Get More Consulting Clients Using Partnerships: Interview with Aarni Heiskanen

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MICHAEL: Welcome everyone to the Consulting Success Consulting Interviews. Today we have with us Aarni Heiskanen, a management consultant and internet entrepreneur that works with government and top companies in Europe.

Aarni, every time we talk I hear more exciting news about your business. So tell us more about your specialization and what kind of work you’re involved in most recently.

AARNI: Okay. Thank you Mike, it’s great to be here. As you told, I’m a management consultant and I started as an architect before becoming a consultant and that’s why I’m also involved nowadays with real estate and construction industry, but also I have clients from the media, from retail, and industry and so on.

So I’m doing management consulting. My focus is on strategies and innovation.

MICHAEL: Okay.

AARNI: I also am a partner at Thinking Business, which is a software company, and in there our focus is on project portfolio management and the management of strategic assets like information systems. And we actually have software for that, and we have over 5,000 users now in 40 countries for that software.

MICHAEL: Can you give us an example of the kinds of, types of clients that you’re working with both on the consulting side as well as the companies that are using Thinking Portfolio? [00:02:06]

AARNI: Well, the companies using Thinking Portfolio are mainly large organizations. The criteria normally is that they have to have around, let’s say, 200 projects or more, ongoing development projects, before they are actually getting benefits from our software. So those are large companies. We also have some public sector companies or organizations like the Tax Authority in Finland and Finavia (ph), which takes care of all the airports in Finland, 25 airports, and so on. And, of course, many of our clients are international companies so they have, perhaps, the headquarters in one country but they also have business units all over the world.

So that means that I often do my consulting in English, which is my second or third language actually.

MICHAEL: Right, because you’re based in Finland but I know that you travel a fair bit across Europe to different countries, both on a consulting side as well as meeting with people to talk about Thinking Portfolio and implementing that into their businesses. [ 00:03:37]

AARNI: Yes. And right now we have partner consultants in Sweden, in the Netherlands, and in France. So we have constant connections with these consultants.

MICHAEL: Alright, good. So Aarni, let’s go back a little bit. I’d like for you to share a little bit and hear your story with everyone listening about how you got started in this business. You touched on, for a second there, that you were involved in architecture and construction. So take us back to how you got started in the business of consulting, and how you became a consultant. [00:04:26]

AARNI: Yes. Actually, I was an architect and I did real architect work for over ten years. But also I was constantly interested and involved in IT, and it was the days when architects started using CAD systems, and that’s why I became more like an R&D manager in the largest architectural company in Finland.

Then we had a really bad economic situation in the early 1990s and I started moving towards real estate and facilities management. And that, in a way, involved me more in business than in design. So that’s why I got interested in business issues and the problems that these companies had. And then we had the internet boom in the late 90s.

MICHAEL: Right.

AARNI: I partnered up with an internet startup and was involved in developing internet software for large companies in retail and in manufacturing. Also, from that point of view, I got more involved in communicating with business people more than just engineers or designers.

And in 2000, when the internet bubble burst, I actually found myself doing more and more management consulting and that’s how I started in management consulting.

MICHAEL: So you almost got, it sounds like, thrown into being a consultant. I mean, you were at a job, you went to then work with a startup. Tough economic times, the internet boom came and obviously then it busted. So how did you actually find yourself in a position to start consulting, to start working with companies and to help them to solve their problems? I mean, were you giving a lot of thought to becoming a consultant beforehand or was it something that you just kind of woke up one day and said, “Hey, I guess I can help some people and charge them some money for this?” [00:07:03]

AARNI: Yeah. Maybe that’s what happened. I never realized or imagined that I would become a management consultant. I didn’t even know, when I started my career in architecture, that these kind of people existed. (chuckles) But I guess that my background was such that it actually helped a lot in figuring out how companies work and analyzing their operations and their strategies.

I don’t know, it happened quite naturally. I was moving from the operational level to more strategic level, and that happened gradually. And somehow my clients, I guess they had good experiences with me and they actually recommended me to other clients, and so it started.

MICHAEL: Right. That’s interesting because we received some questions for you in this interview, and one of them was asking; What kind of qualifications and experience do you need to become a management consultant? And I guess just looking at… I know that you’ve received other certifications as you went along, but when you got started you didn’t have any and you’ve now obviously gone on to develop a very, very successful career. But back then when you got started, would your answer to that question of: What kind of certifications do you need to get started? I guess you’ve proven that you don’t really need anything. [00:08:47]

AARNI: Yeah. It’s a good question, because I guess even nowadays most management consultants come from other industries. They are not management consultants originally. So they have some background and I guess that one good thing is to have some perhaps deeper knowledge in a certain industry or industries. For example, for me it was the real estate and construction. And I also got very involved in IT development, so I was able to help IT companies and IT departments of larger companies because I knew about… I was not so involved in hands-on technology, but I knew how these IT assets were managed. So that’s one thing that you might… If you have any industry background it’s a good start.

MICHAEL: Right.

AARNI: Another thing is that if you have knowledge of certain area, for example in customer relationships or in marketing or in manufacturing, you can use that knowledge in many industries. So that is what happened to me, I guess, because I also had clients from printing industry and media and software development and so on. So I was moving away from my original industry and my original education.

MICHAEL: Right. Okay. First of all I should say thank you to Sachen (ph) for that question. That was a good question.

So, Aarni, let me dig into this a little bit deeper because are you saying that when you got started you focused on working with clients where you already had some experience, where you knew the industry? Right? In construction, architecture, IT. And then from there as you developed your skills and experience being a consultant, then you started to take on work from clients in other industries? [00:11:02]

AARNI: Yes, that’s right. And I guess that I have not really specialized very deeply in one issue or one area. So I have been more like doing… I’ve been very good, I guess, in interviewing people, getting information, analyzing it, and drawing conclusions. And my clients have thanked me for being very systematic and very analytical. So that’s one thing that is, one feature that I guess has helped me a lot, if you have certain skills and you can develop them further, regardless of the industry.

MICHAEL: Okay. Now if we kind of move along this journey that you were going on. So you start to offer consulting services. How did you actually get your first clients? [00:12:05]

AARNI: I had two ways of getting clients. Of course the first one was that I already, since I had been in one industry for years, I already had connections there and I knew some people who were very open to new ideas and wanted to develop their companies. And they actually wanted to have somebody from outside, so to speak. When I was no longer an employee of a consultancy in architecture I was, in a way, an outsider. (chuckle) So I could actually help contractors and engineering companies and so on. So that was one way of getting clients, using my old existing connections and getting referrals from there.
The other way was that in late 1990s I partnered up with an internet startup. They were making software and they already had good connections through their people, so I was able to get totally new clients from totally new industries through this partnership.

MICHAEL: Okay. So, Aarni, now it’s time for today’s action bite and I need to cue some fancy music which I don’t have ready for today’s interview. But I need it to be the old drum roll or something.

So today’s action bite, let’s dig into this. You’re going to share a little bit about your approach of partnering with other companies, setting up maybe you can call them a strategic alliance or strategic relationships. Can you share your process or the approach that you would recommend people should use to do this so that it works for them? [00:14:06]

AARNI: Yes. When I started as a consultant, left my original company, I started reading the newspapers and I saw that there were companies looking for, trying to hire people for certain function or certain tasks. Then I just happened to see one company and I thought that perhaps they are trying to hire a person, but maybe if I would suggest to them that instead of hiring somebody why not use a consultant? (chuckle) And that was one technique that, okay they got interested and they wanted to meet with me and we discussed and then we started the relationship, business relationship, pretty soon. So it was one way of first studying what was going around and what kind of knowledge and information people are looking for, and what kind of skills they are looking for. And then you can possibly approach them. That’s still a valid technique, and nowadays when you have the internet you can very easily study companies and see where they are going, and if they have that knowledge or skill already or if they are looking for it. So that’s how I got my first very good partnership.

MICHAEL: Right.

AARNI: And from there on, when I was able to show that by partnering with me the other company was getting benefits that they could also pass on to their clients. So it was a win-win-win situation.

MICHAEL: Right. Aarni, let me just stop you there for a second so we can maybe break this down into steps for people listening.

So what would be step one? What would be the first thing that people need to do if they want to try and set up some sort of a partnership, a strategic partnership, to help them to land clients and grow their business? What would be the first thing? Would it be connected to identifying, or what would you suggest is the first step people need to take? [00:16:28]

AARNI: Well, of course, first of all you have to know what you have to offer. (chuckle) So what you are good at, and possibly is there something new that you can offer, something new to the partner? And then be very open-minded about who to contact, because it might be, let’s say, from a medical industry or it might be a consultant, another consultant, or it might be an IT company. There are many, many alternatives.

So maybe you just start scanning and questioning, and if you already have some connections or contacts I recommend that you use them, of course,

MICHAEL: So how do you actually go about finding the types of companies? Let’s say someone’s listening to this, or we can take an example here. Simriti (ph) – I’m not sure if I’m pronouncing your name right – Simriti is in the field of audit data analytics consulting. So once they’ve figured, okay, this is what they’re offering to the marketplace, these are the problems that they help to solve, how would you then suggest that they go about finding companies to partner with? [00:17:46]

AARNI: Well, of course, it’s always easier if somebody always already knows you or knows your friends, so to speak. (chuckle) So I would first try to find some other companies or persons who are already, who know the market, for example. And then if that’s not possible, then I would go to the internet and go, for example, those jobs announcements, for example, and see what kind of…

MICHAEL: Right. A job site or something, you mean?

AARNI: Yeah, yeah. If companies are interested in something that relate to you somehow, then it might be a signal that they are having a need for that. So that’s one thing. And, of course, then there are these special events, for example, and there are many associations, for example. If you can offer some association in their meeting… For example I have used this, that associations often like to have some presentations or program that they can present to their members. And if you are able to get a chance to present yourself and what you do and what kind of benefits you might have to offer, that’s one, that would be a very good way to contact new people. [00:19:24]

MICHAEL: Okay. So really what you’re talking about here, I mean the whole goal of this is… So just to quickly go back and review the steps, so one is figuring out really what it is that you’re offering and what kind of problems that you solve. Then trying to get in front of the potential people that have that need or that have that problem that you can help to solve. And if you don’t have an established network that you can connect with directly, you might look at something, try something like LinkedIn to see if maybe someone that you know knows somebody who can introduce you, or look at job sites to see if companies are hiring for someone with your specific skill sets. And then even as a consultant you could approach them, and even if they’re looking for a full-time person or a contract worker you might just be able to have a conversation with them to offer your services.

And if that fails, another option you’re suggesting is to look at networking events or associations or organizations where you might be able to do a talk or just to offer your services, with the whole goal of really leveraging the marketing dollars and the brand that other companies have so that you can offer your services through them more, or help them. [00:20:37]

AARNI: Yeah, because many times these companies already they have established connections to hundreds of clients or customers.

MICHAEL: Right.

AARNI: And so you don’t have to market to those hundred of clients if you have a good partner.

MICHAEL: Definitely, yeah. And I’ve actually just seen that at work. I was coaching a new consultant the other day who’s actually very experienced in the field of marketing, has worked as a director of marketing at several organizations in North America, but is fairly new to consulting. And he has set up an arrangement with a printing establishment to offer his services to all of their clients that come in. So that’s just a great way to leverage their experience and network. [00:21:29]

AARNI: Yeah. And you might also have an idea of what kind of a new offering you are able to offer together with your partner. So you can create something completely new, some competitive edge. (chuckle)

MICHAEL: Right, exactly. Those are great tips. Alright. So Aarni, I know time-wise we’re kind of… I want to keep this moving here, but there’s still a few big questions here that I want to go over. One of them is, again I want you to kind of think back a little bit, and what would be the most important decision or action you took back in the day that, when you think about it now, that was really critical to taking your business to the level of success that you’re enjoying these days? Is there one single thing or a couple of things you did that, looking back, was just really critical to your success? [00:22:25]

AARNI: Well, many consultants try to think that they are great as individuals, but quite early I discovered that it was good to have partners, consulting partners. And the Thinking Business company that created Thinking Portfolio actually started out as a consultancy. We had actually six consultants. We joined forces. We were all management consultants and the other guys were focusing more on IT consulting. So it was, when we just got together we really understood that we could help each other and, for example, when there was a client who needed more, let’s say, more brainpower or more muscle power than just one consultant it was very easy when you already had these guys. So it was maybe that you don’t think that you can be alone. To accept that you can actually have other people work with you and that was one of the reasons why I guess that I’m successful.

MICHAEL: So for you partnering has been a really big factor in your success. Which is interesting because a lot of consultants would hear what you just said, partnering with six other consultants, and would see it as potential competition. You know, why get so close with the people that might be competing? But it sounds like you were able to find that even if there were some similarities or crossover between what you guys were doing, that there was enough differences that you were still all able to benefit from cooperating. [00:24:30]

AARNI: Yeah, that was definitely so. And it doesn’t matter even if you have competing competencies, it doesn’t really matter because I don’t think that this is a zero sum game. So actually, you can offer more and many large clients require that you have more people involved just because their projects are a bit larger than they are, perhaps, in small companies.

MICHAEL: Okay. So Aarni another question here, and this one I was trying to get to it before from Simriti. And the question is: What does it take to convert your potential clients to a real one? Everything seems to go okay until the client has to secure a budget or convince the board that seeking help from a professional might be the best thing. So I don’t get a simple yes or no. Is patience the key? What’s your take?
So what would you say to Simriti? [00:25:38]

AARNI: I would say that, well if you’re just waiting for the client to call back they never will. (chuckle) So I would suggest that you’d be very active. And if you already have one person or a team of persons who are already committed, I would suggest that you help them as much as possible to sell inside their company, or to sell and market your offering. Because if they… And if they feel that they get personal benefit from using you, that’s one very important factor because people like to be successful and look successful. And if you can somehow guarantee that, that they will becomes successful because of using you that’s a very good point.

And also, try to minimize the risk so that… For example, I’ve often used, let’s say not free but for a very reasonable price, some initial offering, some small task that I can show that I can do this. Then they get acquainted with me, they know who I am, and when they already committed in one small thing it’s easier to sell bigger projects after that.

MICHAEL: Yeah. I think that’s a very important point, Aarni, that you just shared there, is the whole idea of lowering the entry or the barrier to entry, and making the whole… Because we all know that when it comes down to it, all the business – you know, the business that we’re in is all about relationships. And so, what’s the easiest way to build those relationships is first of all to prove to someone that you can do what you say you’re going to do. Lower the risk for them and, as you just shared right now, a great way to do that is, instead of trying to pitch a very large project or something that’s going to cost them a lot of money or take a lot of time, start off with the little, with something smaller but still something that you can show a result so that they can start to feel comfortable working with you. And then once you’ve done that it’ll be much easier to sell a larger project after that. [00:28:07]

AARNI: Yeah. Yeah, I agree.

MICHAEL: Well Aarni, thank you taking the time to do this interview. I really do appreciate it. And let me, before we wind off here, if people want to get in touch with you, if they have questions, if they just want to find out more about what you’re up to and your businesses, what’s the best way for them to reach you or to connect with you? [00:29:41]

AARNI: Well, my website is aepartners.fi. But nowadays it’s in Finnish. So there is also a link to my international site which you can find there and, of course, email is maybe the easiest way, especially if you’re not in the same time zone.

MICHAEL: Okay. So people can go to aepartners.fi.

AARNI: Yeah.

MICHAEL: Okay.

AARNI: That’s maybe the easiest way.

MICHAEL: Alright, great. Well Aarni, thanks for doing this interview. I really do appreciate that.

AARNI: Well, it was a pleasure.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/JoelAMontilla Joel A. Montilla

    I’ve found that the biggest hurdle in helping others identify areas of opportunities within their company is self preservation. Described as being one of the deepest essence of human nature, it translates into the workforce – and as a result, many believe that there isn’t anything wrong with their organization. My question being: how to overcome this in developing partnerships. As described in the text, seeing others as a treat falls under self preservation: what does one do to overcome these obstacles?

    • http://www.consulting-business.com Michael Zipursky

      Joel – thanks for your comment. There is no better remedy for this than to dip your toes in the water. Start looking for partners that are a strategic fit. There are all kinds of companies you can partner with before you need to look at working with someone you might consider a ‘competitor’. More often than not, there is more than enough ‘room’ for both you and your ‘competitor’ to build a successful business.