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Episode #114
Katie McConnell Olson

How To Get Referrals For Your Consulting Business

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Getting human leverage can be a time-consuming process. In this podcast episode, host Michael Zipursky talks with the Founder and CEO of Hire Education Consulting Group, Katie McConnell Olson, about how to get referrals for your business and the true meaning of talent optimization. Sharing her journey from being a tax auditor, a VP of assurance, doing financial audits, then recruiting, Katie walks us through how she started off and got to where she is now with consulting and starting her own business. Katie also touches on finding good quality people and evaluating them, hiring into your strengths, introducing a new team member into a project, and more.

I’m here with Katie McConnell Olson. Katie, welcome.

Thank you. Happy to be here.

You are the Founder and CEO of Hire Education Consulting Group, a full-service talent optimization consulting firm. For everyone out there, explain what talent optimization means.

Basically, it means we do all things in the search and hiring strategy phase. We do full-cycle search much like a traditional recruiter and a bunch of other stuff too. We do all of the strategy behind what that means like, “We need to add a new role or we don’t know how much to pay. How do we off-board somebody?” What is offboarding if they’re not a match anymore? What does the org chart look like? Where do we know when we need to add a role all the way through process improvement around the hiring cycle and essentially anything in the talent space.

Going through your past, you’ve had quite a journey from being a tax auditor, a VP of assurance, doing financial audits, then recruiting. Walk us through how you started off and got to where you are now.

It was definitely a checkerboard pass, not a ladder climb. My degree is in Finance and I started as an auditor in public accounting. I was a bean counter that went out to companies and looked at their financials, mostly in the public company space, to make sure the numbers are right for the shareholders. I had a couple of twists and turn in my career through a few startup ventures. I ended up landing in a startup CPA firm. I was doing some of the same work but got a taste of what it means to build a business, go find clients and what it means to be a business owner. From there, I ended up landing in recruitment by way of startups that didn’t start. That was the first foray into recruiting. I was recruiting accounting roles and working with a lot of accountants. I realized I was underutilized, but I had a lot of ideas.

I got recruited back into public accounting to run the recruiting department for a national CPA firm. I got to go through a lot of mergers and acquisitions. I loved the role but at one point in time I said, “I have a business idea here on how we can help clients.” I migrated back into the client side and started a practice within that CPA firm helping companies hire accountants. One thing led to another. That company went through an acquisition. At that point in time, I found all kinds of other ideas and decided to exit that firm. I started my own company, which is Hire Education Consulting. I built a team and now here we are with the full cycle strategy and search well beyond just accountants that this stage.

What was the impetus, the tipping point or the push that made you decide that after all the different things you’ve been through that pushed you to get into consulting and start your own business? Why not just go out and work at another firm or do another startup? Why specifically get into consulting?

Not all first dates turn into a romance. Sometimes it doesn’t work out. Click To Tweet

There’s a business need that I saw in a market that wasn’t getting access to the services that we offer. A lot of the clients that I worked with at that time and still do are in the construction and trade space, so the AEC industry: Architecture, Engineering and Construction. They were great with the back of the housework but struggled with the front of the house infrastructure around adding people. In the market that is exploding and doing well as it was at its peak when I started this company, I saw a market that wasn’t getting served. There was a need for it. That’s where it came to be was, “What if we created a business that could serve them and solve a problem?” That’s how most companies start. “There’s a problem. How can we fill in a need?” It evolved into letting the market lead us into, “We’re doing X. The reason is because we’re seeing this as a reoccurring problem. Let’s start a service line around a feedback program that can solve this problem.”

What I love about that is you identified a need. A lot of people have ideas like, “The market needs what we have. We have something great to offer.” Translating that into a successful business, taking that idea and going out to the marketplace and validating that idea or getting your first client is a challenge for a lot of people. Take us back to what you did. You identified that there was a need. The next step was to go ahead and validate it through conversations. How did you go about and confirm that the hypothesis was going to play out and land your first client as a result of that?

It started on the search side. We knew when clients were calling saying, “I need to hire somebody,” they have a need. They needed an employee. We were diving several layers deep into that, “Why? Why do you have this need? Is it growth? Is it turnover? Is it because people aren’t getting things done and we’re having capacity issues? Where is the need coming from?” It’s getting curious and asking them questions and then finding out, “The real root of the problem is we’ve got turnover and it’s because of X, Y, Z or we’ve got explosive growth and we’re not sure how to manage it. This is what’s happening.” It’s getting curious from the perspective of needing to hire people and finding the root of why we’re hiring in the first place. We’re developing core services around that.

What did you do to get the first client? What you’ve shared is the previous experience was focused around accountants. When you launched your consulting business, you were serving more of the AEC. How did you make that shift? How did you go into the AEC industries without necessarily having a lot of experience in that area? What were the steps that you took to start landing the first few clients?

Our business model is unique in that all of our business is referral business. We don’t make cold calls. We don’t chase leads. We do everything by way of introduction. We are uniquely positioned because of my relationships in the CPA community, they’re our best referral partners. They’re on the frontlines with their clients. We were strategic about developing affiliate relationships with CPAs. That’s where we started was sitting across the table and saying, “I’m a free agent now. I’m no longer associated with one firm. I can work for all of these firms. How can we scratch each other’s back and create mutual value for each other?” They started helping me get in the door.

Our first client of the new firm when we first launched was a compensation study. It was a little bit on the fringe because it wasn’t our core services, but it was a good stretch project. One of my core values within my organization is say yes. We have the philosophy of, “Yes, if,” not no. We say, “How can we say yes? We can do this if X, Y and Z happen.” We undertook it. That was our first client project. We did a full compensation study which opened the door to some org chart work, search work and then referrals. I’m not saying we don’t have a CRM system and an organized way to chase leads, but we do it all through affiliate and referral partnerships which is unique.

Take us deeper into that. There’s a lot of value that people could get from understanding more clearly exactly what you did. Let’s imagine you’re back in the day, sitting down with another CPA. You’re saying, “I’m not longer working with one company. I can work with you. I can help a lot of your clients.” What did that exchange look like? What were you offering them? How are you positioned that you could bring value to them? What were they looking for in return?

That’s where we always start the conversation. I always start with, “How can I help you and what are you looking for? Is it new clients for you? Is it an extension of service lines so that you guys can be the one-stop shop for your clients? As a CPA, how can I fulfill a need that you have?” Back into, “Here’s what we can offer you.” Sometimes we do pay our affiliates who are sending us business. There’s a lot of value to be had in bringing the opportunity to the table. We do have strategic alliances with a number of other firms and businesses. If they help us secure a client, we will compensate and vice versa. We typically have many mutual clients. That’s a great opportunity for them to tag us in or vice versa. We have complementary services. It’s a great way to expand our reach and keep it in the family, if you will, with the client base that we support.

Getting out there and meeting a ton of people is an approach to build your network. Click To Tweet

When do you bring up the compensation part? It’s a pretty common question that we hear from clients in our coaching program. These consultants come in the community and go, “Is it okay to pay a referral fee? When do you ask for it?” What are some of the best practices that you’ve identified or discovered when it comes to talking about referral and compensation?

Our affiliate agreement, we set up front. I don’t think I would ever go to somebody after I had already scratched their back and given them a client and said, “Surprise, you owe me for that.” I would say that expectation needs to be set up front. The way that we went about it in the beginning was, “We’re sending business to Mac quite a bit. Mac’s making a lot of money off of us. We should probably approach that and say, ‘What would you think about making this official?’” That’s what we did. Once we had a couple of them in place, we had some momentum. We then could approach other individuals and say, “It looks like you have a complementary service offering, what would you think about striking an agreement?” right out of the gate so that foundation is set. There is not any awkwardness about trying to bill on the backend.

You lower your guard when the expectations are clear from the beginning, rather than going into it and wondering. You’re taking the cat out of the bag. It’s clear what both parties are thinking. That’s powerful. How did you get in front of CPAs? They’re busy people with their work with their clients. How do you set the meetings to be able to have these conversations, set these strategic partnerships and referrals with them?

CSP 114 | How To Get Referrals

I cheated because I do have a CPA license and came from that world. A lot of them were in my region. I went to college with them. I saw them at other events. We traded throughout firms over the years. I knew people that knew people. For outside of the region, a lot of it was knowing other people and leveraging the network of the people that I did know. I’m big on starting with the hubbub of people that I do know and leveraging my influences, rather than bugging people. Sometimes it’s sheer persistence, speech resistance in, “It’s me again. It’s probably easier to take a half-an-hour meeting with me than to take out a restraining order. Maybe let’s go that route. Let’s sit down and give me half-an-hour of your time. We’ll forge a relationship.” Not all first dates turn into a romance. Sometimes it doesn’t work out. Getting out there and meeting a ton of people was my approach to build that network. I’m still doing it every day.

When you go into LinkedIn or your CRM, you’re saying, “I know these people. I want to have a meeting with them. I don’t know them that well. Maybe we met at some event.” What’s the approach? If you could share a sample script that you used like, “It’s Katie. We’re both CPAs. I’d love to learn more about what you’re doing.” Is it completely different? What’s a tried and true message or approach that you would use?

If I’m looking through a mutual connection, that’s the first place I’m going to start, “Who are we both connected to? What do we have in common? Did we go to the same college? Have we touched base with the same client?” I’m going to use a mutual connection as a door opener. If I don’t have any, I’m looking for some other connection point or I’m hoping for the best. I’m using my recruiter skills, tips and tricks to try to throw a line in the water and hope I catch a bite.

For every ten people that you reach out to, how many will you say that turns into a conversation?

Probably four or five. We have a pretty good turn rate. We don’t do a lot of math targeting. It’s all targeted outreach. I try to be pretty careful about that. If I reached out to ten people and got ten meetings, then I have a whole different problem with what to do with my time. Balancing all of those things is a challenge of being a small business.

Getting human leverage can be a time-consuming process. Click To Tweet

I know that the business is off to a good start. Things have gone well. How many team members were involved in the business in its first year?

We have four.

When people are starting a consulting business or even if they’re a couple of years into it, they’re hesitating and trying to delay bringing on other people and building the team. They want to save, keep lean and not manage people. Clearly, you’ve taken a different approach. What was the mindset for you around building a team and hiring?

A big piece of our business messaging is around human leverage, hire people and get human leverage. If we’re going to walk the talk and do what we teach our clients to do, we have to take that approach. For me, it’s not less scary. I understand how terrifying it is. That one hour of investment is hard to give up from your day. It does turn into hundreds of hours leverage once you have somebody ramped up in the chair, that human leverage. It’s amazing to come to work every day and have a team that executes my vision and my goal. We’re unified in one mission that we’re helping many businesses around the region, around the Western United States achieve their goals and mission. Why wouldn’t you? There is a headache and a lot of paperwork that comes with payroll and labor. It’s definitely been a learning curve for me.

CSP 114 | How To Get Referrals

What was the first role that you hired for?


Why did you choose to bring on a recruiter as opposed to an assistant or someone you could delegate some lower-value tasks to?

My approach in looking at how to add hires is the same advice that I would give a client. That’s to look at where’s my highest and best use? My highest and best use was not being a recruiter. It was going out, growing the business and bringing in new work. That’s what I love to do and that’s what I’m good at. If my highest and best use was being a grinder, I probably would have hired a business development person to augment that. I would have delivered the service instead. I don’t know that there’s one road map. My advice to anyone who’s at a critical mass and going, “I’m having a capacity challenge,” is to say, “Do you want to keep having a capacity challenge or have a sales problem?”

Walk the talk and do what you teach your clients to do. Click To Tweet

The pendulum is going to swing back and forth every day of the week as a small business owner. Where’s your highest and best use? Put yourself there and hire to augment that rather than trying to be a jack of all trades. I did add an assistant but not until we had hired a consultant. The assistant was the fourth person that came on board. My highest and best use is not administrative work, which we learned the hard way. We decided that we needed to augment that. Revenue producing people was important too if you want to keep putting your foot on the gas.

There are consultant readers who are going, “I already have a couple of people on the team. I want to hire the next person. I want to hire the first person, but I’ve had some bad experiences in the past. I don’t know necessarily how to find the right person. When I’ve found some people, how do I evaluate them?” What would be some best practices that you would offer that we definitely should be thinking about? What do we need to do in terms of finding good quality people and be able to evaluate them that they’re going to have the highest likelihood of success?

I love this question. This is my domain. It depends on what the role is. If you’re hiring for an assistant, a junior consultant or somebody that’s going to replicate you, hire for your strengths. One of the things that I see clients do often that is a misfire is they hire for their weaknesses with the thought process, “I’m not good at X so I need somebody that’s going to do that.” Oftentimes that creates a blub, especially in a small business where you’re looking to scale and grow. You need somebody to replicate you and to be one voice. You need to hire for your strengths. My advice is, “What are your strengths?” I can tell you that I am driven. I have a high sense of urgency. Winning matters to me. Interviewing my team, I ask questions like, “What does winning mean to you? What does it mean to achieve? Tell me what your core values are.” I’m diving into what they are. Is there work-life balance and vacations? Maybe that’s not the person for me because I need somebody that says, “Winning at everything and working night and day to get the job done.” Looking for core value alignment is foundational because your fourth hire is 25% of your business.

Talk a little bit more about that part on making sure that there’s alignment around culture and values. You said a lot of people would hire based on filling on areas they’re weak in. You should be making sure that you’re also hiring into your strengths. What do you mean about that?

CSP 114 | How To Get Referrals

I will give you an example. Let’s say you want to hire a business development person, “I’m at critical mass. I’m a great doer but I need someone who can help me go out and get some new business.” You’re going to need somebody with the sales skillset. Skills and cultural alignment are two different things. Skills are a combination of past experience. Culture alignment is, “At my core, what are my values?” Skills aside, you want people that have that cultural alignment with you and whatever that looks like. The last thing you want is a good salesperson that’s bringing in completely the wrong type of clients for your business. That’s going to be a disaster. You’re going to have a bunch of clients on your hand that you don’t want to do work for. My advice is to sit down and make a list on a piece of paper.

If you’re not at the point in your business where you have core values, go through that exercise. Figure out what’s important, “What’s our ethos? We do great work with great people. If you’re not great people, we don’t want you as a client.” That’s our first criteria. Look at what your values are, match that up with other people and explore that through a solid interview process. There are also amazing personality assessment tools. We use a couple of them within our firm and apply them with clients. That can help you take a pulse on someone’s natural tendencies. It can get some quick insight on, “What’s their sense of urgency? How is their attention to detail? How patient are they? What’s their introversion, extroversion level?” That can help as well.

You use Predictive Index, is that one of the ones you use?

We do. We love Predictive Index and we’re certified in that. Everyone in my team has taken it. We have several clients that are using it.

It’s amazing to come to work every day and have a team that executes your vision and goal. Click To Tweet

The consultants are thinking, “I want to bring on someone. I’ve identified that I’m a doer and I need a business development person or vice versa. I want someone who can implement it. I want to do more of the strategy division, the business development side of growing the firm.” Maybe they don’t have in their minds the financial ability to go out and hire someone that has the level of skills that they want to bring on. They can’t fork out an extra $150,000 to $200,000-plus to get the person they’re after. What’s your experience or your recommendation around bringing on someone who doesn’t have the level of skills they’re looking for? Have you found a more creative or better way to position and approach someone who does have a higher skillset, but you don’t have the financial ability to invest and hire them where they’re currently at?

There’s always getting creative with looking for someone that wants to be a part-timer like women that are re-entering the workforce after having kids or underserved market where you can gain a lot. Frankly, I did that with one of my employees. She was on maternity leave when I found her. She came on board three days a week to start. I ramped up to four days a week after her onboarding. She’s gone full-time as the kids have gotten older. That worked well for us and enabled me to spread out the financial burden as she was ramped up. I got lucky. It’s out there if you’re looking in the right places and you’re positioning yourself in the marketplace the right way. Otherwise, I would say if you want it, figure out a way to make it happen even if it means selling your car and getting a smaller car. You would probably reiterate the same advice that if you want it, you pull out all the stops to make it happen. I’m not sitting here looking at you with a smile on my face saying, “I only work twenty hours a week and I haven’t made any sacrifices.” I’ve made a lot of sacrifices and I work until 10:00 at night. Don’t let me kid you. You’ve got to take strategic risks and go for it in a calculated way.

What would you say to the person who goes, “I want to bring someone on, where do I find the right people?” Is there a go-to? Let’s say someone doesn’t want to go out and hire a recruiter necessarily. What are some of the alternatives? Are there certain job sites that are good? Should it be on Should they be posted on LinkedIn? Should they be tapping into their networks? I tell my coaching clients that are scaling up their business, I often share that they should always be building your bench with talents. What I mean by that is building relationships even though you’re not going to hire that person today, next week or next month. The more people that you know that you could tap into, that’s just going to make that process easier and smoother when you do have an engagement that you want to put them into or hire them. What are some recommendations you would have around where people could go or what they should be thinking about if they want to start building that bench of talent now?

The first thing is to go through an exercise of what you want and create some abundant clarity around what that is. Maybe you need to hire one person and it could go three different ways. It could be a business development person, a doer or an admin person. Create those three job descriptions and get them out to your immediate network so those people know that you’re looking. They can start keeping an ear to the ground for you. They’re going to send you, “I ran across this person the other day. They said they might be interested,” then you can interview. If you find the right person, it can be a strategy shift. You might think you need business development and land in the best assistant, hire that person and change your strategy. All of my employees came by way of me drawing a line in the water to my network and saying, “I’m going to be hiring this person later on down the future, who do you know?” I’m always interviewing. I’m always having coffee meetings and interviewing from my own team to make sure.

If you’re waiting until you know you have an opening, you’re already two months behind. If you’re pipelining, which is what I’m hearing the advice you’re saying, you’ve already got people on deck that you’re talking to and you’re working through your list all the time. LinkedIn is another great place to go to run some searches on what’s in the market. You might think you need something and then you might run a search in your local market. You go, “There are only two of these people that have that skillset. I either need to call both of them or I need to reach for what I’m looking for because this isn’t a viable strategy for my business.”

CSP 114 | How To Get Referrals

Another question I have for you, Katie. Clearly, you’ve been successful in getting your business to where it is. I had a conversation with a coaching client who is new to consulting but they’re looking to build their team right away. A concern that they have is because they have been speaking to the marketplace and the clients about them doing all the work, clients would have a concern when they start putting a team member on the projects. This is quite common. This comes up a lot because if you start off as a consultant, you think it’s all about you. You’re doing all the work. You’re worried you’re going to lose a client. A client’s not going to be happy if you start putting someone else into that role. What has been your experience and what are your thoughts around that in terms of the best practice for the consultant being the consulting business owner to be able to put other team members into projects so that they don’t need to be the ones doing everything themselves?

First of all, I want to acknowledge the fear because it’s absolutely real. In our company and our vision, it’s scary. Going back to my advice about hiring for that core value alignment, if you get the right people in a place that reiterate your vision and have that same values that you do, the fear is better. It doesn’t go away but it’s definitely better. You have this new fear of, “What if my client likes them more than they like me and then my employees quit?” There’s always going to be something to be afraid of. Push it aside because you’re going to let it hold you back or you’re going to just acknowledge the fear and press on. We’ve been lucky in that we’ve taken an integrated approach. My approach to onboarding is that for the first 30 days, my team is not expected to do any work. It seems crazy but that’s the investment that I wanted to make. I want you to understand our business. I want you to get your feet under you with no expectation of production. I’m going to watch you learn. You’re eventually going to start taking things on. Both times that we’ve done this, within the first or second week, we have a producing employee that’s coming up with ideas and saying, “Here are ways I can add value.” It will alleviate the pressure. Then start bringing them out to clients making that introduction, partnering with them.

Getting that human leverage is a time-consuming process. Because of that, I have employees on-site with clients where I’m not on-site anymore. They’re just updating me on what’s going on. We do still have a process that I always want to know what’s happening. If the client calls me, I better be able to answer a question or have a mechanism to turn around and answer really quick on what’s going on. Some of it is relinquishing control, which is terrifying. This idea that, “No one else is going to be able to do it than I am,” is a fact. It doesn’t mean that it’s not going to be better than the way I’m going to do it. It’s just not going to be exactly the same and that’s okay. We also have a process handbook. We have defined core values. We have processes for getting together on a regular basis and sharing information because my team is fairly remote, out on-site at clients. There are mechanisms in place so that I don’t feel like I have rogue people running around and I don’t know what’s happening.

Hire to augment your highest and best use rather than trying to be a jack of all trades. Click To Tweet

Take us back to the first time or situation where you had a client you were working with and you want to introduce a new team member into that project. This is with the idea of that new team member taking over your direct involvement with that client and in that project. What did you do? What did you learn? How did you position it successfully so the client accepted that without too much objections?

I involved a client in the whole process. I told the client, “I’m going to be extending an offer to somebody. I’m excited. I hope that we land her. I hope she accepts the offer letter.” The next time I spoke with the client, they were invested. They said, “Did she accept? Is she coming on board?” I said, “She did and she is. If it works for you, I want to introduce you to her. Next time I’m out here, I’m going to bring her along.” They said, “Absolutely.” They were invested into the success of my wind right up as a gate. It wasn’t like I did it in a silo and then said, “Surprise.” I made them a part of the process, which was fun. We started transitioning the relationship meetings. I stayed involved for a while until that employee had built trust. She’s off to the races and has better relationships than I do with that client. She knows more about the client than I do, which is great.

Involving the clients with saying those expectations, making it a part of it from the beginning is a great way to do it. Rather than just rolling out new service you think about in your own mind, trying to get your clients involved and making them part of it often leads to a more successful adoption of it.

It’s unique with us being in hiring because we’re hiring for our clients and for ourselves. We want each other to be successful. Our goal as a consultant for our clients is to help them get further up the mountain. There’s a surefire number of ways to make that happen. That’s what I’m doing as the CEO of my company. My clients are my partners in that. I want them to feel good about the people that are on their team. That buy-in is crucial.

Katie, I want to thank you for coming on and sharing your journey, wisdom and best practices that you’ve collected along the way. Where should people go to learn more about you and your company?

You can visit us on the web at Links to videos and all of our social media stuff are there. We have some fun giveaways and some resources you can download on the web to interview guys in hiring and things like that.

Katie, thank you again for coming on.

Thank you.

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