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Episode #197
David Allara

How to Build Predictable Systems & Process for Your Consulting Business

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Summary

Building predictable systems for your consulting business is a must. When you follow the right systems, you’ll be blown away by the results. Michael Zipursky’s guest today is David Allara, the Managing Director of konnectus. David talks with Michael about how the first step should always be listening. You need to listen to your customers, peel back the layers, and understand what’s important to them. Avoid talking about anything technical, or you will lose their attention! Tune in and build predictable systems!

I’m with David Allara. Welcome.

Great to be here. How are you?

I’m doing very well. I’m glad that you are able to join us. For those who aren’t yet familiar with you, they’re going to learn a lot more about you and your company here. You’re the Managing Director of Konnectus, an audiovisual technology firm. You lead a team of technology consultants, engineers, designers, project managers and trainers. You have worked in over 1,000 spaces throughout Australia to put in different audiovisual systems for the government of Australia, companies like Ernst & Young, ING and many others. How did you get into the audiovisual and text-based? Take us prior to starting Konnectus. What was David doing?

It depends on how far you want to get back to it. I was originally in a very different NGO. I was in the refrigeration industry. We probably don’t want to go that far back. I did learn a lot of lessons in that experience of about ten years working in Italy and the US, which have transferred some of that knowledge and experience in creating a consulting business. How I got into the audiovisual industry itself is I came back to Australia after being abroad for ten or more so years. I was looking for a job. I fell into the industry. There was a sales position going on, I needed a job. I took it and locked it straight away. I moved straight away after about six months into another larger company doing sales and marketing in that firm. I’ve got more of a taste for it and I could see that consulting was the place to be for me in the industry. I look for an opportunity in consulting, which I eventually found towards the end of 2007 and started there.

What was the calling for you? At that point, you’ve had experiences in multiple different organizations working as an employee. What was going on in your mind and heart that was telling you, “It’s time for me to go out on my own and build something.”

I’ve always been that way. Even in the firms that I’ve worked for a longer period of time, the owners of those companies have given me a lot of freewriting to build something internally within that company. For example, in the refrigeration business, I was very young. I’m in my early twenties when I started there. The owner sent me to New York and said, “Go start up the North American branch,” by myself. That was perfect for me because that’s the thing that I like. I like those challenges, I like to do it by myself not being constrained by bureaucracy, red tape or layers of management. I’ve never been able to operate in those areas. It was the same in the audiovisual industry in my first company in the consulting world. The owner says, “We’ve got a small AV team here, I’ll give you the opportunity to grow it. There wasn’t a lot of checking in, it was more of go do your thing.” It’s almost like being an entrepreneur inside the company. Two occasions there. It was a very easy way to move into doing it for myself.

Listen to people, figure out what they want, and then you sell your product. Click To Tweet

What do you think that the owner of that refrigeration company saw in you in taking a leap of faith sending you across the world, to New York to open up the business over there? What were the characteristics, criteria or what did he see in you? What did you demonstrate to him that gave him so much faith to make that investment into you?

I’m always being quite good at sales. Prior to doing that, I was working for him for about 3 or 4 years doing international sales. He would send me around the world anywhere by herself. I was meeting with senior executives and closing large deals in selling lots of fridges as I was getting those numbers, getting some success there without too much guidance. He must have felt like, “I’m giving him an opportunity.” I kept asking for it and he said, “Fine.” Persistence and showing the ability to sell because I guess if you can’t sell, you can’t start a business in the first place.

Let’s go back in time a little bit or stay where we are because there are probably a lot of lessons from that time in the refrigeration business. You’re talking about sales, you have experience and a track record of being successful in selling. In coming to know you and the work that we’ve done together over the last little while, you’re not the typical hard-charging, try and twist your arm, knock you over a salesperson. That’s not your style by any stretch of the imagination. When you look at and boil it down, what do you think has made you an effective salesperson? What’s the secret sauce that if you had to teach somebody to become good at sales and you took the best practices that you’ve accumulated over the years, what are some of those key principles that have served you very well in the past but also have served you well now over the last several years of building Konnectus as your own business?

That’s probably the skills or gifts that I’ve had. I didn’t even realize the reason that I was being successful is I manage to listen to people. I’ve never been a big talker or overtaking conversations, talking to others and try to say things to people. I’m more interested in listening to what they want and what’s important to them. It even goes back to when I was very young, 15, 16, selling things in a sporting goods store. I listened to people about what they want, why they want it, why they don’t want something. You’re trying to figure out what’s important to them and then you sell them in cheaper. It’s not very difficult when you boil it down like that but that’s probably the way I approach it.

A lot of people aren’t comfortable with the idea of sales and selling. It feels like it’s a bad word. It causes a lot of hesitation and resistance on their part. You said something that I think a lot of people will resonate with, which is the idea of listening. You can be a great listener but what you’ve complimented that or combined that with is once you’ve heard what you will want. It sounds like you’re also very good at coming back to them and saying, “Based on what you’ve told me and what we’ve talked about, here are the recommended next steps or here are some ideas and options.” Take me through what would that look like for you even in your business or back in the day, what were you doing? If you met somebody at a trade show, conference or meeting, you’ve asked some great questions. You’ve identified through the conversation what they want and don’t want, what’s your go-to next step? How quickly do you go back to them? Do you make recommendations right then and there? What’s the process that you found to work best?

There’s a lot of things that you in some stage would resonate with me and it has been my approach for a while. That concept of peeling back the layers of the onion, maybe some readers have read that before. I believe that’s key. I’m constantly asking why. I want to get to the truth of the matter here, “What’s the core?” There’s usually some issue to solve or a goal to get to that the customer hasn’t. Potential customers are saying “I need this and that.” “Do you?” I challenge it. Not being afraid to challenge, to ask the why and another why, “Why is that important to you? What does that mean to you?” That’s when you’re going to have your most success is when you get to the true crux of the matter because people will uncover something they didn’t realize was important and they’ll now hold it a lot truer or seriously and be wanting to do something about it. When it’s more surface-level discussions or there’s a misconception on the part of the customer or potential customer, that’s when things probably I find off track or there’s not a lineup to do any business together and it’s usually a mistake to move forward.

CSP 197 David Allara | Build Predictable Systems

 

Once you identified that and when you’ve gone to the core end or into the heart of the matter, what are you doing? Are you coming at them and saying, “Here’s what we should do next,” in that exact same conversation, that same time? Are you following up the next day with an email, are you following for a proposal? What’s the best practices and approach that you’ve been using or you’ve found to work in the most effective way?

We have a process. It usually starts with doing a needs assessment. That’s more about what I was talking about earlier, peeling back the layers. If they asked if there is a problem or a goal that they’re trying to achieve, then you might take it to another step. I want to try and be speaking with a decision-maker thing. One-on-one encounter with who is a decision-maker, “Are you the decision-maker? Great. If not, is there someone else? Let’s get that person or group involved in discussions.” We’ll reaffirm what we’ve learned in the previous conversation with that person or group of people. Assuming there’s still an interest to move forward and we uncovered a problem, and there’s a fit for us to work with them because that’s also key. That’s what I’m looking for.

I’m looking for opportunities to disqualify potential opportunities to work with someone and if there are red flags or it doesn’t seem to be something that we can help them with. Assuming everything lines up, it usually goes to some of a quote or a free proposal. By then, you’ve generally understood you’re on the same page, the scope, how we could help them and what the outcome or that help might look like. It starts to become more of a formality of, “This is the commercial agreement. This is the scope.” We move forward from there.

You’ve shared with me that you do have a very structured sales process that you take or prospective clients through. You mentioned that at times when people on your team, anytime you veer away from that process or don’t stay true to it, you can see that something does break down. How have you developed that? How do you think about your sales process? Are you constantly updating it? I’m wondering what your mindset is around the sales process itself.

Selling is about a process and there’s probably a misconception that many readers might have. It isn’t about being liked or being the greatest conversation in store, going out to dinner with people every night. It is about having and following the process, which sounds pretty boring but when you have the right systems and follow systems like the bouncing ball, you’ll be amazed at the results that you can get that way. As soon as you don’t follow the process, it’s manufacturing something. You’re not going to get that Caribbean in your life if you miss some steps. They haven’t got the doors on it or the width of it. There are no ties. If you skip steps, unfortunately in a process like that, it generally goes off track or you’re not quite aligned and move forward with the wrong solution. It’s not quite where it could be for yourself and the customer.

The work that you do can feel, I would imagine to buyers and prospective clients at times complex. You’re helping them to set up auto audiovisual systems inside of offices these days, like hybrid types of offices because people are working from home and around the world. There’s a lot of different technology providers and different solutions. I could imagine people feeling a sense of complexity. What have you found makes the biggest difference or is most important for you to be able to communicate the value that your firm provides? Any company could go, “I think we need to buy this television, get the speaker and these technologies,” but you’re adding a whole other layer of value on top of that would be challenging for them to do well themselves. How do you communicate that value? How do you communicate a differentiation between what you’re providing and other providers? What might a company try and figure out themselves in-house if they weren’t to work with you?

When you follow the right systems, you'll be amazed at the results you get. Click To Tweet

It probably comes down to the specific consulting piece. If you don’t do a consulting piece, it’s likely going to be a poor result. The business that we’re in is not so much the audiovisual business, we’re in the business of solving problems or helping people achieve goals. It’s more of a business-type discussion that I think me or my team are having when we’re talking to customers. We peel back the layers here, “What’s important to you?” None of those conversations are ever technical conversations. I encourage my team to never even talk technical. The moment you start to talk about this widget and that one, you’re already losing them. They don’t understand. That’s not their day-to-day. You need to focus on what’s important to them, “Can we get improved efficiency from our teams? Can our teams collaborate better? Can the learning in our schools be improved?” These types of more business-related tangible objectives that these organizations have. That’s what they’re focused on, so that’s what we focus on. The fact that we use AV technology as a medium to enable those outcomes and results to happen is a byproduct.

It’s an area that many consultants struggle with where they tend to focus or place too much focus on the inputs of things that they’re going to do and their methodology or the tools that they’re using, but what the client wants is a specific outcome. As you said, the technology is what enables the outcome, but the issues that get the ideal client excited are the things that they’re dealing with. They go into a meeting in your case, let’s say, and all of a sudden, whatever they’re using to bring people together into that meeting the technology breaks down. That’s a big waste of productivity, a big loss of revenue, income and frustration. That’s the lesson or the idea that for all of the readers and everyone joining us to think about your specific business.

The focus should not be so much on the things that you’re doing. It’s, “What is the outcome that is created or the lack of outcome if those things aren’t done?” That was a great example of that. I want to talk and explore because a lot of your business has come through referrals and having a network in an ecosystem that you’ve set up. You have relationships with people in different government agencies and large professional services firm. How do you think about relationships? How do you think about, first of all, setting up those relationships and what do you do to maintain them, to strengthen them over time? Are you using any specific approach or technology? What have you found are some of the best ideas around there? What’s been working best for you to cultivate, stretch and strengthen meaningful relationships that you hope will in the long-term generate more business?

I wish I had more time to dedicate to relationships is my quick answer to that question. Something must be working because we’re having success. We’ve gotten to the size that we are at the moment, almost purely on repeat business referrals and doing good work. It’s probably the summary. We haven’t had much of a marketing system or there hasn’t been a lot of outbound going on. At the start of this company with Jonathan, my business partner in 2013, otherwise being responsible for the sales and in 2013, 2014, 2015, there were a lot of knocks on the doors and walk in the pavement trying to open opportunities.

Once there are opportunities started to come into these usually small projects, people give you small opportunities to show what you can do. In most cases, we seem to do a good job. We make sure that we have understood and delivered on the requirements and continue to follow up. It usually comes back with giving us more opportunities. The trust is built, they had a problem, goal, we helped them achieve it and they said, “Let’s work again with Konnectus.” We’re happy with it because I see business.

What do you think is one thing that you do that your competitors or alternatives in the marketplace don’t do? What’s a common mistake that you see people making in your industry that you are very intentional in doing your best to make sure that you don’t make that same mistake?

CSP 197 David Allara | Build Predictable Systems

 

In terms of sales and marketing, I can’t speak for others but we have an intentional approach of long-term partnerships. We don’t look at project after project, that’s exhausting and it’s no way to grow a business. We look at trying to build up long-term partnerships with customers and ways that we can help them, whether it’s paid or not paid advice. It’s not the point. It’s more about the longevity of the relationship and we found that to be a pretty successful strategy.

Do you communicate actively to clients and prospects? Do you use that language in your conversations in terms of long-term partnerships? I would love to pull back the cover there a little bit more to try and understand how you are taking that idea and implementing it to clients or prospective clients.

Probably, I could communicate it a little bit better but might be more interactions. Internally the team knows that’s what we’re all about. It’s about the long-term partnership. Innately in each of their minds, they understand that whatever it is they’re doing, it’s not about that one particular project. It’s about a long-term relationship. They can make decisions based on that. It’s not like, “This project has X amount of money, so I can’t go beyond that money on this project because it might affect profitability.” That’s not the mentality. We have the opposite. It’s more like, “What’s this customer saying they need? They need a little bit more assistance on this project, so we’re going to give that to them no matter what or they might call up.” There’s no engagement going on at that particular time but that needs to know we have still to help them out. It may be coming from within, talking to the team, making sure the team understands what it is that we’re all about and why we want to have long and longer-term relationships and through their actions, demonstrate that.

You have a good-sized team, how do you do that? It sounds like almost your values, belief system, the mindset around a business is very much relational, relationship-based, not transactional. How do you make sure that everyone in your team understands those values? Are you doing a sit-down meeting? Is it a retreat? Is it a handbook that you give to people when they first become part of the team? What does that look like at Konnectus?

It’s probably a bunch of things. We get together and as a team, we work on the company vision. It’s not someone at the top. It’s not like me or Jonathan, my business partner writing it and saying, “Here you go, follow it.” It’s the opposite. It’s like, “We don’t have all the answers so let’s work together as a team. What should that vision be?” We go through a step-by-step process and put ideas together by working with professionals to do this earlier on. Now we’re a little bit better at it and we can do it ourselves. We constantly challenge that. Every three months, we have a quick review of that. Every six months, it might be a bit of a deeper review and every year deeper again. That’s one example.

We have five core values, which again we came up with as a team. We had a competition and spent a bit of time on it, made it fun. Every week, we have a meeting where we plan out or talk about, “What are we doing this week? What are our wins for last week?” We tie in these company values. I might talk about, “I had a win last week and it lines up with these core values.” The rest of the team members do the same thing. We’re celebrating something that happened last week and how it tied in with the values. There’s this constant reaffirmation of what we’re about while we’re about it. It’s helped us become a tight family, I suppose. We are only a small company of 9 or 10 people but at the same time, if you don’t work on that, it’s a little bit of a different outcome.

We don't have all the answers, so let's work together as a team. Click To Tweet

We’ve been talking a lot more about that as well, your consulting success with our team, the importance of having values, and making sure that everyone understands what those values are because they speak not only to how we operate as a team, as a family internally but also externally. When you’re very clear on your values and the values that you want to have in the clients that you work with, then you can communicate more. You can weave them into your content, marketing and messaging. What’s interesting about that is we’ve certainly found when you start to put those values out there, you tend to attract people who share some of those values as well. Has that been your experience as well to a degree?

I would say so. It is almost a way of lining up with who do you do what work with and don’t want to work with, also, for the team. One of the most important things that I hold to myself as what I’m trying to achieve by creating a company is having staff team members that come to work each day because they like what they’re doing and what they’re a part of. They feel like it’s something worthwhile. That’s one of my main goals. I’m not money go out, I’m not trying to get rich and create this huge empire. I’m more about helping people. I like to help customers and staff.

If I can have staff that is empowered in these core values, if they truly believe in them, it becomes outward-facing. We believe in easy connectors and the staff truly do. They can also pick and choose almost who they want to work with. It’s not fun working with customers or organizations that aren’t aligned with you. Everything seems to be a struggle and it’s not fun. There’s plenty of business out there, we try and find a business that is more fun to work with.

Here you are about nineteen team members at Konnectus. What have you found to be most helpful in ensuring that everyone remains focused, productive, making progress? Is there a specific framework or approach? What do you do to ensure that people are making progress and moving things forward, that things aren’t falling off the tracks or the things that are not getting delayed? Is there a meeting that you use, is there a specific approach to productivity? What do you guys use internally that’s working best for you?

It’s 9 to 10, not yet nineteen. Let’s say ten. We have a framework. We have a rhythm of meetings. Every day we have a quick stand-up meeting and everyone participates in that no matter where they are, so they can join via video call if they’re on site. One of our team members, Santiago. He’s managing the projects and overseeing all the projects. We have good software which we use to do that as well and he uses that. He’s trying to make sure everyone’s working on what they should be each week, each day and delivering the specific things that we’ve agreed to deliver for our customers. That’s probably how we manage that.

When you look at your business and the landscape, what do you feel most excited about right now?

CSP 197 David Allara | Build Predictable Systems

 

It’s one of those industries that’s constantly changing. There’s always something new to learn. That’s what a lot of the team is excited about. They’re constantly learning new things and new ways of doing things and new technology. I’m also not super passionate about tech. I’m more driven by helping customers achieve their business outcomes and having happy customers, happy staff, that’s more of where I’m at. When you have those two things hand in hand though when you’re a customer and you see all this change, how could we possibly know what to do there? There are many choices and many options. If you can have someone like our company that can help you understand these options and how they can deliver strong outcomes or solve problems for you in a meaningful way, it’s a nice match-up. It’s an ever-evolving space with great opportunities for businesses of all kinds to take advantage of and we can help them do that.

Let’s flip it for a moment. Challenges, what do you feel is the biggest challenge that you’re actively working on?

For us, it’s probably working on stuff. That’s been a big challenge for us. It’s a relatively small labor market in Australia, in our industry. That’s a challenge not just for me but for many companies in the industry, whether they be consultants, actual installation companies or even vendors. That’s been a bit of a challenge that we’re exploring some different avenues there on how to structure our business. The other thing is the marketing. What we’ve been working with you and Sam on quite closely is trying to get our outreach going and enable us to grow a little bit beyond what we can grow through referrals and doing good work.

I want to take us back for a moment to this idea of team. When you started the business, were you very intentional? Did you already see the future and know that you wanted to build this to be beyond yourself or did you think, “Jonathan and I will be the two of us, maybe one more personally?” How did you envision the business when you first started?

We didn’t plan probably that far ahead. We’re both working together in this other consulting firm and building a business within a business for someone else. We looked at each other and said, “Why are we doing this for? Why don’t we break away and do it for ourselves?” That’s what we’re doing anyway. It was a relatively quick set of conversations. We moved away and started with it. It was back in 2013. We’ve learned a lot. We’ve worked with business coaches, attended different types of courses and now, working with ourselves. A lot along the way about planning and looking forward. Back then, it was more probably in that situation, where a lot of your readers are. We almost bought ourselves a job. I hadn’t thought about it too much more than that but as we work to try to make it more of a business, we put structures in place, we learned about what that means. Now we have a business, which is great. Moving forward, we want to grow it so that myself and Jonathan can step out a little bit and it becomes an actual business without relying so much on ourselves.

That is a bigger challenge for many consultants. As you’ve been going down that path, what are two things that you’ve done that you would say have freed you up the most or given you a lot more time to spend thinking on the business being strategic and not doing all the delivery and work yourself? Are there give me two things that stand out for you as, “These were game-changers for us?”

Create space in your life to do lots of things. Click To Tweet

It would probably sit down and looked at simple things like organizational structure, “What’s going to be the old structure next year? What’s it going to be in 3 or 5 years?” That’s the basic stuff and, “The numbers in terms of revenue expenses, what does that look like?” They’re going to be multiple offices. Having a need to hire to go from one old structure to the next one in that period of time. Once you put that bit of planning in place, it’s not that hard to join the dots and you know what you’re working towards. It’s not difficult, it’s just a matter of taking the time to do it. You might need some help from an expert to do it the first couple of times, but once you get a feel for it, it’s pretty straightforward.

Was there any hesitation or reluctance on your part as you started working towards making that shift going from the two of you doing everything to building the team to now in the place where you’re looking even bigger picture, even more strategic of how can this business operate without as much of your direct involvement and freeing yourself up more? Any mindset shifts? Anything that you were reluctant around and you’ve got past an hour or you’ve seen the light at the end of the tunnel? Anything that stands out to you there. I’m wondering in terms of other readers who might be facing or coming close to that same situation. Anything that you could share with them?

From my perspective, I didn’t want to be doing the day-to-day all the time. You use the analogy of $10, $100 or $1,000 an hour. I was just seeking to do so much of $10 or $100 an hour work. It didn’t make sense to me, I wasn’t getting joy from that. I wanted to train people to do that for me so I could be doing more exciting work. I much prefer to be out meeting with customers whether they’re new or existing, understanding what’s going on in their world and how we can help them have those business-level types of conversations and hand them back to the rest of the team to execute on different types of activities or solutions we might’ve come up with.

For Jonathan, it’s similar. He’s passionate about tech. He loves the new technology and learning about it. He’s probably key to the business in that regard that he can be freed up to learn more about that, improve his knowledge and pass it that on both externally to customers and also internally to the team. That helps develop it in both directions. That’s a place where they’d much rather be robbed instead of doing that $10 or $100 an hour work. It gets tiring and boring after a while. It was very easy for us to quickly decide if we want to change direction.

It’s amazing how much time people spend on those lower-value tasks without always noticing it. It’s very easy to fool yourself into believing that, “It doesn’t take me that long. I can do it faster than teaching someone else,” but all these things compoundly add up. When you look at it over the period of a week, month or a year, you spend a lot of time doing things that aren’t creating much value for the business and in many cases, things that you don’t enjoy. It can require some courage and taking a bit of a leap of faith to either bring people on or start to delegate, outsource or say no to things that aren’t conducive to real growth or helping to make a greater impact.

If you’re a long-term focus, you want to trust that feeling of knowing that even though it may be hard, it’s something that you should do. You’ve done that very well, David. You’re always learning. That’s one thing I admire about you. You’re always looking at ways to gain new insights, information and perspectives that you can use to share with your team, with clients and for you to become a stronger person. What’s one book that you’ve read that you found enjoyable or valuable and helpful for the business? It doesn’t have to be a business book. It could be something that you’ve enjoyed personally. Let’s open up anything that has resonated with you.

There is a short little one which your brother, Sam put onto me and I like it. It’s called The 25-Year Framework. It’s been a book that I’ve shared with lots of people, everyone in the team, some friends and family as well because it hit home with me that, “What is the rush?” There is no rush. You can take time to smell the roses and enjoy what you’re doing. Enjoy the process. I’m a result-focused guy, I’m always have been just like my father and grandfather, it’s this Italian background that’s how it is. That little book and not a hard book or a long book to read. I’m not a huge reader but I like the overall message, which was The 25-Year Framework. Not a one year. That’s plenty of time to get where you want to be going to. It’s given me that time of feeling at least of I can breathe. I can create space in my life to do lots of things. That would be my book.

That’s by Dan Sullivan. Another book on a similar topic that you would find interesting is, The Infinite Game by Simon Sinek. Similar concept and it’s very powerful when you look at it. Often, many of us are very hard on ourselves. We try and cram a lot in, and judge ourselves based on success and failure on what happens in a very short period, a month, a quarter or a year. For most of us, if we’re playing the long-term game, we have plenty of time. It doesn’t mean that you don’t try and develop yourself, you don’t try and accelerate or to see results sooner, just know that if you don’t hit that one thing that you were hoping to hit right away, it’s okay. You’ll figure it out. Be consistent, keep looking at ways to improve, optimize, get better and enjoy the journey.

That’s a big message that for all entrepreneurs we’re so often focused on outcomes and results that we forget to enjoy the journey. That’s a great reminder. Before we wrap up, where can people go to learn more about you and your company? You put a lot of great content, videos, articles, that are relevant for anyone in organizations these days given how many of us are working in a hybrid type of situation or using technology in our own businesses or with clients. Give us the one place that people should go to learn more.

Konnectus.com.au is a way to find everything, including those resources you mentioned. Otherwise, my LinkedIn profile has pretty much all that as well.

I encourage everyone to check it out. A lot of great resources there. David, thanks so much for coming on.

Thank you.

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