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Episode #86
Nancy Halpern

Leveraging Relationships To Win Consulting Business

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It is vital to build and maintain relationships as part of your continuous business development with your existing or potential clients. Talent development consultant Nancy Halpern’s way of doing this is by spending four or five nights out of every week taking a client out for a drink, having dinner, and staying in touch. According to Nancy, these are ways of honing your message as people enjoy getting together and spend time with people they like. In reality, this may not have an impact on the business right away as it might take time, but it will eventually bring that lead flow and well of referrals or opportunities. Find out how you, too, can create possible business opportunities by leveraging relationships.

I’m very excited to have Nancy Halpern joining us. Nancy, welcome.

Thank you. I’m happy to be here.

Nancy, for those who don’t know you, take a moment and explain what you do.

I am a talent development consultant. What that means is for the past years, I’m hired by typically medium-sized corporations to work with their rising talent and senior leaders, who may have hit a roadblock as well as with their teams who are a little stuck, be that stuck in strategy, be that stuck in cross-functional working relationships. I have an MBA, which helps a lot to understand businesses. My background before then was I ran a ballet company. That’s helped me as a sole proprietor be very good about being resource-constrained.

You mentioned that you work with, in most cases, midsize companies. I do know that you’ve also worked with large organizations like Novartis, Dow Jones, Bank of America, Oglivy and Mather, PWC, a whole bunch across the globe. Before consulting, you mentioned you were running this ballet company. What were things like before you got into consulting? Did you go straight from the world of ballet into consulting? What did that path look like for you?

CSP 86 | Leveraging Relationships


I rose quickly in nonprofit work after college. I was quickly over employed for my skill set. Perhaps I’m being unduly modest. I was pretty scared when they made me an Executive Director at 26. I had no idea why a balance sheet had to balance. I had employees. I had a school. I had performances. I had stage unions. There was a lot of stuff to deal with. I was driven to go to business school by two things. One, I thought I needed to know more. The second was I hated knowing what I’d be doing at 40 at the age of 26. If I stayed on the path I was on, I assumed kept rising. I thought that was boring to know the future that much.

When I went to business school, I ended up going to Yale. The great thing with Yale is you’re surrounded by smart people. The bad thing was I was scared again by how much I didn’t know. When I left Yale, I didn’t want to go back into nonprofit. I stumbled into a job in the retail industry. After about six years, I ended up as a vice president for a company that was importing about $1 billion at first cost. For anyone who has any retail experience, what you pay in the store is three times that. That was many years ago. It was a huge job. I ran warehousing operations, customer service and vendor negotiation.

When I was out of a job due to an acquisition by Target, I wanted to leave that industry as well. I didn’t love the retail industry. I felt my impact was small. When I was in outplacement, I was looking around and someone else said, “There’s a consulting firm who’s looking to hire a presentation coach.” I knew nothing about that but I had always been a good presenter. I went up the street. They were a block away. It was part-time so they were willing to take a chance. I stayed with that consultant firm for eight years and grew into a field that was very nascent at the time, which was frankly coaching.

I was a little misspoken when I said medium-sized companies because you’re right, Novartis was my first client at the firm and they’re still a client now. At the time, I enjoyed the business development piece of being introduced to a large client and figuring out how to sell it. I was with the firm for about six to eight years. I went in-house at Guardian Life Insurance to head Talent Effectiveness, which meant mentoring, performance management and talent reviews, succession planning. I learned the language and the tools of one of my key customers, which are HR. I realized after about eighteen months I missed consulting. I missed the variety that consultants have. I cut a deal with Guardian. They let me go and hired me back as a consultant. It enables me to build a book of business with other clients that I had left behind when I was with the firm. I’ve been on my own for a couple of years now.

When you said that you went back to the book of business that you had or you built up a book of business as an independent consultant, it sounds like some of your first clients in that business were past clients that you had worked with when you were at the previous consulting companies. Is that correct?

Everybody has to find their rhythm. If you sell too hard, you turn people off. If you don't sell at all, you never get a gig. Click To Tweet

That is correct.

How did you navigate that? Not from a legal perspective, although I’m interested in exploring a little bit around what that looked. I’m guessing that any of rights that would hold you back from reaching out, non-confidentiality or restrictions were probably expired by that time. I’m interested in digging into how did you reach out to those people? How did you go back to them? A lot of consultants have networks or potential assets that they’ve built up over the years. When they go into consulting themselves, they don’t necessarily always know how to leverage those past connections and networks that they’ve built up. Let’s start exploring how did you make that happen when you left to start your own consulting business and go back to these past clients?

To clarify, I did have a non-compete and it had expired so that was well-timed. Having a dormant network is one of the independent consultant’s both largest assets and biggest stumbling blocks. Meaning it’s there, but have you leveraged it to your advantage? When I started my own practice, keep in mind that being out of it for eighteen months is not that long. No one was that cold. I just had people who were warm. The other thing is whether intentionally or not, and now I do it intentionally, I had formed business friendships with a couple of key hires or key people from my consulting days. I could go back to them and say, “I loved working together before. I am now consulting again,” or “There have been some big changes in my life, are you free for dinner? We haven’t seen each other in ages.” I would revive those relationships. It helps to go back to any former employer or former client especially if you’ve done more than one piece of work. I have also learned that at the first meeting if you’re trying to revive a dormant contact, I don’t always ask for business at the first meeting. I used to, and I always felt awkward and uncomfortable.

Asking the first time, you said you felt awkward, which a lot of people would resonate with. Did it work? Were you getting business as a result of asking for a business that first meeting when you were active in the network?

I’m trying to remember back. If I had already done business with them, then it was an easier slide. If it was someone I didn’t know as well, it’s more difficult. Perhaps it was my natural style but I found it easier to reestablish the relationship, put a little bit time into it and to talk about the work I’ve finished doing. Seeing how people respond and asking them what’s going on for them, “How’s the team working out?” Everybody has to find their rhythm. If you sell too hard, you turn people off. If you don’t sell at all, you never get a gig.

CSP 86 | Leveraging Relationships


It makes a lot of sense. A lot of people would resonate with that. When people are faced with, “I need to generate business now,” sometimes the idea of investing more into the relationship, providing more value upfront and letting a little bit of time go on before you start asking for an opportunity to work together scares people. They want to rush to say, “Is this person going to work out or not?” What everyone sees is as you deliver more value into a relationship, it may not generate business right away. Long-term wise, it typically works favorably.

On the flip side though, I would say that in the early years I took any piece of business I could find. What I discovered, and I suspect other people do, some of it I wasn’t very good at. It helped pay the bills, but I may not get rehired. I was okay with that because as an individual consultant, I was learning what I wasn’t good at as much as I was what I am good at. It’s contradictory advice, grab anything you can in the early days if you need too. There’s no shame in that. Be open to the fact you may not get a repeat piece of business and what you’re trying to do is narrow down your value proposition.

You’re right, it’s the evolution. Things aren’t getting stuck into stone right away. A lot of consultants almost over analyze or try to have everything perfect early on. It’s getting out there, working with clients, trying different things, seeing what works both for you and for the client, what generates results. Adjusting your messaging or if it’s your website or overall value proposition or service offerings as you get real feedback from the actual marketplace and feel what you yourself as a consultant enjoy.

The other mistake I see a lot of newer consultants make is saying they can do almost everything under a general umbrella. It doesn’t distinguish you. They’re so afraid they’re going to lose a piece of business if they put twenty things that they can do well. The truth is they don’t seem to have a niche or expertise in anything. I have seen some other people do very successfully. It wasn’t as successful for me because my background was different. I know someone. She was HR in the event planning space. She was able to go to the association of event planners and suggest things she could speak about, which would expose her to potential buyers, or she could find the competitors and pitch herself. I knew another consultant who came from the insurance industry. She was not good at generating business. She was nervous about it. We talked about it because she was in the firm. I said, “Why don’t you focus on the insurance industry? You’re going to speak their language anyway. You will resonate with them.” It helped her. She didn’t restrict herself there, but it helped to build a base of business. That’s the biggest challenge is how do you build an initial base?

Would that be your suggestion and recommendation for people who want to gain greater traction in their business? Is it to take a good look at where they’re placing their energy, focus and potentially look up to focus further and narrow in if they’re going too wide?

Revenue is unpredictable but expenses aren't. Click To Tweet

There are a couple of starting piece of advice. The one is to grab whatever business you can because you need to build a list of engagements. You need to practice. Don’t worry about it if it’s not perfectly right for you. If you can get it, if it’s small, it’s road work. The second is reflect back on your career and see whose language you speak so that you have an easier entry because of your own CV. The third piece of advice when you start is that I was always very aware that revenue is unpredictable, but expenses aren’t. I was a bear about controlling my expenses, meaning I didn’t get a virtual assistant. Even to this day, I don’t. I didn’t rent office space somewhere, even to this day I don’t, because I wanted to keep my expenses as low as possible since I couldn’t predict revenue. That has served me better in the downtimes.

Your business office is quite different from when you first got started from an experience perspective, client’s perspective and revenue perspective. You mentioned that to this day, you don’t have an assistant. Could that be holding back your growth? What thoughts have you had as you’ve explored? Does it make sense for you to have one or not? Why don’t you have an assistant? What’s the main reason for you now as someone who has a well-developed business?

There are a couple of reasons. I never found the right person. I tried a few virtual assistants. I realized I need to manage them more than I wanted to. I didn’t want to manage people, which is why I never built a firm. The things that they could do for me: reports, proposals, documents, I’ve decided to limit my social media exposure to only one platform, which is LinkedIn. I didn’t want someone tweeting for me. I couldn’t see the value proposition. They didn’t free up so much of my time that I was out there pounding the pavement. The biggest constraint that I have, and I suspect many of your audience do, is capacity constraint. They can’t help me with it. I could only handle four corporate clients at the same time because there isn’t more time. Nothing should impact the quality of the work I do. There are enough technology tools certainly for bookkeeping and things like that. It’s more successful to hire specific expertise when I need it on a project basis. I’m transitioning my own business model as a consultant where I’m building a set of tools based on my ideas rather than selling my time so that I can get away from that capacity constraint.

You’re productizing your service offerings so it would be a lot more skill and leverage within your business model. Looking at your business now, you talked about and shared with us what worked for you initially when you launched the business to get your first few clients and build up a book of business. What approach is the most effective for you to generate inquiries and leads for your business?

It’s endless business development. I have to spend more time than I’d like. My work is about finding work. That seems to never go away. I know for some consultants will tell you they have more work that they can handle. A lot of them are lying but maybe that’s my envy. I find it an ongoing thing. I will spend probably four nights or five out of every week taking a client out for a drink, having dinner and staying in touch. On top of that, there are lunches, there are emails. I’ll send them off an article or two. I created a database of all my Gmail contacts combined with my LinkedIn contacts. That list is 4,000 people. I’ve shied away a little bit from doing a constant contact letter, I’ve played with in the past. I found that blogging only made my friends and family happy but didn’t necessarily bring new business. I do HARO, which is Help a Reporter Out, periodically because it did get me in the Wall Street Journal once. It got me in Inc., Fortune, Forbes, HuffPost, which are nice credentials. It’s staying in touch with people and honing your message.

CSP 86 | Leveraging Relationships


What percentage of your time when you say business development do you spend with existing clients versus reaching out to new prospective clients?

I probably spend too much of my time with current and former clients and not enough prospecting because prospecting is the hardest part. Although, I find the best way from your prospect is to go to small events. If I’m going to an event with 100 to 200 people, it’s hard to meet people. I don’t like networking events, I suppose. In that crowd, even if it’s in your industry, it’s hard to find the right event where people have the right level. I went to an industry event. I met the local chapter head. I don’t have an office, but I do belong to a club in the city. Everyone likes going there. If I buy someone a cup of coffee or a drink there, they love the idea of getting together again. This new person is head of human resources at a major bank. I’ll make a few comments at the very end of the meeting about some sexy stuff I’m working on. Hopefully, I bombed it. I used that first prospecting meeting as a way to find something to talk about, be it someone’s new baby or someone’s long commute or the dreadful weather as a way to break some ice. That’s how I look at that prospecting meeting.

We’ll break down that process a little bit because I think it’s quite interesting. You find relevant events. You go to the event. You focus on providing value, building a relationship with someone. You invite them to have a coffee or a drink at this club that you’re a member of it in the city. That’s a business country club type of thing. It’s like a club. You might have a workout area, spas, restaurant, that kind of club.

I belong to a university club. There were some sexy places in the city now. There’s a place called New House. These are places that are ostensibly for upscale networks. The nice thing about them is they have coffee bars. They have plush seating. They’re impressive physically.

People want to go and they enjoy, “Nancy’s inviting me for a drink or a coffee at this place. That sounds great.” They meet you and you have a nice conversation. You’re not focusing on a sales conversation, you’re meeting socially. As a result, that may turn into an opportunity to work together.

The more people know your name and what you do, as long as they're the right people at the right level, then that's a good thing. Click To Tweet

It may or referral. Referrals are funny things. I got a referral for a new client because I worked with his wife years ago. I had an email pop in because they were referred by Credit Suisse. I hadn’t worked with Credit Suisse in several years. Those things are surprising. I realized that not everyone could afford to join a club. It’s easier being for me in New York City. Something else I’ve done is I have small social events in my home. Once I had HR leaders. Even if there were six of them, how many vendors that I’ve known each of them well, but they didn’t know each other? My hook was I know a lot of great people. I would love for them to know each other so you could expand your own network.

One of our clients, Adam invites his clients together for a monthly poker night. It’s such a great way to build relationships and add value without focusing on sales. People enjoy getting together. At the end of the day, people like to spend time with people that they like. Creating that type of environment is effective. For us too, when we do events with clients, we aren’t just getting together. It’s nice to talk virtually but being able to sit together and share a drink or whatever it might be, there’s something special about that. I want to jump back over to the event because you mentioned that you’re targeting specific industry events so that was one example. Many consultants feel the same way. They don’t necessarily like going to all different kinds of events. They find it a waste of time. You’re surrounded by a whole bunch of other people trying to sell you things. What have you found? What’re the criteria that you use to identify whether an event is worthwhile for you to go to or not?

First, the number of attendees. I’m looking for things that are somewhere between 20 and 40. Number two, a subject I’m interested in any way because it will attract like-minded people or at the very worst at least I’m not bored and regret it.

Can you give an example like an event that you went to or one that you’re going to, what would that topic be?

I’ve been to a TED Conference. TED does a series of stuff in New York City. They’re having dinner and presentation, which means it’s a limited number of people. It’s something in science. Frankly, I barely remember the topic. I would love to give a TEDx Talk. It would be great exposure for me. The more exposure I have to the people in TEDx New York because these events happen at TED Headquarters. The more I talk to them about the TEDx Talk I’m applying to what my topic is, helps raise my visibility. That’s a good event for me. Another event I went to SHRM, but I don’t belong to SHRM.

CSP 86 | Leveraging Relationships


That’s for an HR association, right?

Yes. It was an event where I knew one of the presenters, so she prompted me even better. I made sure to meet the chapter leader, who was signing people in. That’s the woman I invited for a drink at the club. She thinks we should have a breakfast meeting and talk about ways to explore working together. There was something else that occurred to me about this. I was going to say that conferences are expensive. I try to be selective about where I have a shot at. I also am looking for small speaking engagements. I jointly produced a small event with two other women and there I met someone who has a personal branding firm. She reached out to me, perhaps she wanted me to be a client where she thought I was a good referral source. I am a good referral source. I connect people all the time.

She connected me to someone she knows who’s president of a financial executives network. He’s invited me to speak at one of their events. That’s great because their members are CFOs and that’s a target market for me. I’ve been reading Adam Grant’s Give and Take. I used to be more of a matcher. I thought if I did something for someone, after a while, if there was no give back, I would drop them because there are only so many hours in the day. A lot of people don’t give back. The puzzle is you don’t know when, if, where and who will. I try to be generous. All it does is mean that more people know my name and what I do. As long as they’re the right people at the level, then that’s a good thing.

It’s common. You can see us in so many different aspects of life and business where if you try and be selective like, “Maybe I’m going to try and add some value here. If they don’t give back, I’m going to stop.” You might miss. You might hold back trying to add value for someone else and not one person is the one person that loves what you’re doing. That turns into something special. I’ve seen this play out too where you give as much value as you can without the expectation of getting something back. In the end, you’ll get back a lot more than you put in or regardless, you’ll feel good about giving. That’s how I’ve personally seen it. I know it was played out for that in that way for many others as well.

There’s also a strategic reason. You’re right, it does feel good. The strategic reason is it took me a long time to realize you play the long game if you go down this road of consulting. I used to think it was a short game. When I had a great year, I assumed every year would be like that. That’s not true. I had my best year a couple of years ago and my worst year last year because it’s a long game. It’s not in for this, out for that.

How do you deal with that? 100% everyone goes through that and it may not be necessarily like one year is good and the next year is bad or whatever. It might be week-to-week, day-to-day. These challenges that go on in our mind where our emotions swing and different things are happening. Sometimes people get down on themselves. It’s a real self-confidence issue, self-esteem, feeling like, “Am I cut out to do this?” I know I’ve definitely felt that way. I remember like early on in business having several moments like that I can still remember looking back, they were no big deal. I remember that time questioning. When you’ve gone through those things, how do you deal with it? How do you pick yourself back up and what have you found to help you in continuing to mark down that path?

It’s something everyone has and that you have to expect that it’s what you signed up for to get the freedom. It’s an unpredictable cashflow. I did a couple of things. One, I always made sure that I had the money from our quarterly taxes. If you pay estimated taxes, one of the problems is you’re earning this money and you think to have this money, but that tax bill is coming up. Always be stocking away that money for your tax bill. The second is I would pick a number which I had to earn. Anything over that was a nice surprise. Once I hit that number, I could breathe a little bit. The other thing is you have to track some of the macro factors that are hitting your business to make sure that it isn’t you. When things took a dip, I would like to brush off my networking and go talk to everyone I hadn’t spoken within six months or eight months or a year.

Did that help you?

It’s something that fell in my lap.

Nancy, looking back and analyzing maybe the situation, the times where things haven’t maybe gone as well in your business, do you think any of it can be attributed to that? Maybe prior to that, things were going well, and you’d be here maybe a little bit comfortable, a little complacent in certain areas around your marketing or prospecting.

Yes. In fairness, you’re busy doing the work. The problem of you is either doing the work or looking for the work. I absolutely think I did. I had all the work I could deal with. I didn’t worry because it’s always been a referral basis. In my field of leadership development, coaching and all those things, the field is saturated now. Everyone is a coach. I’ve been doing it for a couple of years. No one was a coach then. It used to be easier. A lot of my clients, big companies or medium-sized, and by medium I mean 5,000 employees. Those size companies are looking at more cost-effective ways to do it. From retiring executives to using mobile apps with little coaching hints that hand-tailored and/or frankly things like procurement departments would rather vet in Ernst & Young, who has frankly more liability insurance than I do. It’s easier for them to vet to big firms than 30 solo proprietors.

I had to take a look at some of the trends in my business. I did a five-year analysis and took a look at where my business came from, how some of my major clients I still had. The amounts they were paying me were rapidly declining. What was the number of high-priced engagements I was getting versus a low-priced engagements? To be able to say, “The environment around me has changed.” I can make 100 phone calls a day but I can’t change the macro environment. What can I do differently so I can stay in business and make the money that I want to make? That’s when I went out and got some consulting advice from guys who work with thought leaders and help turn ideas into products. That’s a big shift. That’s a big investment for me. It’s all my ideas and my experience. It’s being marketed and positioned very differently.

There are some great points on looking at what’s happening in the market and also the realization that everyone has had. You hit different stages in your business. Early on, it’s a struggle to get things going. When things start going well, then you hit capacity issues. Beyond that, you get so busy delivering that you maybe take your foot a little bit off the pedal as I call it on the marketing prospecting side. That may not have an impact on the business right away, but it might be months or even a year or more down the road. All of a sudden the lead flow, that well of referrals or well of opportunity starts to dry up and people have to think, “What do I do now?”

One of the best principles that we’ve seen is to ensure that you always have your foot on the pedal, that you’re always doing some activities in the prospecting, in the marketing department. Keeping in touch with your network, the marketplace, adding value even if it’s less, even if you don’t have as much time as you did before because you’re busy delivering on projects. Making sure that you still are having your foot on the marketing pedal to ensure that your lead flow doesn’t completely dry out. A lot of the points that you’ve made there I love and looking at ways to create greater leverage within your business model, within your service offerings and connecting that, align that with what resonates with the marketplace and your ideal clients is a smart move because it’s all evolution. Things don’t stay the same forever. That sounds like a good step that you’ve gone through to identify those next opportunities for you and your business.

I would say also be open to how technology creates other revenue streams. I do some work with a company that does all their delivery internally on an internal video system. They certainly don’t pay me my regular fee, but I gain experience working virtually via video platform in a high touch business. I don’t have to find a business. I can build those relationships too. That’s a nice little other revenue stream. If it produces $15,000 a year, that’s $15,000 I didn’t have before without having to find it. Be open to partnerships, be open to collaborations, be open to contracting work. Most people go into this because they’re independent minded. Some people stitch together stuff like a nice big quilt. Other people are individuals and they end up with one big term engagement. Relying on a few clients is always a precarious situation. I know it happens to me all the time. You have great clients, they’re big and so you’re drinking from the fire hose. After a while, it’s going to slow up.

You can drown. You can rely too much but there’s not enough diversification, too many eggs in one basket. You’re right, that can catch people off guard. It’s important to always stay on top of that. Nancy, thank you for coming on here, sharing some of your journeys, best practices and experiences with us. I also want to make sure that people can learn more about you and your work. Where’s the best place for them to do that?

It is

Nancy, thank you so much.

Thank you. It’s a pleasure, Michael.

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