Consultants Who Prepare Can Keep ‘Slow Times’ From Dragging On

By Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR Jan 14, 2009

Like many businesses, HR consulting can be invigorating or extremely stressful, and the ebb and flow of client work require independent HR consultants to be selling and watching for the next big job at all times. But there will be occasions when business is slow, and how independent HR consultants handle these times might be the difference between operating a thriving practice and returning to corporate consulting.

Francie Dalton, who launched Dalton Alliances during the recession of 1991, says a business person’s work ethic can overcome slow economic conditions. “I ignored the economy, pruned out of my life those with negative attitudes and took responsibility to maintain a positive attitude. And, I just worked really hard,” she says. That dedication put the consultancy “in the black my first year,” she says. Because a slowdown in the economy might impact a consultancy’s regular business, it is important to keep the pipeline of prospective clients full so new business is always being nurtured, she says.

Kevin Nussbaum, SPHR, president of CBIZ Human Capital Services, says there are always opportunities for HR consultants, but success is dependent on how dedicated a consultant is to finding those opportunities. In addition, attitude is important for HR consultants, especially during difficult times, say Dalton and Nussbaum.

When it comes to client prospecting during a slow economy, consultants have two choices, Nussbaum says. The first is to expect the worst, hunker down and prepare for declining cash flow, while the second is to increase business development efforts, he said.

However, there is only one choice for independent HR consultants who want to be successful at their business, Dalton says. That is to increase business development efforts, she says.

“We [consultants] have to steel ourselves against the gloom and doom and determine that we will prevail,” she says. That requires independent HR consultants to not depend on repeat and referral business, but to prospect for new clients, she said. To do that effectively, consultants have to develop alliances that might produce clients, while putting the business’s administrative tasks on hold until evenings or weekends so more time can be devoted to client prospecting during normal business hours, she says.

The danger for many HR consultants is to not continue client prospecting or business building during the good times, Dalton says. For consultants to be successful, they need to understand that client prospecting never stops, she says. Consultants have to maintain a healthy ratio of new and repeat business so a consultancy is never reliant on one source of business, she adds.

Nussbaum agrees and offers a scheduling technique that has proven beneficial in his practice. Set aside at least two hours a week to make phone calls, schedule appointments, or to follow up on proposals, he says. Just block the time out on the calendar for those activities, with Monday mornings a good time to conduct that business, he says. Consultants who manage to attain five meetings a week and who spend two hours a week following up on those meetings are going to find work, he says.

Becky Regan of Regan HR, Inc., in Granite Bay, Calif., is another HR consultant who has learned how to weather tough times, and who stresses marketing as the way to maintain business. “Marketing is the skill that distinguishes those who ultimately succeed as independent consultants from those who don’t,” says Regan. “It’s a completely different skill set than being knowledgeable in HR, and one that many independent professionals struggle to do well,” she says.

Learn, Try New Things

In addition to continual prospecting, slow times offer HR consultants an opportunity to hone existing skills or learn new skills.

Like any business, consulting is cyclical, Regan says. For HR consultants who are committed to remaining independent, slow times can offer opportunities to catch up, plan and market their business, she says. During slow economic times, consultants should call old clients to see if they have any needs, strategize and roll out a special promotion for the end of the year, or add a service that helps people in the current economy, such as resume writing and interview coaching, she says.

In addition, consultants should volunteer at events where they will see others and be seen, Regan says. Consultants should network as much as possible with the goal of letting others know what the benefits are for contracting the consultant’s services, she says.

HR consultants can seek temporary assignments through firms that specialize in placing people in temporary positions, Regan says. Independent HR consultants need to get creative in imagining how to expand business enough to bridge into the next six to 12 months, she says. In addition, Regan offers recommendations for those who believe that time is becoming more plentiful than workload:

Attend graduate school or get a certification from the HR Certification Institute.

Become introspective and determine what your true passion or life purpose is, and build that passion into the business.

Create a niche business that makes the marketing of existing knowledge or products to a select group of people feasible.

Learn a new way of marketing, such as social media by setting up profiles on LinkedIn and Facebook.

Become more financially prudent and save a percentage of every check received to help endure economic downturns.

Take advantage of a business slowdown to learn some new skills that are going to be in demand, Nussbaum adds. Such an opportunity is to work with a large consulting firm on a project like international mergers and acquisitions, he says. “Even large consulting firms will take temporary staffing on certain large engagements and these are great skills to have that would be totally transferable,” he says.

The bottom line for independent HR consultants is business development must be a constant during good times and bad, Nussbaum says. It is simply a given that HR consultants have to remain in the “business development mode,” and they have to be able to move from implementing the HR work to selling the work, he says.

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues. She is the author of Human Resource Essentials: Your Guide to Starting and Running the HR Function (SHRM, 2002).

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