms of social distancing, it can be challenging to maintain a consulting business. All the plans and projections you’ve established can easily change on a day-to-day basis, leaving you concerned about how you’ll be able to sustain your business.
Although this situation is globally challenging, the solution for many consultants is clear: offer remote services.
I’ve worked as a business consultant for the past five years, 95 percent of my business is done remotely. Initially, this was done out of necessity, it was too challenging to consult onsite in Manhattan and make it back home to Brooklyn so I could pick up my children from daycare. Over time, I discovered it was much more efficient, and allowed me to grow my business by working with clients in other regions. I could also stack more meetings back to back — no commuting between appointments — allowing me to generate more revenue in a shorter period of time. This same skill (knowing how to effectively share knowledge remotely) proved useful as I started speaking at online conferences, some of them such at SEM Rush’s Global Marketing Day and Teachable’s Reach Summit draw more than 50,000 attendees.
My initial disadvantage, the need to work remotely, eventually became an extremely valuable skill. During my upcoming webinar How and Why to Shift Your Consulting or Speaking Business Online. I’ll teach you how to do the same. It’s free to attend and takes place on April 1st at 3 pm EST. Assuming you can’t wait until then to start transitioning your business, I’ve provided some immediate advice below. I should note, there are several “how to work remotely” articles going around these days. Check them out, I’m sure you’ll gain valuable insights. My goal with this article is to solely focus on the immediate needs of consultants.
Getting client buy-in for remote consulting
The first hurdle you’ll need to get over is making your clients feel comfortable with the value you can deliver remotely. In some cases, your impact may be diminished, acknowledge it. However, the value you’re still able to offer is most likely better than nothing at all. Be sure to stress the benefit of doing something as opposed to waiting for weeks, possibly months, for in-person meetings to occur. This may not be the ideal situation for many clients, but it’s not something we can avoid either. Or, as my dad would say, “It is what it is, now what are you going to do about it.” Don’t say that, but you get my point. You can also ease these concerns by being prepared with a plan of how you’ll move forward.
“I know this is a challenging situation but I have a solution that will help. We’re going to hold all meetings through a video conferencing platform, which I’ll record in case some of your team members are unavailable to attend. I’ve also created a Slack channel to make it easier for you and your team to ask one-off questions while you’re juggling additional responsibilities. My working hours will remain the same, but I understand you may have to ask questions based on your availability. I’ll do my best to accommodate.”
Leverage the right apps and gear
This tool is designed for hosting webinars, teaching online courses, conducting online training and video conferences. With the majority of my consulting taking place remotely, I use it almost daily. I’m also leveraging it for all my in-person speaking opportunities that have shifted to online. Although Google Hangouts offers some of the same features, Zoom allows you to record meetings. This is extremely helpful since it reduces the amount of notes your clients have to take. This will help them better focus on you, and the value you’re delivering. Beyond that, not everyone will be able to attend meetings live for one reason or another. Recording meetings makes the content accessible to everyone and simplifies the scheduling process.
Pro tip: Download the app as opposed to using the browser version. You’ll be less likely to experience lag, especially if you’re on a slower connection.
Yondo allows anyone to sell live online consultations and videos on their own website. As previously mentioned, this is the tool used for Entrepreneur’s Ask an Expert platform. One of my favorite features is the ability to set your availability for consulting sessions, which syncs with your Google Calendar. No need to go back and forth coordinating, the client just selects a time and then pays immediately upon booking. No need to invoice!
Pro tip: Next time someone asks to “pick your brain”, send them a link to your Yondo account so they can pay you for your knowledge!
Again, I recommend recording these sessions. You should also consider adding a link to your Yondo account in the main navigation of your website. Over time, you’ll discover people booking paid sessions with you that you’ve never directly interacted with. Maybe they read an insightful blog you wrote or heard you speak on a podcast. In order to make the best use of everyone’s time, I also suggest providing a pre-call questionnaire. You can use this to collect some basic information and avoid saying things like “So, what’s your website? Is that .com or .co?”
As you can see, there’s some overlap between Zoom and Yondo. I use Zoom for long-term consulting engagements since these clients usually pay on a monthly basis. I leverage Yondo for hourly consulting. Again, there’s no need to invoice and your calendar is always up to date. I also include a link to Yondo in my signature to make it easier for people to immediately book a paid consultation with me.
HoneyBook is an integrated project management, proposal, billing and invoicing software designed to help you automate various operational processes. Since you may be juggling other responsibilities while working remotely, this is a great way to get some time back. The ability to quickly send proposals and invoices is one of my favorite features. Once you have these setup, it takes about 5 minutes to send them out. Your clients can sign contracts online, which is beneficial since many of them may not have access to a scanner or printer.
HoneyBook also has a great mobile app, allowing you to keep track of all your invoices and upcoming payments without hopping on your laptop.
Pro tip: During times of uncertainty, it’s beneficial to bill clients on a retainer or project basis as opposed to hourly. This will make it much easier for you to forecast revenue, which will reduce stress.
You may be working from a noisier environment than you’re used to, investing in a pair of noise-canceling headphones can be rather clutch. You’ll be able to hear better during meetings and lock in more while working. I’ve been wearing Bose for years and depend on them so much that I have one pair at home and one at my office. That said, you may be able to get away with the earphones that came with your phone. Either way, please don’t use the mic from your computer! It doesn’t work, even if you awkwardly lean towards it.
In regards to a camera, the one on your computer should be fine, but you can obviously get a webcam as well. That said, now isn’t the time to buy stuff just to buy stuff. See how things go with your built-in camera before investing in an external one. Depending on your working environment — and the clients you work with — you may also want to get a backdrop so you have a more professional looking background. You can purchase something for less than $100 on Amazon but this also falls into the category of not buying stuff just to buy it. My new “office” has been my daughter’s bedroom for the past four years so clients shouldn’t be shocked to see PJ Masks toys in the background. My hope and expectation is that everyone acknowledges we're all doing the best we can these days.
Regardless of your background, the wrong lighting can take away from the experience you’re delivering, a $20 selfie light can help you avoid this issue. Many of them also come with a cell phone holder which makes it way easier to create video content for Social.
Pro tip: Now is the time for you to start creating and/or releasing valuable content. If you’re stuck, think of 10 questions your audience has, then answer them with content.
If possible, use an Ethernet cable. Nothing ruins an online meeting faster than someone losing connection or — even worse — getting frozen with a silly look on their face. It makes the meeting go longer and interrupts the flow. Beyond that, if someone is paying you by the hour, you’re literally wasting their time and money. You can also get a signal booster or invest in a solution like Nest Wifi from Google. According to their website “Nest Wifi blankets your whole home in fast, reliable Wi‑Fi and keeps buffering at bay in every room.”
A steady internet connection is critical, invest money into solving for this if needed and available.
Emotional intelligence and soft skills
Working remotely may be new to the clients you interact with. Acknowledge this from the start and provide guidance to make them — and yourself — more comfortable. As a general rule, I prefer everyone to have their cameras on. It makes for a more personal experience and you can pick up a lot from non-verbal gestures. If someone has their camera off, I usually make a joke of it by saying “I’m going to assume you’re not catfishing me, but it would be great if you could turn your camera on”. Feel free to steal that one. This usually gets most people to turn their cameras on (or at least laugh) but you also want to respect boundaries. The person you’re talking to might be caring for a child, or may not want to be on camera for various other reasons. Although talking to a blank screen can be a bit of drag, you can maintain a high level of energy and just by standing up.
You should also expect technology hiccups to occur, your response will be crucial as to how your audience responds. Years ago, Adi Hanash taught me how to lead online classes through my role at General Assembly, a school that teaches the job skills of tomorrow. He shares a piece of advice "Smile through the problems. As the online host, people will be looking to you to make sure things are perfectly normal. So if problems come up, smiling as you handle them gives the audience confidence that you have things under control and will buy you some leeway as you handle any issues that have come up."
To paraphrase, "Don't freak out". These days, not freaking out is probably good advice for all of us, regardless of the context.
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