Consulting contract comprises the consultant’s and client’s commitment to be fulfilled, such as the deliverables and fees. Michael Zipursky brings a leader in consulting services, Karen Jenkins, the President and CEO of KRJ Consulting, to talk about how she entered the consulting world and how to win and deliver high-value consulting contracts. Karen shares how she carries her marketing skill set to the consulting business and the mindset she acquired from the lessons in her journey, leading to her finance and consulting success. She tells about the strategy and planning to start building her corporate clients and handling the clients’ expectations effectively. Follow along to this conversation and learn some ideas about closing contracts, business development, and building relationships.
I’m with Karen Jenkins. Karen, welcome.
Thank you. I appreciate you inviting me.
Karen, you’re the CEO and President of KRJ Consulting, where you provide a full suite of consulting services from leadership consulting to organizational consulting. You’re a speaker, an author, a finance expert. You’ve also been recognized as a Woman of the Year by the Enterprising Women Magazine. You won a whole bunch of other awards. You’ve also been doing some mentorship with other businesses in your local area there. Your background, let’s start there because you’ve been an adjunct professor. You’ve been in the mortgage banking world. Bring us up to speed for everyone reading. How did you get into the world of consulting?One of the biggest lessons with marketing is it's not who you know; it's who knows you. Click To Tweet
It was not by choice. I was in banking, and then mortgage banking for 23 years. As far as I knew, that was going to be my plan. I was going to go up the corporate ladder and retire from there. My first transition came in 1996. I had been with the bank for about twelve years, and they wanted me to relocate to Charlotte. I’m in Columbia, South Carolina, and we don’t have traffic here, and Charlotte has some real traffic issues. I got a position with another small mortgage company called RBMG. There were two independently owned mortgage companies at the time. Countrywide was one. They were the big monstrosity and we were the little guys.
I loved that. It’s similar to what I was doing with this on the mortgage side. I thought I was going to retire from there. I was there for eleven years, and then I got laid off in 2007. When I looked around at the time, there weren’t many positions that were on the level that I was looking for. I did not want to relocate. I was guided into opening up my own mortgage company. My nephew had relocated here to Columbia. We got together and opened up a mortgage brokerage firm in 2007. You know what happened in 2008. Because of my mortgage banking background, a nonprofit reached out to me in 2008 looking for somebody with my expertise, because I am also a certified mortgage banker. Everybody that was in the state was facing foreclosure. They had a program set up to help prevent foreclosure. I signed up with them. They wanted me, but not my mortgage company because mortgage becomes a part of the problem.
I created KRJ Consulting to be a service product for them. From April to December 2008, we saved about 148 homes. We probably could have done more, but everybody didn’t turn in their paperwork on time. In 2009, we went more to an outreach for them and an intake. We went out marketing the program, letting everybody know that it was available. We did the intake of the clients and then send them down to Charleston for the actual one-on-one counseling. That was eye–opening for me. From a financial literacy perspective, I realized that about 65% of the people that were there didn’t have to be.
I wrote a book called Nobody Told Me! The Path to Financial Empowerment, to help those people who had gotten in that financial ditch. That’ll give them tips on how to get out, and those people that were headed that way, how to prevent yourself from going in that path. There was business, but there wasn’t business. I became an adjunct professor for a couple of local colleges here and loved that. That was the opening for me that I realized I love teaching. I love helping other people get empowered to use their superpowers. I’ve decided at that point in 2012 to rebrand KRJ Consulting to be a consultant training and development firm. I’m sure that your readers may have it there, but here we have a small business development center funded by the small business administration. They are awesome consultants that provide support to local small businesses at no cost.
We have about 22 in our state alone, so I know there’s a whole bunch around the country. Working with them, I came up with my strategy and my plan. I got introduced to Federal Government contracting. In 2013, I got signed up to start doing business with the Federal Government. I’ve been in that space ever since. We’ve looked at leveraging our offering that we have with the Federal Government to now go to the corporate side and small business as well.
You mentioned that when you were in that nonprofit role, you went from working with them to now, the second stage was almost doing outreach and marketing the program for them. I didn’t hear you talk much about your marketing skillset, or that you had a deep level of experience or expertise with marketing. How did you even feel about marketing? What did you learn from that experience that you took with you to your consulting business when you restarted that?In business, relationships are important because people do business with people they know, like, and trust. Click To Tweet
One of the biggest lessons I learned with marketing is it’s not who you know, it is who knows you. When you talk about marketing to people, a lot of people confuse marketing and sales. When you hear the word sales, the first thing you think about is the insurance agent knocking at your door, somebody trying to sell you something you don’t want. Sales is not about selling. Sales is about solving a problem. Every person in the world has a multitude of things, issues or problems that they need to have solved. If you are a small business or big business for that matter and you can provide the solution, it is easier to go out and get sales. You’re not going to somebody saying, “Give me your money.” You’re going to them saying, “You have an issue. Let me make sure you understand that I understand what that problem is. Here’s the solution that I can provide you.”
Would you say that belief and mindset has been beneficial for you in terms of going out to new prospective ideal clients and not be hesitant? I’ve seen this firsthand for the last decade–plus. There’s a lot of hesitation on going out to people that they don’t have a relationship with. Even those that do have a relationship with, sometimes they hesitate because they don’t want to come across as salesy. What do you tell yourself or any other advice that you might offer to people who know they have a lot of value that they can deliver and they can truly help people, but they are seeing that word sales and you can describe it as the insurance salesperson, or it’s more salesy and promotional but not focusing on value? What advice might you offer those people?
One of the most important words that you said in what you shared was relationship, because people do business with people that they know, like and trust. If I’m coming to you for the first time, and I could have the best product since sliced bread, if you don’t know me, why would you do business with me? The flip side of that is if you already have a provider, then I come in telling you that I’m offering some water. What makes my water different than anybody else’s water? I look at Dawn dish detergent for example. Dawn came into a market that was saturated. There was Joy, Palmolive, and many different dishwashing liquids, and most people were brand loyal. If you grew up with Palmolive in your house, that’s probably what you would have when you got older. It’s the brand loyalty.
What Dawn did was they came up with a differentiator. You don’t have to pour the entire bottle in the sink to get suds. They made a concentrated solution that cut grease, because that was the main reason you ended up having a new dishwasher. The question that you have to ask yourself is, what differentiates you? What is your secret sauce or unique selling proposition that makes you different than everybody else? When you talk about consulting, you’re talking about not necessarily a commodity or a product, you’re talking about a service. You’re talking about building a relationship. When I meet people, I meet people and build a relationship so that they can begin to know, like and trust me. When they do that, then they typically come around asking for my product.
All I have to do is make them aware that I have one. It’s like, “That’s Karen. That’s KRJ Consulting. Let’s call her or her team because we know what they offer.” The third thing that would be most helpful is when you provide your service to your client, you asked for testimonials. You can talk about your service and product all day long, but it comes well received when it’s coming from your clients telling about your greatness. I’ve seen a lot of people in the bottom of their email signatures, or maybe on the bottom of their card that says, “The best compliment that you can give me is a referral to somebody that you think that might need my service.” Ask your clients, “Who do you know that might also need my service?” If they walk you in the door, somebody is going to pick up the phone.
When have you found it most effective to ask for a testimonial? When do you do that? What have you found to work best?
Immediately following the delivery. If you walk away from that client, and it’s not that they don’t want to do it for you, they’re going to be busy. If you’re doing a presentation or a training, you can ask for volunteers at the back of the room to come and do, “Here’s a cell phone.” It’s that simple to have them record a video testimonial. I always do after action reviews or a survey. If I’m doing a speech, a training, or some type of meeting group where I’m going to give them a document where they can give some feedback. I need feedback. We’re not perfect with what we do. The best compliment that our customers can give us is feedback on how we can make it better. Those are the times immediately following that would be the best time.
What about referrals? Talk us through how do you approach referrals or what have you seen work best to get more referrals and introductions?
I love referrals. It’s back to specifically asking your clients, “Do you know 2 or 3 people that you can introduce me to, that might benefit from my service?” It’s back to the introduction. When you get to the introduction, you have to remember that your client trusted you enough to allow you to use their name. You have to come with your super A game. The other thing is, although they are introducing you to their friend, colleague or whatever, it doesn’t guarantee a sale. The last thing you want to do is walk in immediately and say, “Buy this.” When they’re introducing you, they’re introducing you so that you can begin to build that relationship. What value can you add to them before you even walk in the door to ask for any business? It doesn’t cost a lot. Is there an article that you read that you think might be beneficial to that client? Maybe you did a white paper that you can share to validate your past performance or your knowledge about that specific topic.
You’ve grown your business to how many people in your team?
We were at 34 earlier in 2020, then COVID happened. We’re down to 21 now.
What have you found is the transition from when you started the business where you were working in the business, doing all the delivery, and all that stuff to now? Walk us through the shift that you’ve made over the years like, “I started doing these things. Now, I’m focused on doing these things.” What does that look like?
It’s still a work in progress and it’s still a challenge. When I first started, it was a company of me. I was the chief cook and bottle washer. I was a salesperson. I was the person that delivered the service. As we began to get contracts, I hired people to go in the field to do the execution of the work. I stayed in and handled operation, but was still working in and not on the business. Once we got to a certain level, I realized I’ve gone beyond my cable. I cannot take on any more business. The only way that you can grow is you have to learn how to scale.
What was going on at that time when you reached that tipping point? If you could describe a little more like, “We’re at this level of revenue, or my hair was on fire.” What was going on for you, so that people could better identify that they might be in a similar place?
We had several contracts that we had with the Federal Government. We went after a big one. Thank God we partnered with another company and we did a joint venture. We’re a teaming agreement. We won the contract, which was going to add sixteen people on my staff, and another thirteen people on their staff. All together we were adding 29 people. The oxygen left the room. It’s like the, “We won our first big contract,” then all of a sudden, that oxygen leaves the room because you’re like, “Wait a minute. I have to deliver now. What does that mean?” I can’t do this by myself. What resources do I need to be able to manage this process and to continue to run my day-to-day business?If you're a small business and you're just getting started, document your procedures. Click To Tweet
My first hire was an administrative person that I knew that is my cousin. I told her, “Come on in. I have no idea where we’re going to, how are we going to do it.” The way that I described it is we were going down I-95 and try to change all four tires at the same time, and we were running about 80, 90 miles an hour. She had to come in and sit on my hip. This is one thing I will share with your readers, if you’re a small business and you’re getting started, document your procedures. It is hard to do because you’re doing this and doing this, and the last thing you think you have time for is documenting your procedures. What happened with me was everything I did was in my head. I knew where it was because it was in my head. I knew how to do it because it was in my head. Once you bring someone else on to ensure continuity of service and processes, you have to document that process. I had her sit with me and as I did it, she documented it and we got it out on paper so that we could have a set of fully documented policies and procedures. As we brought other people in, they knew what was going on.
What did that SOPS cover or the Standard Operating Procedures that you were building? Take us through it. Did you have the nitty-gritty of how to send an email or how to enter an invoice? Give us a sense of what level of detail were you going to? What were some of the first SOPs that you developed?
For the task that I had to get off of me, invoicing was critical because that’s how you get paid. How do you go into QuickBooks and send out the invoice? How do you submit it to the client? We had probably 4 or 5 contracts, and each one of them, maybe three were submitted through this channel and two were this way. There were different ways of submitting invoices. How do you verify that you’ve got your invoices back in a timely manner? You don’t want your outstanding invoices to go long. When we did onboarding and when we got a new contract in, what is our onboarding process? We had to document that. How do we hire people? We ended up getting to a point where we outsourced our payroll. As a part of that, they brought in an HR component.
We didn’t have to do that anymore, but we did have to document now that we’re passing off that function. There were things within that are in-house that we had to still be responsible for. We had to write down, “You company, you’re going to handle this for us, but what is our role and how do we reach you?” What else did we document? Sending out invoices, paying invoices, the onboarding of staff. Those were the major ones that we initially started with. You have to have people that can do that function if you’re not there.
When you mentioned that you won a big contract, is it fair to say that in many cases, you would focus on winning the business first, and then find the talent to fulfill that delivery? Is that accurate?
In a lot of cases when we talk about Federal Government side, when you go after the contract, you have to know you have a pool of candidates. The last thing you want to do is sign a contract that you’ve been awarded and realize you don’t have it. You want to test the market. In a lot of cases, some of the contracts will require you to do some mini-recruiting ahead of time and get letters of intent. You’ll do some mini–recruiting, find potential staff and say, “If we get this contract, you’ll come on board,” and do it that way. There’s a lot of grinding when it comes to these federal contracts and being able to do that. In some cases, you might pick up the staff from the previous contractor. Sometimes you don’t even know if there is one. You have to be prepared. It‘s probably worse with federal contracts, but I know corporate contracts are the same way. Don’t bite off more than you could chew.
What have you learned most about federal contracts? A lot of consultants stay away from the whole federal or government contract, regardless of where you are in the world, because it screams things like RFPs, 50, 100, 200 pages of documents, and a lot of work. For someone who might be thinking about tapping into it because it can be a lucrative source of revenue and a great way to diversify, not necessarily right for everyone, but for someone who’s considering that, what advice might you offer them? What would be the 1 or 2 things you would say, “If you’re going to do that, you need to make sure that these things are in place?”
My recommendation is that the first venture into government contract should be as a subcontractor, which means that there’s a prime contractor out there that has all of the RFP responsibility, all of the contract compliance responsibility, all of the reporting responsibility, and they hire you to come in and get introduced to that space. That gives you a chewable chunk that you can get acclimated to a process. It’ll trickle down whatever is required. You don’t have to have this big, mammoth 100, 200-page RFP, and then your response back to them is another 75, 80 pages back. It is a lot of luck. It is not for the weak at heart, but it can be lucrative.
It’s different from commercial. You have commercial decision makers that can make a decision on drop a dime based off of a relationship or whatever. It is not that way. The Federal Acquisition Regulation they refer to as the FAR is this big, huge, monstrosity of a database that you have to know. In the contract itself, they’re going to not put those words in there. They’re going to reference the portion of the FAR that you are now obligated to abide by. You signed it, so you have to abide by it. There are small businesses out there that do well, making lots and lots of money in the sub-contracting capacity.
We have some clients that we work with who do that. I know it works well for them. You’ve done a lot of government contract work over the years. You mentioned you’re venturing into doing more work in the corporate sector. Why? What’s the strategic thinking behind that decision?
To diversify, to not be solely dependent on the Federal Government. You may recall the last government shut down in 2019, we weren’t as negatively impacted as others because our dollars were previously allocated and committed, so our contracts continued. There were other federal contractors that when the Federal Government froze, they stopped working. The federal employee stopped working, but when they came back 30 something days later, they were paid in arrears. They got caught up on the monies that they lost. These small businesses did not have that pleasure. Being able to take our service, our product and offering, and go out and help others outside of the government, we still want to stay there, but we think we can have an impact.
What shifts are you making to be able to pull it off successfully? What does that strategy look like? What are you doing or planning to do to start building the pipeline of corporate clients, and essentially do your marketing and client acquisition effectively?
I’m going out now building relationships. I’m putting myself out right now to have people know who I am, to learn how to trust me, and to hopefully like me. Once I do that, when I get to the point where I can start having that conversation about our services and the solutions that we bring to solve their problems, I will have an ear, versus me cold calling and picking up the phone and try to talk to someone. I’ve joined several organizations where I’m serving. I’m always in my servant leadership role. I’ve always done that, but now I’m doing it from a sense of I’m going to serve. I will continue to serve, but in serving, I’m going to meet other servant leaders with who I could potentially do business.
What’s your thought process around the timeline in terms of expectations? Are you coming into this going, “I want to generate new corporate business within 60 days, 120 days?” Are you thinking a year, two years, five years? What’s the time in your mind that would be acceptable that you’re working towards where you think the actions that you’re taking and the relationships you’re building start to bear some fruit for you?
I’ve gone through the Emerging Leader Program sponsored by the SBA. Goldman Sachs has a 10,000 Small Business Program that I completed at the end of 2019. Those were phenomenal programs, both of them. Both of them required me to do a growth plan. My growth plan said that I was going to diversify my portfolio, and I want it to have five large corporate contracts within the next three years. That doesn’t mean that I’m not going after small contracts in the corporate arena. You got to crawl before you walk, and you want to chew off little chewable chunks. In the immediate future, we’re looking at building the relationship, and then landing a couple of smaller contracts, and then leading up to some of the larger contracts over the next three years.
You have this team of twenty somewhat people right now. It sounds like you’ve shifted. Are you doing any delivery work yourself or is that all within the team?We're not perfect with what we do, and the best compliment our customers can give is feedback on how we can make it better. Click To Tweet
I pick and choose. For the Federal Government, I have a staff that does 100% of that work. For the corporate work that we’re designing. I pick and choose. I do some of it. Not that this was a job. I finished serving as the entrepreneur in residence for the Richmond Library. I loved every minute of it. I wish I could do more of it. That was something that was passionate for me, and that I felt I had time to commit to. I have a couple of corporate clients here locally that may be looking for some high-level leadership development. I won’t do all of the delivery, but I will participate in the delivery, whereas in the past I probably would have done all of it.
I’m asking this because one of the shifts that you’ve made over the years is you’ve gone from doing a lot of the work and all of it yourself, to building the team. Now it gives you the ability to go out and say, “Let’s diversify into new markets.” You haven’t said, “We’re going to get a marketing firm to do our marketing for us.” You’re taking a lot of that business development role, spending the time building those relationships, planting those seeds with a view to the next few years to make that happen. That would be a real challenge.
I know a lot of consultants have a hard time spending time on their marketing, sales, business development, and building relationships because they’re busy delivering on work. Any thoughts, recommendations, ideas, or best practices that you would offer people who they might be in that place where it’s them, or maybe they’re a small team of 5 or 10 people, but they’re still involved in the business in all aspects? Anything that they should be thinking about, looking for, or doing to work more on the business and be able to do more strategic work rather than hands-on work?
I wish years ago I would have learned this lesson that I needed probably administrative assistant long before I hired one. There were many things that I was doing that I had no business doing. At first, it was chicken or the egg. You can’t afford to bring somebody on, so you do everything, then all of a sudden you get busy. Now you can afford it, but you’re too busy to slow down to find the right person. Outsourcing is a good strategy to not have to incur a full labor staff person. We hired out our payroll. We hired out our HR. We were looking to hire out our marketing, but it was expensive.
When we were solely in the federal space, that marketing strategy is different that we didn’t need a traditional marketing strategy. Now that we’re in the corporate space, we’re having to switch gears a bit. We have interviewed several marketing firms that from a budgeting perspective, the money that they wanted for what we were looking for was like, “Eh.” We tried to hire a media specialist. She came in and worked with us for a couple of months. It wasn’t a good fit. We found a mini–solution that is going to help us get around the social media, updating our website, sending out our newsletters and blogs. We’re testing that out over the next 90 days. I know business owners are like, “This is mine. I created it. Nobody can do it better than me.” Yes, they can. That’s used to be my thought. It’s a trust thing.
There are many people that get laid off and they think, “I’m good at social media. I’m doing it for myself. I can go out and offer my social media services to this company. I can be a consultant. I can be at this and I can be at that.” I’m not undermining or talking about anybody, but you have to be careful about the people that you hire. Just because they put that consultant, marketing, or specialist behind their names, it does not mean that they bring the skillset that you’re looking for. Sometimes they’re trying to make a living for themselves. Your need maybe a little higher than what they can give you. Ask for references and referrals from people that you like what you see they’re producing. Find out who they’re using.
It’s a good point. It’s one thing for someone to say, “I can do that,” but it’s a whole other situation to see, have they done that before? Do they truly understand your specific situation? This is the mistake that a lot of consultants do make early on. They try and outsource their marketing too early, and I mean their marketing strategy, when the people that they might be getting to help them might be good at doing certain aspects of marketing, but they don’t necessarily understand the market that they’re targeting, therefore, the strategy doesn’t play out. For someone like yourself who understands the market and has the strategy, but is looking to get somebody to help them to support or roll that out, that’s where bringing in other people or those that have experienced doing that specifically before can help.
With whoever you outsource to, I have a nonprofit that somebody want me to outsource getting my nonprofit status. I did my AA with the government that somebody wanted me to outsource that. The issue with outsourcing is they can’t do anything without your knowledge, your know-how, your guidance, and your direction. They’re moving the tiddlywinks, but you have to design them. If you don’t know your vision, mission, or elevator pitch, they can help you come up with one. If you don’t know what your core values are, if you don’t know what your brand identity is, that’s where they can help you. You got to know those other things so that they can help you create that. All of that comes from you. It’s not like, “Here, take this and go handle it.” You are an integral part of defining what it is that you’re looking for. A good marketing firm will point that out to you in the beginning and say, “You have to give me this. You have to design this in order for me to be effective.”
Karen, I want to thank you for coming on here. A lot of great lessons, ideas, and best practices that you shared. I want to thank you for that. Where’s the best place for people to go and learn more about your work, your team, and everything that you have going on?
Our website is KRJConsulting.com. We are also social media @KRJConsulting. Under my name, @KarenRJenkins is my handle for all of the social media like Twitter and LinkedIn. We’ll love to connect with your readers.
Karen, thank you for coming on.
Thank you for having me.
- Nobody Told Me! The Path to Financial Empowerment
- @KRJConsulting – Instagram
- @KarenRJenkins – Twitter