Eric May – Media Consultant
  

 

 

 

How I became a consultant and what I’ve learned so far

I met my (future) wife while on a film shoot in California in 1996 and by 1999 we had decided that we would move to her home village in Germany. I quit my job at the CBS station in San Francisco (where I had been for 10 years), sold most of my possessions, and moved to a village in the Black Forest with no job, no language, and almost no contacts. My idea was to become a consultant.


I didn’t fully understand at the time that it would take years to build up my consulting practice to the point it is today, and I was in retrospect quite naive and innocent about that. But I recognize now that back then I simply did not have the business and sales skills that clients demand. These things had to be learned, and that took years, and is continuing.

It actually wasn’t until 2003 (four years after moving to Europe and working constantly on building client relationships) that I was first able to feel I was moving in the career direction I had hoped to. From that modest beginning, my consulting practice has grown today to a global business with clients in more than 40 countries.

The three year point will be the decisive time in your consulting practice. That’s when you absolutely can’t count anymore on good will and friends. As management consultant Alan Weiss puts it, after three years you will have used up all the good will that exists out there. By then you will have to be able to market your business and develop clients on your own. 

Statistically, 1/3 of consultancies are dead within the first three years, half are gone in five years, and only 10% remain after 10 years. Those that survive have developed a very specialized skill set that has very little to do with core competencies (what strengths you think you could offer to clients now.) More on this below.

My first projects, beginning in 1999,were training journalists and news managers in the former Soviet Union for Internews and IREX, both American NGOs, and I also was lucky enough to participate in the making of a number of documentary films for ARD/SWR Television in Germany.

 

In 2000, very importantly, I connected with the European Broadcasting Union in Geneva and was invited to develop and deliver training projects for them. This went on for the next ten years, gradually increasing to 15 or more projects a year, although we did just one or two projects each year together the first few years. In 2003, also very important, I established my first successful client relationship in the United Nations system, in this case, with the ILO in Geneva which has been a very important consulting client to this day, and also led indirectly to my consulting work in science and medicine as well as new clients in diplomacy and international development.


During this entire period I spent constant hours reading everything I could about being a consultant and trying to practice what I was learning. The essential text for me was (and remains) “Getting Started in Consulting” by Alan Weiss. I cannot recommend this book more highly if you are considering a consulting career. Weiss starts by assuming that you are already one of the top people in your field (or you won’t make it far as an independent consultant).

One of the key things I learned from Alan Weiss’s books is how to market your consultancy (significantly, not your skills) and develop long term client relationships (which is completely different than knowing how to tell a story, for example). Since 2000 I have studied almost every one of Alan's 20+ books and am a committed “disciple” of his methods. I owe a lot to his insights and his ethical approach appeals to me very much.

My website was and is my only advertising (outside of word of mouth and referrals, more on that below). My website helps clients understand more about what I might be able to offer them.

One of the early decisions I made about the website (another Alan Weiss recommendation) is that it would not be a “sales” site - telling people what I could offer them if they hired me. I put real content on my website, in fact, all the content from my workshops and consulting projects appears there in edited form. My idea is that if I give real value, clients will think, “if I can get all this for free from Eric, what will he give me when I hire him?” The design is clear, simple to navigate and easy to understand, again because my business is about expressing ideas effectively and clearly.

To build audience share online, I update my site regularly with new, and I hope, compelling content. I try to get on as many platforms as possible. I write book reviews for Amazon and other book sites; I comment regularly on articles in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and in British newspapers online. I have a video channel on YouTube; I have a blog. I am on LinkedIn with +500 “connections” and belong to a number of LinkedIn’s relevant chat groups; I am on Twitter and update that on a regular basis. Somehow I don’t like Facebook and think it is creepy, but I do recognize I am one of the few remaining people on the planet who is still resisting becoming a “Facebooker.”

 

On the website I not only update the content regularly but I pay attention to formatting rules and meta-tags (the book “Content Rich” by Jon Wuebben was very helpful with this). Above all, I make sure I have real content on the site, not just sales talk or b.s. I want to offer value and real ideas to people, which is a reflection of what I will offer them if they engage me.

 

Paying attention to these things has paid off: if you enter “eric may consultant” on Google Europe my site is usually ranked #1, 2 or 3 and several elements appear on the front page most days; same with other search engines. But that’s just the first step. The target now is that when people enter “news training” “news consultant” “science communication”, “United Nations film projects” etc that my site will come up on the first page of search engines. I’m working on that.

While having a web presence and being on multiple platforms is important, it doesn't have much to do with client development and building client relationships. I can’t think of a single project, for example, that has come strictly from social media thus far, although it could happen. In reality, client development is hard, and it takes time. First, it is done on a personal basis, not with "likes" or "followers." It is about building trust one on one with your potential buyer. That’s it. Nothing goes without the trust of your client. You'll never develop a project if there is no trust. Always think in terms of long term relationships; you are not “selling” anything.

 

Client development takes patience, understanding, compassion, and more than anything else, an ability to listen. It also can take time. My all time record was a project I pitched (“storytelling for radio”) to Swedish Radio (SR), a huge organization. I first met the client in July of 2003 and she said “let’s do it.” I kept checking back with her every quarter... in December of 2005 I made a presentation in Stockholm; I delivered the first project in September of 2006 - that was a three year process from first meeting to delivery. Since then I have trained more than two hundred people at SR in Stockholm and all their major regions, so it paid off well. That’s exceptional, but not atypical.

Some projects can appear and begin within the same month. More typically, it can take a year or longer from the first “pitch” to a potential client and delivery of the first project. And part of the picture is the majority of pitches will go nowhere, especially as you are just starting out. Don’t be discouraged by this, it is just how it works. Some of the pitches will go - you just don’t know which ones! For example, currently I have about 20 proposals outstanding with new clients for projects of various shapes and sizes. Some were initiated more than a year ago, the most recent went out this week. Some of them will bear fruit, many not. But I try to send out at least one new proposal each week. And I do follow up, usually quarterly, just to see what’s new and if there might be a chance to move ahead.

 

The one mission of the successful consultant is, in the words of Alan Weiss, “to improve the condition of the client.” Your role is to help your client achieve their own goals, within their organization. One of the things that surprised me most at the beginning was, being an award winning television producer, I had a “list” - a lot of ideas that I thought clients would be interested in, things that I just knew could work for them. And I got nowhere with that. It took me a couple of years to realize what I was doing wrong. I was telling the clients what I could do for them, not listening to what they needed. 

I learned that the fewer specific offerings you have at the beginning of a dialogue with a client, the better off you will be. To put it another way, “what I have is what you want” is counter-productive to building a client base. I had to learn this, as it does seem very counter-intuitive - why would the client use me if they don't know what I can offer?

 

I found out what clients want most is someone they can trust and relate to, someone who gets to know them and honestly takes an interest in their business problems (and has new ideas to help solve them - remember, you are already the top person in your field).

As Alan Weiss observes, the best approach is not to be an impersonal “expert” offering a list. Far and away the most effective method is working with potential clients is on a “peer” basis - remember, you are not selling anything. Instead, listen and try to put yourself in their position. One effective method: tell them how you were in a similar situation / faced a similar challenge and here's how you solved it, and could help them solve it. That is real value, and value is what builds long term client relationships.

As your client relationships deepen, you need to take a personal/professional interest: learn about their problems and frustrations; be compassionate and smart; tell them the truth when others are afraid to; show you sincerely want to help them succeed with their own career goals; and then ask yourself: were you ever in a similar situation once? And how did you solve it successfully? Share this with your client, and build your projects together. 

And I never went to any client thinking they were a stepping stone to something “bigger.” I honestly tried to take an interest and help them if I could. I pay attention to the personal side; I always try to make sure that we can have fun while we are doing our work, that the client and I enjoy each others’ company. You will find that many clients fit that profile, if you are sincerely interested in helping them succeed in their own jobs.