stop collaborate listen stop signAs my business consulting partner Jason Arcemont once put it: “I’ve always enjoyed my job until it became full-time.” Granted, not everyone in the world is exactly like Jason (or me, or you, for that matter).

But it’s not uncommon for marketing professionals and other business consultants to get creatively and occupationally stuck on a hamster wheel, partly as a result of things we do to ourselves and our industry as a whole.

I’ve been thinking about these a lot lately, so I figured it’s time to explore what they are and start an industry-wide discussion. Here’s what I want to unpack:

1. We need to collaborate.

“Unite or die.” This is the ongoing battle cry of all business communities. And at times, those communities can over blow that battle cry, or hypocritically call for it out of one side of the face while refusing to give even an inch of ground to someone who appears to add something new to their area of expertise for fear of losing their position or damaging their ego.

For example, as a message strategist, it is not my job to generate 100% of the messaging for organizations; it’s my job to manage the tasks that will create clever content for organizations as part of the overall marketing mix. If someone in accounting has a good idea about content, I’m supposed to listen and incorporate that idea instead of rejecting it because it came from somewhere outside the content department.

Nevertheless, the struggle to collaborate is real. Collaboration can be extremely difficult to organize and easy to overlook amidst a pavement-pounding day of sales, invoicing, training, marketing, meetings, production, lather, rinse, repeat, etc.

It’s a pity something that produces the best possible outcomes can be so extraordinarily difficult to actually DO.

How can we improve? In addition to finding good fits in our relationships and continually challenging one another with mastermind meetings and consciously developed conferences, we can treat one another well as fellow business citizens and business partners.

When I develop strategy, I think of my friends, the ones who are REALLY good at what they do (and I’m not alone in this). I also ensure everyone gets a comfortable amount of practice and reward for the effort we put in, so deals are equitable. We discuss who is running point for the project, who is due to deliver what and why, and how we’re going to get the job done. Then we jump through a few hoops and execute.

At least, that’s how it goes when it’s done correctly. On the other hand – and let’s be honest with one another – sometimes, we drop the ball. We don’t mean to, but it happens. And that’s OK, once in a while; nobody’s perfect. But some things should be agreed upon and taken care of far in advance.

Speaking of which…

2.   We need to pay each other on time.

All clients should pay on time. All people should pay on time. Not paying on time either means you are in a tight spot, or you don’t want your vendor to be as comfortable as you are.

This doesn’t happen to me often, and when it does, it’s usually with people who have done business consulting with me on a handshake. I have learned making a deal on a handshake alone is a mistake. Even if you have gotten a lot of business out of previous handshakes with that person, it may not be worth it if it means waiting an extra long time for it to pay off. Your time might be better spent elsewhere, collecting clients who are worth your time and effort.

Receiving payment for our work on time is significant given the nature of many standard consulting projects. Business consultants “eat what they kill”; we sell our brains, hearts, and minds to survive. When our payments are stretched out, we’re denied the capital and lifeblood we need to carry on.

If we don’t pay each other on time, we are letting ourselves starve and disrespecting our industry as a whole.

We feed on revenue with unfriendly taxation rates. Pay each other on time. Which brings up the next discussion point…

3.   We need to keep our rates high.

An experienced startup investor once told me, “Marketing is a race to the bottom.” He was right. The cheaper you make your rate, the cheaper the rate is for the next creative professional in the bid. When business consultants lower their rates to compete, they not only cut themselves out of dollars, but also cut every other consultant out of dollars.

Lowering our rates will only depress the market.

The situation has gotten continually worse over time. Fiverr has raised $110 million to establish a marketplace where marketers could be paid 1/30th of their worth, undercutting the entire creative landscape. Writing and development is being sold across markets for far less than it once was.

A real strategist is worth the time they spend thinking about building a business because they can demonstrate measurable results of provable worth. Over time, a writer will develop verbal market positioning methods, public relations value, social media expertise and other peripheral skill sets to supplement what they do. Designers move on to customer experience consulting, user interfaces, industrial design, creative director positions and other visual fields. Outreach people sometimes cross the gap into budgeting and strategic planning. Account reps move into management. And so on.

These positions all deserve their worth. Lowering your rate for consulting work is the cheapest, least effective, and most counterproductive way to sell your services.

In fact…

4. We need to think like we’re not in our field sometimes.

“When you’re a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” When you’re in marketing, every problem looks like something that can be solved by marketing.

But that’s false. Marketing is a somewhat advanced part of business. Most early stage marketing is a byproduct of your sales efforts and what you do to supplement them. Finance, sales, project management, and communication systems all precede marketing as essential business systems. If there is something amiss or in need of improvement in those fields, that should probably be addressed first because those decisions carry more risk and present more possible upside in one swing of the bat than marketing efforts.

If your pitch stinks, you have a sales problem. If you don’t invoice well, you have an accounting problem. If you can’t manage projects, you have a scale problem. None of those get fixed by marketing.

Once we fix those processes – “think like you’re not in marketing/consulting/SEO/processes/whatever” – we can move to this last bit…

5. We need to market products with better margins.

Raising rates is a good move, but moving beyond a rate structure is even more important. Most of us depend on lending ourselves out and servicing our clients that way, and when we run out of time in our schedule, we hit a wall in our pay. Scalable products rely on ideas related to materials and opportunities.

By generating books, podcasts, software, or other replicable products, our businesses can make money on the same item over and over again. This is how marketing giants like Gary Vaynerchuk and David Meerman Scott have moved into the next level of wealth: they focus on products as opposed to consulting.

Some marketers have started to do a good job at moving toward this (for example, launching social PR training or books on Brand Strategy). On the other hand, many business consultants are still paid for their time rather than residual products or other forms of recurring revenue. Furthermore, if every marketer moves into sales of strategies and materials, the market for materials will saturate, creating the same problem: a race to the bottom all over again.

Think of ways to partner with others by selling bigger and better services. Think of industries that have little to nothing to do with you: cars, sodas, electrical wiring, horticulture, cooking, fashion, and exercise. Chairs. Tacos.

One approach: focus on fields you normally wouldn’t focus on. The idea isn’t to move into those fields directly; it’s to stay broad enough in your interests to consistently have new ideas so you can maintain expertise while exploring something entirely new. Then scale those new ideas into bigger better businesses.

In what other ways can we improve business consulting? Please share in the comments below. 

Image: wonderferret via Flickr, CC 2.0