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Clients form the bedrock of success for any consulting business. It’s not just about creating that foundation, though—acquiring new leads and new business—but instead about building, maintaining, and nurturing relationships throughout their lifecycle.
Consulting firms heavily rely on repeat business and word of mouth to win new work—in fact, 41% of new business comes from referrals for founder-led consulting firms. Strong client relationships often mean strong referrals. Without them, you’ll be missing out on opportunities that could drive more revenue.
Now, managing these relationships can become tricky when you have to handle multiple clients at once, with each at different stages of the sales process. Keeping track of every engagement and activity you take part in with each client can quickly become a daunting task.
So, how do you keep your finger on the pulse, keep your existing clients happy, and keep finding new opportunities for growth and profit?
You use a CRM for consultants.
A CRM (Customer Relationship Management) is software for maintaining and nurturing engagements with existing clients and potential clients.
It’s a centralized repository that stores and organizes key information, such as client data, communication history, sales leads, and more.
CRMs typically offer a variety of functionality for consulting businesses, such as managing sales pipeline, tracking leads and opportunities, marketing automation, and generating reports.
In any project-based firm, the clock resets to zero on 1 January. You’re back at the bottom of the mountain with zero revenue and the pressure to beat last year and grow the company.
There are lots of ways to bring in that revenue, from securing project extensions, to cross-selling additional service lines to existing clients, to bringing in new clients.
Implementing a CRM is one of the best ways to keep a track of all these different opportunities, and ensure your business development efforts are focused and effective. If you’re still trying to track leads and opportunities through the likes of spreadsheets and disparate systems, you won’t get the visibility you need, and you won’t get the best results.
That could mean missing out on dozens of opportunities, and thus missing out on significant revenue.
As consultants are often dealing with multiple leads at once, with each at a different stage of the sales process, it can be difficult to keep on top of the activities and engagements that keep them moving along and give you the best chance of securing the work.
A CRM comes in handy here as it’s able to give you a holistic view of all your potential opportunities, and then categorize and cut through them.
Which opportunities are most likely to close this quarter? What does the pipeline look like for our “Digital Transformation” business unit? Which opportunities have been stagnant for 30+ days?
A CRM gives you the top-down view of all things business development, making it easy to understand where to focus and understand what needs to happen on each opportunity.
You’ll also be able to identify possibilities to collect powerful marketing ammunition from your clients—case studies and testimonials—to leverage throughout the sales process and validate your offering with authentic social proof.
This way, no potential opportunities risk falling through the cracks, and you increase your chances of converting leads into loyal clients.
We’ll talk a bit more about how a CRM can be leveraged to maximize your ROI later on, but for now, let’s look at some of the key features you can expect from a CRM software.
If you’re looking to implement CRM software in your own consulting business, it’s important to know what sort of functionality you can expect from your system.
Some of these features will be the bread and butter of any typical CRM, and others will be less common—but still immensely valuable.
This is the most fundamental feature of any CRM software, as the rest of the system operates using the contact database.
This database will allow you to store and organize core client information, including communication history, preferences, and other relevant details.
By collecting data around job titles, company sizes and sectors, you’ll be well-equipped to create buyer personas, which can be invaluable in ensuring the right messages land with the right people, at the right time.
As this feature should be a given in any CRM software, you may want to focus on finding a user interface and layout that works best for you when choosing your CRM. Your CRM is only as good as the data you put in it, so you’ll need one that’s intuitive, easy to use and well organized, so your team actually want to use it.
Logging interactions is the cornerstone of effective client relationship management. Whether it’s emails, calls, or meetings, maintaining a complete record of communication throughout the sales process is vital for consulting firms.
With this record of past interactions, consultants can ensure they are on top of their ‘to do’s’ and create tailored messaging, personalizing new interactions using the context of the past.
Most CRMs are built for product-centric businesses, where a deal value is based on a simple free text field (e.g. $25,000), or based on SKUs (e.g. 5x servers at $5,000 = $25,000).
For product-based businesses with a standard price book, where the profit margin is guaranteed at the point of sale, this works absolutely fine. But for consultants, the dynamic is completely different—especially with fixed fee work.
You might have won the work (congrats!), but you don’t actually know if that project was profitable until the work is completed weeks, months, and sometimes years down the line. This leads to a huge risk of either underquoting or overdelivering (the “Evil Twins”) vs. that initial quote.
As a result, thinking through the specifics of the fee quote is crucial. CRMs which are honed for consultants enable you to build up your quote by factoring in:
Without the ability to produce accurate quotes, based on specific deliverables and factoring in your resourcing plan, you risk your quoting processes being done ‘offline’ in spreadsheets, undermining your CRM adoption from day one.
Most consulting CRMs offer some level of analytics and reporting for your client data, such as pipeline metrics, lead tracking, and customer segmentation.
These can be instrumental for understanding the health and performance of your accounts, enabling you to objectively assess your relationships and adapt your account plans accordingly.
The end game for this analytics and reporting is to inform actual decisions and actions, both from a business development perspective (who else should we bring in to look over this key proposal before it’s sent?) and across the broader business (given the opportunities that are forecast to be won next quarter, should we be hiring now to ensure we can deliver the work?).
At the end of the day, consulting CRM software is built to make your life easier—and workflow automation takes this to the next level.
By setting up triggers, you’ll take the legwork out of repetitive activities, such as assigning tasks and writing follow-up emails, which can save you a significant amount of time.
In addition, as you scale, these workflows provide the ‘guardrails’ to ensure that common sales processes are adopted across the team, e.g., no opportunity moves beyond stage 3 without the quote being approved by the CFO.
The majority of CRMs offer third-party software integrations, although the breadth can vary depending on the software. Connecting your CRM to systems you already use can save a lot of time and money, and also ensure it scales with you.
For example, many CRMs integrate with email platforms to enable marketing automation. These allow your consultants to store and send email templates which can be tailored to the contacts in your database.
Pipeline and live project data typically live in two separate places, with no easy way of achieving a holistic view, which can make getting an accurate, predictable view of the future tricky for most consulting firms.
This combined view can’t be achieved with just a CRM alone—instead, you’d need to look for a professional services automation (PSA) software vendor, which can provide visibility of resource demand across both live projects (within the PSA) and potential projects (within the CRM).
A natively integrated PSA & CRM is particularly important for consulting businesses as it massively enhances resource planning, as factoring sales pipeline into resourcing will give you the most comprehensive view of staffing capacity and demand.
By leveraging both pipeline and live project data sets, consulting firms can plan with confidence, and get the clearest possible view of ‘the big three’ forecasting elements: resource demand, revenue and cash.
If you’ve decided you’d like to implement a consulting CRM within your own consulting business, then it’s important to get the most out of your new software to achieve the results you desired.
Here are some of the best practices for maximizing the return on investment of your CRM:
Before you begin your search for the perfect consulting CRM (or any software, really), it’s vital that you identify any specific goals or objectives.
What are you trying to solve? Is the goal of the CRM to help you maximize the potential of existing accounts (‘farming’), or is it more about winning new clients (‘hunting’)? Do you already have well-established sales processes and stages you want to mould the CRM to, or do you want the CRM to give you ‘out of the box’ sales processes to get you started?
With clear objectives in mind, you’ll be able to drive your strategy and measure its success, enhance your sales process, and get the most out of your investment.
Once you’ve clearly defined your business objectives, it’s time to follow that through and define the key feature requirements which align with your overall objectives.
In building out these requirements, it’s crucial to get input from multiple stakeholders (partners, consultants, finance, your BD team (if it is a dedicated function)) to help get their buy-in and take them on the journey.
But crucially, don’t forget to prioritize those requirements. No system will be able to tick every single box from every stakeholder, so coming up with a MOSCOW prioritization of your requirements will help you focus your selection process.
A CRM is only as useful as the data your sales team put in it, so you’ll also need to consider how easy to use the CRM is, as well as how easy to implement. A cloud-based CRM system, for example, is far less of a hassle to install, and often less expensive.
You’ll also need to consider what integrations the system offers, and whether it will scale along with your consulting business. With an intuitive, scalable, integrable CRM, you’ll lay the groundwork for optimal CRM ROI.
If user adoption of your new CRM system is poor, your ROI will be, too. We’ve already touched on how important a software that is easy to use, easy to navigate, and even easy on the eyes can impact adoption—but that might not be enough alone.
Providing thorough training to your team on how to most effectively use the CRM is a great way to accomplish this. If its users understand its features and, chiefly, its benefits, they’ll be much more likely to embrace and use it to its full potential.
When you’re selling consulting services, the sale isn’t the end of the process—it’s just the start.
To maximize the ROI of your CRM, you need to ensure that your business development processes (from your CRM) seamlessly integrate with your operational and financial processes.
At its simplest level, this can be ensuring that there are certain ‘checklist’ items when a project is won—resourcing manager informed to allocate staff, finance team informed to schedule invoices—but when you’re operating at any level of scale (typically 20+ fee earners) it can be worth industrializing this process through technology integrations.
As previously mentioned, most CRMs offer useful insights via dashboards, reports and tools, which can be a big help for identifying inefficiencies and opportunities. Adopting a consulting CRM isn’t an end, it’s the start of a journey, and your sales team should be analyzing this data throughout that journey.
If you’re looking for more advanced reporting that connects data across your different systems and processes, combining future and live projects, your best bet would be a PSA software as previously mentioned.
Finding in-built CRM functionality within a PSA can be difficult, but some vendors which are tailored to consultants, such as CMap, do provide CRMs.
Investing in a CRM is a must for growing consulting firms. You can’t afford to hold your consulting business back by relying on spreadsheets and notebooks to record important client information and manage your sales processes—it’s putting you on the back foot.
There’s a wide variety of CRM systems on the market, with some offering more depth and functionality than others, but the features you’ll need depend on the unique objectives of your consulting business. Either way, utilizing your CRM to the best of its ability and getting all of your users on board is the best way to maximize your ROI.