If you’re relying on your reputation alone, you might be headed for a crash. In today’s consulting landscape, what I’ve called “word of success” isn’t enough. A stakeholder you’ve worked with in the past who recommends your services, a 90% score on your smile sheets, or a team leader thrilled with how their people responded to your workshop—these are all examples of word of success. There’s no hard data to back up your claims about how you help teams—it’s all based on feelings, and a contact’s willingness to speak highly of you. And don’t get me wrong—it’s a great start, and can be a good source of business.
But the landscape for business consultants and coaches is shifting. Clients need to do more with less. Senior level executives don’t really care that you made their people feel good—they want proof of their return on investing in you.
Many consultants have relied on word of success for most of their career. And why not?
Who better to explain how good you are than former colleagues, friends, and business associates? Great relationships have helped build your business, and you continually deliver work that you know is inspiring and engaging—and that lights a fire of inspiration for participants.
But something has started changing over the past few years, and you can’t ignore it anymore. You have started hearing words like impact, metrics, ROI, and clear success come from your stakeholders. Smile sheets used to be enough, but now, hard data is not just a nice to have, it’s something that is required.
This can be frustrating. You know that you’ve had a real impact on your client organizations, but when you take a long hard look at the smile sheets that you have, deep down you know that this doesn’t really show the lasting impact of your work. Instead, it shows that your program was well received on the day—which could have more to do with the quality of the catering, or the perception that your participants are getting a “break” from their regular work.
For you, and your client, this isn’t enough.
You might be happy to hear you’re not alone in this.
Just last week I spoke to a consultant who was relieved to hear that it wasn’t just her who started hearing more and more about metrics, and in fact booked less full day sessions last year than any year before—because the ROI on these sessions can’t be made clear to the client.
This is a significant concern for her and she asked how she can get out of this cycle. I told her it all starts with a new way of working—a way of working that is based on proof of success, not word of success.
This new way of working means that you need to take time to clearly define what success looks like for your client—and work toward that as a goal. And sometimes that means you have to dig. It’s not enough to pitch a session about “employee engagement.” In this new mode of working, you need to identify the metrics that reflect employee engagement: things like employee turnover, absenteeism, even lackluster sales numbers.
This scared her—but she knew it was the truth.
From there you have a very strong foundation to develop something that is actually going to affect the change that your client is working for. Knowing this, you can develop a program—not just a one day learning event, but a full program—that will teach, engage and enable their teams to internalize these changes, and apply them day-to-day.
Imagine how great it will be to see the changes that are happening, both personally and professionally, in real time. To go beyond smile sheets and the one-off emails that follow your sessions, and to be able to see, in real time, how change is taking hold in an organization. And to be able to go back to your client with the data and insights that not only help them see what’s happening in their teams, but also demonstrate the impact of their investment in you.
In the past you have known deep down you are making a difference, but have never been able to show it and quantify it. This new mode of working will give you the confidence of proof of success, and allow you to stop relying on word of success. It will also give you insights into where things aren’t working—which can be uncomfortable—but will ultimately help you refine your process and offerings, and help your clients achieve lasting success.
For those who think this growing trend doesn’t apply to them: it does, or at least it will. It’s only a matter of time before your competitors can show where changes are happening, and if you don’t do something soon to start defining success and then showing your impact, you are going to become redundant in a crowded market.
Ending this article now might make it seem like all is lost—it’s not. We have seen many consultants struggle with this exact problem, and then watched them make the shift to measurement and application. It will take some work to embrace this new way of working, but once you do, you will look back and wonder why you relied for so long on smile-sheets and word of success to show your impact.