Over 14 years I’ve had the pleasure of literally thousands of conversations* with consultants, facilitators, trainers and coaches, at every stage of their journey and every size from solo to multi-national. It’s been interesting to see patterns emerge; specific questions and problems raised from the spectrum.

We go through a fascinating evolution of four phases as consultants:

Phase 1: Splashing around

In the early days, many of us are really just focused on getting things off the ground. 

The questions we’re looking to answer at this phase:

1.Where can I find clients?

2.How much should I charge?

It’s a “month to month” phase, where we take on pretty much any work that seems close to what we want to do (and in many cases, take what people are willing to pay). We’re selling time; wherever, and whenever we can. 

If you’ve been in phase 1, you likely remember that it’s not a great place to be. In many cases, there’s a fear/ignorance that holds people back to this level.  I don’t say that to be rude; it’s often simply that they haven’t been taught what it takes to move beyond. Chiefly:

-Have a unique point of view (people buy your expertise, not your time)

-Clarify your niche (being “anything to anyone” doesn’t help you differentiate)

-Have clear pricing and stick to it.

In my experience, there’s a 6 – 24 month lifespan at this stage; folks either shut it down and go find a job, or find their groove and move to phase 2.

Phase 2: Treading water

The beginning of the service-business cycle – market, pitch, win (yay!), deliver, repeat.  We’re building (and selling) competence.  We get more dialed in on our programs and pricing. Questions around consistency and scale start to pop up.

Common questions in phase 2:

1.How do I ensure consistent inbound leads?

2.What tools should I be using to streamline my business?

3.Should I be hiring some help?  Contractors?

This is the “quarter-by-quarter” phase; stable enough to breathe a little easier, and still hustling to make sure we make it through the year ok. 

We move beyond this phase by focusing on codifying what works:

-Build case studies + testimonials

-Publicly declare what you do, who you do it for and why (niche + value proposition)

-Publish your IP (books, webinars, speeches, etc.)

As we play here long enough, we start to – over time – build a bit of a reputation in the space, taking us to phase 3:

Phase 3: Swimming

Historically, this has been the goal with building a consulting practice.  Your brand is well known (in your sector/market) and you have a great book of case studies.  Your clients are buying your reputation as much as they’re buying your programs. Your calendar is full and you’re charging a premium. 

We’ve made it! (right?) We’re in the “year-by-year” phase, where we’re thinking about the bigger picture; what we’re building and where we’re going… which raises new questions. 

These are my favorite consultants to speak with.  Folks who – by every account – have a “successful” practice… and often have as many questions as those earlier in their journey.  But different questions.

Questions like:

1.How do I get my clients to see me as more than “edutainment”?

2.How do I get off the treadmill of trading time for dollars?

3.How do I scale my impact?

4.Am I actually building an asset or is this simply a great job?

The mindset shifts from “building a stable practice” to “maximizing impact and value creation”.

And we can move past the swimming phase.  It’s rarified air, but there’s a whole additional phase for those Consultants brave enough to push beyond the “good enough” of Swimming:

Phase 4: Surfing

The consultants at this level have entered a whole new game.  Sticking with the water motif, they’re out in the ocean like everyone else, but they’re playing a completely different sport. 

The folks at this stage are selling impact; fully dialed into the strategic priorities of their client organizations, and aligning their work to best achieve those goals.  

They have a lineup of prospective clients. They pick their engagements. They work less hours. They have lasting impact, and are remembered by their clients as one of those truly great working relationships.

It’s not about selling self-paced courses or books (that’s usually at phase 3).  

The focus isn’t on “more content”. In fact, it’s often a matter of less content.  I know a strategy/leadership consultant who charges his clients $50k/quarter just to be available for phone calls. Why?  Because when they do call on him, his insights can unlock multi-million dollar returns. His clients value him for the impact he has.

I have a coach that I pay $40k/year. I probably talk to him 3 times a year. Why?  Because I can confidently say that every year I see a 5x (or greater) return on the investment.

This is what it is to be surfing; to be compensated for your impact. Not for your time.

So how do you get here?


Ask the hard questions in discovery (Why do you want an {X} program? What impact will that have on your bottom line? What are your executive team’s top 3 priorities this year, and how does this program align to them?)


Who do you do it for?

How will you/they know your work is creating the impact?


It’s really, really hard to sell time and impact. Selling time is cost-based and activity-focused (ie. they’ll pay as little as possible). Selling impact is value-based and outcome-focused (ie. they’ll buy as much as they can afford). 

The engagements start with different questions. “How much time do we have?” vs “What problem are you trying to solve?”

The motivations are different. Sell as many days as possible, vs solve the problem in as little time as possible.

The role of client sessions is different. Impact (almost always) requires behavior change. Our content sessions (workshops, coaching, training, facilitation, etc.) should be a catalyst for behavior change.  As such, every interaction is designed around the question of “what behaviors are we trying to shift? What’s the most efficient and effective way to do that?” vs “What content will best resonate with this audience?”

Success is measured differently. Experience ratings vs Objective business impact measurement.

If you’re going to sell impact, you need to go all in, meaning – in many cases – a rework of your offerings.


If you’re selling impact, you need a way to demonstrate impact.  This is one of the reasons most service providers (particularly those in “soft skill” training like leadership) don’t do it.  Because most clients don’t have systems setup to measure the direct impact of your work (beyond standard evaluation forms)

You’ll also need a way to scale impact.  Those who are surfing have decoupled their time from their value (and compensation). That is a heck of a lot easier to do if you have a vehicle to scale impact beyond your time. 

To be sure, there’s some work involved to get to the surfing phase. 

How would it feel though?  Imagine the freedom of being unshackled from day rates and fixed project scope; of being able to shine your light and create impact far beyond your onsite presence.

Long post today.

As we wrap up, I’d ask you:

Where do you fall on the spectrum?  What questions are keeping you up at night?

And – more importantly – where do you want to be?

*I mentioned “thousands of conversations” at the top of post. Seriously, thousands. I’ve done the math. Ask me about it next time we chat.