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Face it: Most HR consultants are not natural salespeople. But in order to nurture and maintain a thriving practice, they must continue to feed the pipeline with prospects and work to turn those prospects into customers. Here’s how.
Building a Network
Converting prospects into clients takes time and requires relationship building, said Laura Doehle, director of client services for Resourceful HR, LLC, in Seattle. “We get a lot of our prospects … from existing clients and through networking events.” Doehle also focuses on getting to know the executives in firms that are the right size—in her case, those with no more than 100 employees. “It’s building those relationships and just getting to know the people within those organizations.”
One of the best sources of networking, she said, is SHRM. “Surprisingly, one of our No. 1 referral sources is HR professionals.”
It’s not an approach that works for everyone. Ann Latham, president of Uncommon Clarity Inc., a Massachusetts-based consulting firm, advises HR consultants to avoid those in the industry. “You are wasting your time if you are trying to sell to anyone who isn’t authorized to sign the check,” she said. “The HR department does not qualify.” Instead, Latham looks at a higher organizational level and seeks out the “real buyer.”
Once you make a connection with the real buyer, she explained, “you must focus on value, not your services, features or credentials.” Answer the question “How will the client be better off with your help?” she added.
One important misstep to avoid: trying to be all things to all people.
HR consultants are best served by taking a niche-specific approach, said Greg Miliates, of Start My Consulting Business, based in Albuquerque, N.M. “You’ll have less competition, be able to stand out more and will be able to charge more for your specialized knowledge.” For example, niches might be home-health-care companies, engineering firms with 25 to 100 employees, or consumer software companies with call-center customer support.
He observed: “Most consultants think they’re specializing when they still have a focus that’s too general,” such as companies with 100 employees, which is too broad a category.
Having a niche focus not only helps consultants stand apart by their specialization but also eases the marketing process by providing a narrow focus for communication. When prospecting for new clients, communication is ongoing and nuanced. Those who have been successful say that finding potential clients’ “pain points” is key. This involves conversations—often multiple conversations.
Finding the ‘Pain Points’
Rich Milgram is the founder and CEO of Beyond.com, a job-posting network based in King of Prussia, Pa.Though his success has been built on technology, Milgram acknowledges that technology has created certain barriers for consultants—chief among them a tendency to avoid the personal touch in favor of more efficient but less personal interactions.
“With technology and e-mail we’ve really lost some of the softer skills,” he conceded. From a client-conversion standpoint, this can affect such things as a simple follow-up. “I can’t tell you how many people I talk to where there’s no follow-up; there’s no course of action; there’s not even a discussion of ‘Here’s what I’m going to do next,’” he said.
This is a basic step for any consultant when asking for a potential client’s business. “You’ve got to keep the ball moving,” Milgram said. “You can’t expect the company that you’re trying to sell your services to, to tell you what to do next. You’ve got to figure that out, and you’ve got to follow up thoughtfully.”
The biggest mistake that HR consultants can make, Milgram said, is to be too brazen—to take an attitude that suggests they have all the answers, especially before they’ve thoroughly listened to what the prospective client’s issues are. Also, “You can’t just come in with one solution or take a one-size-fits-all approach,” he added. “You have to be able to listen to what your prospective client is saying, be responsive to that and be able to offer unique solutions, or tailor your solutions to that specific audience.”
Miliates agreed. A lot of beginning consultants focus on “pushing their skills on prospects, instead of showing prospects how they can help solve their biggest problems,” he observed.
Often, Doehle said, prospective clients may not be in a position to clearly articulate what they want—or need. It’s up to the HR consultant to figure that out by asking good questions and listening carefully to the responses. “It’s really about listening to what their unique needs are and then talking about how you can help them with that.
She continued: “When we get into an organization, that’s how we’ve been successful, because we say, ‘OK, here’s your pain point and here’s how we can address that pain point.’”
Miliates emphasized that HR consultants need to be adept at translating the things they can do into meaningful bottom-line results for potential clients—showing, say, how reducing turnover boosts revenue or reduces costs. “For most companies, the things they care about are increasing revenue, decreasing costs, increasing efficiency and ensuring compliance,” he said.
Making the Proposal and Maintaining a Positive Outlook
A formal proposal should follow any conversation about services that a potential client may need. The proposal, Doehle explained, “is a follow-up piece that really is a sum of what we decided would be most logical based upon their needs.” Once the proposal is created, she sends it with a request for a follow-up meeting or call.
Milgram said HR consultants must maintain a positive attitude even when things are not going well for them, which has certainly been the case for many in this economy.“I know that can be difficult at times, but you have to be able to walk in there and show a sense of excitement and a sense of pride in how you are and what you’re doing—do your best to show your best.”
Given that the timeline for converting prospects into clients can be long, patience and persistence are essential attributes of successful HR professionals. “Oftentimes, prospects may not immediately convert to paying clients, but with what I call ‘professional persistence’—calling the client every two to four weeks to check in—you build a relationship with the prospect, learn more about their business needs and goals, and can then figure out how to position yourself to show your value,” Miliates said.
Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues.
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