Listen to the podcast here:
The Truth About Content Marketing For Consultants with Ian James
I’m very excited to have Ian James joining us. Ian, welcome.
Thank you very much.
You are a process consultant. What does that mean?
I help organizations with their business processes so that they run more smoothly and accurately with less errors. Ultimately, they’re better, faster and cheaper. It’s about efficiency by taking the waste out of the activities we do in the business.
I was going to ask you because I know that you started your career as a consultant with a company called GEC and worked internally with GE, but you mentioned that you had spent some time in the military in the UK. I’m wondering from that experience and also growing up in a household or with a father in the military, what lessons did you learn from those years that you find to be very helpful now in business?Beginning conversations with a simple question is a valuable skill that helps build relationships. Click To Tweet
The first one as a child moving around, I got very used to meeting new people and forming relationships very quickly. As a kid, you move school two or three times in say four years. You quickly learn how to make friends. That has proved very useful skill as a consultant because you parachute into a company and you have to build relationships with people very quickly. As an adult in the military, the leadership training that I got was invaluable. If anybody is out there who’s been in the military, you have a jumpstart on a lot of people because your ability to be able to apply the skills you learned in the military will help you with clients.
The first part there, you mentioned about moving around and being taken to different places and having to land on your feet quickly and meet new people and build relationships. If you boil that down to maybe the steps that you go through and it might be just unconsciously, what is your approach? Because I think there are many consultants who recognize the importance of developing relationships, but maybe they consider themselves to be introverts or they just don’t think of themselves as being good at meeting people or good at interacting with people. That’s a skill that you’ve developed and used to your advantage. What are some of the steps that you might suggest that people use and what has worked best for you to be able to land in this case corporate environments, but it might also be when you were younger that allowed you to move and to develop those relationships quickly?
Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, you have one key tool at the beginning and that is to ask questions. People like to talk about themselves and they like to talk about their work. It’s important to let them take a nudge along in the conversation, but by asking questions of people that you meet depending on what kind of consulting you’re doing. I know it sounds very basic, but you have to listen to these people. Most of the time, they know what they’re doing and they have a lot to say about what they do on a day-to-day basis. It’s important that you reflect the questions back to them. It’s a hugely valuable skill to be able to begin a conversation with a simple question. That’s all it takes but you that you don’t have to be very outgoing to say, “Tell me about your role in this company,” or “Tell me what it is that’s bothering you about this part of the process,” which is the questions I get to ask them. I’m not sure what other people do but developing a real interest in the people that you meet is critical.
That’s great advice. We had Lew Jaffe, someone who ran several businesses. He created over $1 billion in shareholder value. He exited a $1.5 billion organization and he came to one of our live events for some of our coaching clients. One of the things that he shared was when he was in the CEO chair hiring and working with consultants, what he looked for was not just the ability for people to ask questions, but the ability to ask meaningful questions. Because if someone comes in and asks a surface level question, it demonstrates and shows that they haven’t done their homework. That’s a quick sign that this is probably not going to be a good fit, so I like what you said there, Ian. Let’s fast forward. You then worked with GE and another company called GEC. Especially when it comes to GE because that’s a brand that many people are familiar with, what did you learn from those early experiences that helped you to ultimately start your own consulting business?
Certainly, GE and GEC had a big emphasis on process and my field is process. I’ve studied it as a graduate student, but what I learned was on the technical side of my particular field, I saw when things were not going well and when they were going well. The difference was mostly about getting the process right. Leadership’s important, but in as far as a leader can say, “We have to do things differently. This is not going well.” That ultimately ends up being about the process. Successful organizations, and GE at that time, was certainly a successful organization, have a firm grip of that processes. Because that’s where mistakes are made. That’s where things take time. That’s where costs get added, so organizations that can do that stuff really well do well and grow.
When you left GE and then later on started your own consulting business, how often did you mention or reference your experience at GE? Was that a big point of leverage for you to get your business going in the early days?
No. I know it sounds weird, but it didn’t occur to me to say, “I’ve been a consultant. I worked at GE.” It has come up in conversation. Usually, the client brings up because they do their homework too. If I’m doing my job right, especially when I’m making my pitch, I don’t want anybody to take the time to ask about me because they want to be talking about their business and their problems. That’s what I want them to focus on. It’s not that I have anything to hide, but to engage with a client and get them excited about the possibility that you can fix something is where my focus is. To be honest, I don’t need to bring it up. I may be atypical in that, but it doesn’t occur to me. I’m interested in the client.
Let’s switch to talk a little bit more about marketing and the experience that you’ve had marketing your business. When you emailed me, you said that you had to smile as the Consulting Success website described a lot of the problems with lead generation that you eventually cracked right over the years, but it would have saved you a ton of time and efforts not to mention money. What did you mean by that?
I like to think of myself as a good consultant, but when you’re a solo practitioner, which I am, that’s only half of the job. The marketing half is something I had to learn. It didn’t come naturally to me. My client base is spread all over North America. I did work in the EU as well. I had to learn how to build a sales process that was successful for me with very limited resources and it was a painful road. I made a lot of mistakes and lost a lot of money as an opportunity. I didn’t earn what I could have earned. Once I go and realized how to do it, things flowed much better.
What does that look like? Take us through your approach to lead generation that’s working best for you?Developing a real interest in people that you meet is critical. Click To Tweet
If I set aside repeat business, which I think I have to, if I’m looking for new clients, what I have done is I’ve set my website up as a lead generation machine. That’s it. I don’t do anything else. I don’t do cold calling. I don’t do networking. I’m busy working and I want to spend my time working on client sites. Eventually, I learned how to do my marketing online to the point where people would pick up the phone. For me, I can pick up the phone and my sales process from that point onwards is about qualification and some negotiation, but you’ve got to start with lead generation.
That’s great from a high level. Let’s go deeper and more specific. What have you done or what are you doing with the website that’s helping you to generate leads? If we look at maybe some of the aspects, I’m sure we can’t cover them all, but what are maybe some of the biggest ones that influence people contacting you through your website?
My site has a lot of videos. It started off as a brochure. I put my website out there and I said, “I’m a good consultant,” and nothing happened. Then I did some research and I realized that I needed to establish some credibility and I started to write articles, but it wasn’t until I hit video. I do a lot of whiteboard animation. I make things simple for people to understand. I get a lot of people coming to my site for basic process education. Among them are my potential clients.
Do they find you through Google searches? Do they find you through YouTube? Do they find you through some other path? What does the path look like for them to find you?
I experimented with AdWords, but it didn’t work for me. My clients come to me through Google searches. They see pages coming up in the rankings because of the content. It’s a pure content marketing play. If I was a smarter marketeer, I would supplement that with lots of social media. I am trying to build that up. I’m on a journey. I wouldn’t say I’m at the end of it at all. I’m still learning. The key to my success has been to develop interesting enough content for people to come to the site and say, “This guy has described my problem exactly. He’s described it very succinctly. He’s obviously solved it for other people. I would like to talk to this guy.”
One of the biggest challenges that people have when it comes to content is that beyond taking the time to create it and beyond the consistency of doing it over the long term is it can often take time for a to start working. When did your first video or content piece go up? How long has it been since you started that process where it’s working for you?
Believe it or not, it’s four years. It does take time, but I would say that I started to hit results about six to eight months. I was on the point of saying, “This video is expensive. I’m not sure if it’s working.” I started to get, I wouldn’t say a stream, but the beginnings of some impact on my search rankings. Some things I got lucky with to be honest. I check a domain name so that if you type in process consultant once you get past Wikipedia and all the not consultants who come up there, pretty much the number one as my domain name. The content has helped people call me and they constantly say, “I liked your videos.”
That’s a great share there and lessons for people because we’ve seen this from our business at Consulting Success. I know with many of our clients that we work with over the long-term, developing content and seeing the impact of it can be discouraging and it can certainly be time-consuming to a degree, but it’s long-term. It’s not going to necessarily create results for you in the short-term, but over the long-term, it’s this asset that you have. This source of value that will continue to pay you dividends and to bring you new opportunities. You mentioned it took at least six to eight months for the first sign that this was going to work for you and it’s great that you stuck with it, but what were you doing to supplement, to generate business in that initial eight months or so period when the content marketing play wasn’t yet working for you?
As I said, I experimented with AdWords. I also did a fair amount of networking. I am a bit of an introvert and I love facing a roomful of people and having to force myself to be in their presence and talk to them. I forced myself to do it. I got a couple of clients one of who was a long-term client and that got me through the depressing stages. To be honest, I think I could’ve done that better. There are different ways. I’m the kind of guy who would like to get a qualified lead and I can take it from there. I built a machine that gives me a qualified lead.
Do you mean your website?You need to understand the process and have a way of measuring its success so that you can continuously improve it. Click To Tweet
Yes, that’s the machine that spits out leads. I got a call I’ll follow up with that and I’ll qualify that potential buyer. I know by now I’ve worked out what I need to be sure before taking it any further than that. That was another area where I made mistakes in the early days by not understanding how to qualify a potential client.
One more question on the topic of marketing and before we dig into a few other things I think people will find a lot of value in. You mentioned that video is what’s driving your website, which is what’s bringing leads to you. Are you putting together videos based on the questions that you feel your ideal clients most likely have or that are their main pain points or are you doing something else? What are your thoughts or best practice around developing video content?
I would say this. It’s not a trivial undertaking. The key is having something interesting to say. I see it wherever I go. It’s pretty standard articles that look like they’ve been written by a contract writer who read everything they can possibly read about whatever the subject is and then they put together an article based on some like soup of all the bits and pieces that they’ve taken from elsewhere. I’ve seen my own writing appear in my competitors’ copy on the content and I’ve called them up and they said, “I didn’t realize a guy who’s writing this is plagiarizing,” but that’s what it was.
Back to your video, what are you doing with your content or your approach to creating the videos?
The process is I write a script. I record the script. I clean it up because there’s was a lot of ums and uhs. I send it to my animator with some ideas about how it can be animated and I outsource the animation part of it. He is very good. We’ve worked together for a long time, so we’ve developed an understanding about what I’m trying to do. He’s got better and better at it.
All your videos are animated videos. They’re not used in front of the camera talking.
I’ve done a little bit of that. I don’t like it because again, I’m an introvert and it’s harder for me to express that perkiness and professionalism. It doesn’t come naturally to me. I prefer to use video. I prefer to use animation and I don’t like to be in the picture too much.
I would also imagine that given your area of expertise, which is a process, it lends itself well to animations or whiteboard style videos, whereas a consultant in a different industry may do better by getting in front of the camera.
I admire the people who can do that. It’s very effective if you can do it and that’s just down to practice more than anything else.
You help your clients with building and mapping out processes for their organizations. When do you think a consultant should consider mapping out their own processes?If you get back to people right away, you're far more likely to close the deal. Click To Tweet
On day one. The first process is you need to understand your own sales process. How are you going to gather leads? How are you going to qualify those leads? How are you going to convert those leads? At what point do you give a proposal? Do you do a site assessment? Do you try and close the deal on the phone? Do you send the brochure? What’s your sales process and what’s going to work for you? That will vary from person to person, but it is the process that you need to understand and have a way of measuring its success so that you can continuously improve it.
Many of you would say, “I know what my process is. I know how I walk through or take a prospective buyer from initial contact to sale.” What’s the key? Is it putting it down on paper? Is it having it mapped out in some flow chart? What is the best practice?
Without a doubt and some people don’t like diagrams and I get that. If you write it down, it forces you to think about it. You may think you understand your process because it’s in your head, but as you have to try and express it on a piece of paper either by a diagram or in text, new thoughts will come to you as simply as a result of writing it out. It’s like learning a subject by teaching it. You have to think about it and understand something before you can fully understand it.
How often should you reviewing or referencing that process that they have now written down?
I think the step in between the review and writing the process down is the measurement. You would be reviewing the measurement. How many leads did I get? How many did I convert? I don’t close every deal. I go back and I do a postmortem. Was I too expensive? Did I not listen properly? Did I try and sell too many? Did I do too much consulting rather than trying to start with a pilot project to see how that goes? There are a million things, but you need to measure your process and then that will reveal where you need to tweak it.
I think that’s good guidance there. One of the things that we’ve found to be very helpful for many of our coaching clients and our program is looking at their CRM pipeline. Whether you like you’re at HubSpot or whatever platform you’re using, you should visually see how many leads you have. How many conversations, how many follow-ups, how many proposals sent, how many won, how many lost and how many you’re nurturing and so forth. Being able to go in and jump onto a screen share with a client and discuss the different elements. You said the measuring part is so important because in a quick glance I can tell how healthy someone’s pipeline is. I can identify areas where there might be a lot of money being left on the table. That’s one type of process that people certainly should be looking at. That point you mentioned around measurement is so important because if you’re not consistently analyzing or applying some critical thinking to your sales pipeline, you’re most likely going to be missing a lot of opportunities and leaving a lot of money on the table.
What I have discovered from a consulting point of view is my pipeline isn’t a funnel. It’s like a series of stages along the assembly line. The point of which the client is slowest is where they’re waiting for the right moment to start the consulting engagement. I have a bit of a bulge at that point in my pipeline, while a number of clients are sitting there trying to find a date to start a project. From my point of view, that’s peculiar to my industry but other people might find the same thing.
I would say that most people find the same thing if you’re dealing with any kind of complex sale or in a large engagement or sizable engagement where there’s high value and involves other people. That’s very normal and that’s the exact reason why nurture and follow up are so important. One of the biggest ways to increase sales is to ensure that you have a good follow up process, a good nurture process in place. Because starting the conversation and having a conversation with prospective buyers, that’s critical. If you don’t have that, there’s no follow up to be had. Once you’ve had an initial conversation, if you’re not consistently following up and staying on their radar, they’re going to end up forgetting about you. When the time is right for them, you want to make sure that you’re top of mind.
I’ll only issue a follow up if I can say that one of the things I learned early on was the speed of response to the inquiry. I’m working on a client’s site. I get an email. I don’t have to respond to that email immediately. I can carry on working and then call the next day. What I learned was that if you get back to that person within 30 minutes, which is my target time, then you’re about 60% more likely to close a deal. The way I’ve achieved that is I set it up so that I get a text message every time somebody fills out my contact form. I excuse myself at the earliest opportunity and I call that person back. I learned that that improves the likelihood of doing a deal.
You strike while the iron is hot.
It doesn’t really hang together. I don’t understand why people do that. If you get back to them right away, then you’re far more likely to close.
What I’ve observed is that it’s when someone is still thinking about that issue, they’re still passionate about it. They are “still hot.” When they reach out, that’s their hottest point. They are excited about it. That’s why they’ve taken action to reach out. As time goes on, they get busy with other things and their temperature cools down. The longer that you wait, the cooler they’d become and if someone else pops into their radar faster than you, they’re going to have the advantage. What you’re sharing is right on the market. It’s definitely true. I remember seeing studies in the insurance industry based on how quickly insurance agents respond to inbound inquiries and leads. Those that responded within the first few minutes had a significant advantage. Not even just an advantage, they were able to book significantly more business. That’s playing out for you as well. Ian, I want to thank you for coming on and sharing part of your journey here and some of the best practices that you’ve accumulated over the years. I also want to ensure that people can learn more about your work and see some of your videos. Where’s the best place for them to do that?
My website is TheProcessConsultant.com.
Ian, thank you so much for coming on.
Thank you very much for having me.