When you insist on hard work and high standards, you will see your consulting luck transform into substantial consulting success.
Getting More Referrals and Creating Relationships That Lead to Greater Success with Liz Kislik
I’m very excited to have Liz Kislik joining us. Liz, welcome.
Thanks, Michael. I’m happy to be here.
Liz, for those who don’t know you, explain what you do.
In almost every organization, once you have more than a handful of people, problems come up. Communication problems, different kinds of interdepartmental conflicts, operating issues, and they gum up the works and slow things down. I go into organizations and help people figure out what’s going on and how to get out of their own way so they can get better results and do more and feel better at work and it’s a blast.
How did you get to where you are today? Take us back a little bit. What’s your education like? Where did you come from? How did you get into consulting and this kind of work?
I started out with a BA in American Studies. I couldn’t find a summer job one year while I was in college and my neighbor said, “My brother’s company hires lots of kids. I’ll get the number.” I called and I got a job selling TV Guide Magazine. This was in the late ‘70s. It was a privately-held telemarketing agency, the first one in the country founded as an agency. When I graduated from college, they hired me sensibly to be an account executive but I did everything. I had a new job every six months there, so I learned the entire business. Unfortunately, the owner died without a succession plan and it was undercapitalized. The widow reorganized and promoted me to EVP. I’d been there for a while. By then I had already run a 300-person contact center and had been responsible for client services. She also brought in new ownership to buy her out and I didn’t like the direction things were going, so I got out. I was pretty well-known in the direct marketing industry. I’d been very active at the DMA. In less than a week, other consultants heard that I was out and subcontracted work to me. I’ve just been working forever.
How long are we talking about in terms of when you first got that job selling the TV guides, to having the opportunity to move into that EVP type of position?
It was two summers. One was I was actually on the phone. I also sold microwave ovens by phone. After I graduated, I went back and full-time, I was there eight and a half years. It was hard work but I was very lucky. Now I have my own practice. I’m just coming on almost 30 years.
One thing you said there is really interesting. You said you’re very lucky but a lot of hard work. Oftentimes, people are looking for things to make them lucky. They’re looking for that new technology or some shiny object to catapult their business to a higher level of success. It sounds like for you, maybe there are some elements of luck, but you certainly put in a lot of hard work.
I think you can be lucky like being hit by a bolt of lightning but it’s hard to sustain that luck. That’s the lottery kind of luck where people get in trouble that way. Too much success with no preparation. Most real successes are those twenty years of work and then bolt out of the blue. It helps a lot to know what you’re talking about. Having the practice of doing the work, understanding what it takes and building, then you have credibility when someone’s considering you for whatever it is they need done.
I know that you’ve done work with the American Express, American Red Cross, Gap, Comcast, Guthy-Renker, Staples and a whole bunch of other organizations. How did you go from when you first got those initial subcontracts to building your consulting business? Was it just you got some subcontracts that led to people hearing about your work and people hiring you or was there a very intentional plan that you followed to get to where you are today?
I wish I could say I had an intentional plan. Certainly at the beginning, I didn’t. Most of it was relationship and that falls into two categories. The obvious one is the referral relationship where you know people who think well of you and when they hear of an opportunity or somebody else’s need, they recommend you. I would again say I’ve been very lucky because through the years, that’s always been unbelievably productive for me. It takes hard work to make and keep those relationships. The way that I probably did that the most was by being active in a variety of volunteer organizations. I’ve served on several non-profit boards. That means spending a lot of time with a lot of different kinds of people who see you at work when you’re not trying to get anything from them. You’re just working, collaborating and acting as a good colleague. That’s a way to build someone’s sense of security and trust that you know what you’re doing and could bring value to whatever’s going on. That’s one major thing. A number of my relationships have been client relationships that I worked with on those boards and then they became clients. It’s a very long sales cycle but it’s pretty deep. I’m just starting another project for a client I have been working with for at least twenty years. It’s not every year that I see them but they keep coming back because that’s the basis we have.
You mentioned that to generate the level of referrals and opportunities that you’ve received over all these years, takes a lot of hard work. You talked about being part of different boards and volunteering. Is that the hard work that you’re referring to or is there some other series of steps or activities that you’re doing consistently to keep that referral engine running?
In the early years, the other thing that was very productive was I wrote articles for a number of the trade magazines in the direct marketing area and I spoke at conferences pretty early that were focused primarily at direct marketing audiences. I had a general reputation. People just knew who I was. Many of those organizations and publications don’t exist anymore. Models have been disrupted and all these things go away. Now, it’s a combination of things. It’s the in-person being with people in these volunteer situations. It’s maintaining a fairly large list of contacts over years and being in touch with them. I write a weekly blog and I have a monthly emailed compilation of those blogs. That compilation every month has a personal message from me to my readers. That’s a great way to stay in touch with a lot of people that I know but don’t get to see. They write back to me; it’s so nice. It’s putting yourself out there in some consistent way. I’ve started writing for Harvard Business Review, for example. Those kinds of things increase your credibility for people who don’t know you.
In the early days, when you first were writing for those trade publications in the direct marketing industry or field, did you see an impact right away from that on your business or was it more authority building?
It still took time. Every once in a while, I would speak, somebody would come up to me at the end of a session and within two or three months, I’d be helping them with a project. More typically, three years later, I’d hear from them. Six years later, I’d hear from them. That’s almost whether I was in touch with them on an ongoing basis or not. I think part of it is that the work I do is not quick-fix kind of work. People only decide as business leaders to do deep work when they’re ready for it because it’s disruptive. You can get better results and change a lot of things for the good, but in the short-term, it takes time, effort and energy. It’s disruptive to the ongoing work process, so you have to be committed. Even people who knew they had certain kinds of business problems where I could be helpful and they might have asked me questions weren’t necessarily ready to bring me in right away.
What are you doing differently today? Someone might look at that and say, “That’s nice, Liz. I see the value of doing that over the long term but I want to build my pipeline now. I want to really get more clients coming in.” What are your thoughts on that? What could someone do to maybe speed up that sales cycle?
I would have to say that the quicker way would not be my style. It’s not that I could point them to the actions I’ve taken that made that work.
When you say it’s not your style, why is it not your style and what do you really mean by that?
I went to what you’d call one sales meeting, a few years ago, with a company that contacted me because they thought of me as an expert in certain kinds of customer service. I knew of them as having a reputation for efficiency but driving their people very hard. I actually believe that for the long term, you do better to develop your people, take care of them, treat them well and then they work very hard for you. They stay, they don’t turn over. In this meeting, after about twenty minutes of discussion, it became clear that we just didn’t have the same philosophy. I suggested at that point that it didn’t make sense to continue the conversation. We believed different things. The fact that I’ve helped my clients be successful in certain ways doesn’t mean that that can happen quickly. A quick sales process where I can say to you, “These are exactly the results I can deliver,” it’s not what happens in my processes. I don’t answer RFPs for example because the client’s assessment of the problem is often inaccurate or it’s accurate as far as they can see it. It’s incomplete because there are lots of other things going on that they may not recognize. It’s not until you go in and assess that you can figure out what’s going on. I’m much more from the long view and checking things out rather than the quick fix. If somebody wanted to speed up their pipeline, I really follow Dorie Clark. I read her book, Stand Out, and then I took a course with her. She has a three-pronged approach. I use all her approaches although not to the level of ginning up the machine that I think somebody else could do. Those things are creating public presence and social proof. You do that in general by having good content to share and demonstrating your expertise and building network so that there are people who look to you and who will refer you, etc. I could blog more frequently. I could write for more places. All those things do take time though, so you have to choose where you’re going to put it.
Let me ask you about that because clearly you’re very selective with your clients. You want to ensure there’s a real fit that allows you to add the most value, which makes a lot of sense. Were you always like that or just as the business developed?
In the early years, I wasn’t discerning enough yet to always be like that, and I took some jobs where I was happy to do the work and the work went well but I wasn’t looking for any repeat business. I had one client where I actually resigned at the first possible legitimate point to do so because I visited them on several occasions, and every day there would be somebody crying in the reception area. I didn’t want to work in that kind of place. As soon as it was legitimate to say, “We came to this point in the project, why don’t we call it quits?” I care about what kind of place it is and that makes a difference. For example, I’ve worked with lower and middle-level managers who then when they have decision power, come looking for me.
What’s your mindset around that? Because I think a lot of consultants want to be more selective with clients. They want to be in a position where they can say no to the wrong ones so they can be able to say yes to only the right ones. There is a level of confidence that is required, a level of understanding, because a lot of people look at that and go, “I need to generate more business and maybe I can make some compromises in terms of who I work with.” Though they’d like to have the ideal client every single time, sometimes they’re a little bit more flexible in allowing and saying yes to projects that may not actually be the right fit. What’s your mindset around that, especially in terms of how it affects your overall business success and business development and revenues?
That’s a great question because it almost becomes a moral set too. What I found was that if I didn’t think we were a really good fit or if I felt we were just trying to grind to some result instead of actually trying to change the business for the better so that they could continue to generate good results over time, first of all, I wasn’t so happy and I’m sure I wasn’t as creative. Many consultants find this and feel they have to put up with it. Sometimes, in the earlier years, I felt I wasn’t treated so well. That made me very unhappy. I didn’t like it one bit. Part of why I like being an independent is because the truth is it’s always up to me. That freedom is a huge thing for me. I don’t want to work with people who are not fully respectful the same way that I want to be respectful of them. How do you make that work? This is where I do feel being lucky matters because no matter how diligent you are, you can’t always know that you’re going to get a call when you need to get one. I’ve always worked very hard and manage a bank account. There has been a certain amount of up and down but I’ve planned. My great grandmother said, “You have to have a cushion.” I’ve always believed in having that. My work is better by virtue of taking work that I think is good work. I can’t say that all my assignments are six-figure assignments but when you get those, you really feel you’ve earned them and they’re very wonderful.
I’m just going to take the conversation a little bit more tactical now. It seems that you’ve made a very conscious decision to focus on branding in your business. When I take a look at your website, from photography to the overall design, what role does branding play for you?
I care that a prospect coming to the site can tell right away that I have concepts about how things ought to be and a track record to show that it’s real. Both of those are important to me. There are now a gazillion people called coaches and even fifteen years ago, it was much rarer than it is now. I call myself a consultant and coach. I certainly do coaching but I always want it clear that my intention is to be serving and building a business. The reason that distinction is important is a lot of coaches who are brought in to help an individual executive or up-and-coming manager, they often let that individual take the lead and they just try to prop them up or support them or help develop them in whatever directions they want to go. Because of my practical business background, I want to see, “What’s good for the business? What’s good out in the marketplace? How can they best serve their customers? How can they organize well?” I do my coaching within a context of consulting with what I hope is the general level of business acumen. That’s actually a differentiator for me and I hope the branding shows that.
What about your name? You’ve intentionally positioned your name as Liz Kislik Associates. Talk to me a little bit about the decision to use, first of all, your name, and then adding ‘Associates’ there versus coming up with a different company name or just not even having ‘Associates’?
Those are two things. When I first started, it was long enough ago that you had credibility if you looked larger. In New York State, you needed to have more than one person to have a plural name registered with the state. My husband was the other person. All the branding at that time was denser and more corporate sounding. That way, I was able, in effect, to pitch against competitors that were larger organizations. From time to time, I might subcontract to somebody else particularly in the tech area. It became clear that what it was, was that the companies that I cared about wanted to hire my company because they were hiring me. It just made sense to stick with that instead of coming up with a manufactured name that sounds like a great concept. This way everybody knows what it is.
How is your business structured? Is it yourself? Do you work with other contractors? Are there any other full-time employees?
I have a part-time assistant and I don’t generally work with other contractors. I’m not inherently opposed to it but it just hasn’t been the thing for a number of years. The work has been about my ability to go in, size up what’s happening and know what needs to be done. Depending on the need of the business, sometimes I just design a project for them. Other times, I’m embedded almost to the extent of acting as substitute executives when they’re down staffed. It is my working with them in a direct and hands-on way, and that’s so rewarding.
You made a very intentional decision to keep the business lean and to put yourself at the forefront and really work closely with your clients. As you’ve made the decisions and you’ve played that out, what’s been your thoughts? How have you approached the idea of growing the business or scaling the business?
I’m in the middle of new thoughts now. I never cared so much about scaling the business before because I just wanted to be busy and I was busy, but I also wanted plenty of room for the rest of my life. I have two kids. I’m active in my community. I have a lot of life too as well as the work. I don’t intend to give anything up. Now though, there are so many different models and different ways to work. I haven’t gotten to the point of thinking I would do an online course, but I think about them, if they would provide enough value. My hesitation in doing anything different, Michael, comes from my concern about whether it will make enough difference. I know this works. Particularly for my work which is often so situational, I worry about whether not being so hands-on will actually deliver the same value. I’m thinking about it a lot but I haven’t gotten there yet.
I think it’s an important topic. A lot of people don’t think about it at all and just let things go where they’ve always been going. Some, as I’ve seen, they end up in a place where they’ve created a monster of a business that they don’t enjoy very much. Other times, people realize that they’re not executing to their full potential. I think it’s a great sharing and a reminder for people to explore that and give it some thought.
What I find for me is that the most exciting part is being with the people that I work with; and therefore, getting to know them. In coursework or in a book, you don’t get to know them. On the other hand, if you’re only working with the few people you can manage, if all you have is your time, you don’t get to have as much impact on as many people. It’s an interesting tradeoff and maybe I’ll resolve it or I’ll move incrementally in some direction. I tell my kids I’ll be working when they put me in the home because I just like it.
You’ve been in the consulting business now for 30 years, building your practice. What is one thing that stands out to you? An area where consultants often make mistakes where maybe you hear from people that you know or you just see it in the marketplace, something that people do that you’ve had the experience now over time to know that it’s not the right thing to do or typically doesn’t create the level of results that they could be achieving if they approach it in a different way. What stands out for you as a common mistake?
When you started the question, I thought you were going to go to what my mistakes have been. I would say for me, I never build enough pipeline. I’m so focused on the work and I love the work so much and the pipeline part is less appealing to me. That’s my downfall. In terms of where other people might go awry, I don’t believe there’s easy money. There are consultants that get big deals or you can’t understand how they get their work. I think anybody who can sustain an ongoing practice is providing real value of some kind, even if it’s not what it looks like on the surface. The thing that is the most helpful is understanding what your clients need. There are so many different kinds of businesses and so many different executives, some of them don’t want the kind of depth that is the only thing I want to provide. They may be happier with a more transactional approach and there are consultants who are very happy providing that transaction.
Understanding the client is the most important thing because there have been times where I’ve been hired to go in and clean something up, either where promises were made about, it would take three months and we would suddenly have an entire inside sales force doing significantly better because I would follow this straightforward 123 program. That didn’t work exactly. We had to figure out how we could really get the sales force doing better, slowly and more painstakingly. I’ve come in when there was a consultant to help with certain kinds of organizational changes without thinking through how the change over here might affect the department over there. Having to mop up and then resettle everybody and help everybody go through the process of getting over the brokenness and the pain that had come from these quick decisions.
What I’m hearing you say is having clarity around your ideal client and ensuring that it aligns with your values and your message so there’s a good fit.
Also being open to client feedback all the time, not just thinking of yourself as a tool that does something to a client. It’s really important to do it with them.
Liz, this has been a great conversation and a lot of fun. Thank you so much. What’s the best way for people to learn more about your work and connect with you?
It’s been a pleasure talking with you. You had very interesting questions. I enjoyed it. My website is www.LizKislik.com. When you’re there, you can sign up for the blog or the compilation. I also have a Field Guide and checklist about dealing with conflict at work that might be helpful to people.
Liz, thank you so much.
Michael, it’s been a pleasure.