Service Business 101: Clients, Consultants, and Creating Real Impact

Jennifer Brown | |


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In this minisode, Jennifer discusses the difference between a service-based or product-based business and how to decide which one is right for you. She also reveals the difference between strategic consulting and training, and what she looks for when hiring consultants. You’ll also discover how to find out more information about the new D&I Practitioner Program, a new virtual program from JBC.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  •  The importance of diversifying your revenue streams (2:30)
  • Whether to first create a service or a product (4:00)
  • The challenges and opportunities of creating a consulting business (7:00)
  • What Jennifer looks for when hiring consultants for her business (14:00)
  • Why you should aim to be a “trusted advisor” for clients (18:00)
  • Questions to ask when deciding whether to run a service or product-based business (22:00)
  • The difference between training and strategic consulting (25:00)
  • The various activities that a strategic consultant engages in (26:30)
  • Information about the new D&I Practitioner Program (29:00)

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

DOUG FORESTA: Hello, and welcome back to The Will to Change, this is Doug Foresta and I am with Jennifer Brown.

Today, I’m really excited because we’re doing a part two talking about Jennifer’s business. If you haven’t listened to part one yet, I recommend that you go back and listen to that. It’s not absolutely necessary, but I think it will give you some context.

First of all, Jennifer, thanks, as always, for having me here and for sharing your wisdom with us.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thanks, Doug.

DOUG FORESTA: Thanks. Like I said, today is a continuation of what we discussed in part one, where you shared about how you started the business and how you really built up from being kind of a one-woman band to building up a business.

I want to pick up where we left off. We were talking about revenue and we were talking about capital. One of the things that we didn’t get into was the importance of diversifying your revenue streams. Can you say a little bit about that?

JENNIFER BROWN: Sure. The whole question of not being over reliant on one source of income for your business. It actually goes back – my first memory realizing that was when I was overweighted in one client at the beginning of JBC. They constituted 80 percent of my revenue.

I remember, certainly, being happy for that client, don’t get me wrong, but knowing through everything I was reading and studying and hearing in my entrepreneur groups that you never want to be overly reliant on one institution, because so much could happen to that institution, of course.

As much as you can jump in and deepen that relationship, broaden that relationship. At one point, I had 20 different projects within that one company. This is a Fortune 50 company, it’s a big tech company, global. They were great, and we crawled around in them for a long time.

I thought to myself, “Am I ever going to find another client like this? How will I ever replicate this deep and wonderful relationship?” I just knew that we would need to grow beyond them and that I needed to make a concerted effort to do that, versus relaxing into the complacency of, “This is my big cash cow, they love me, and it will never change.” You’ve got to know things always change. They always change.

And for me, things that bring change, of course, are changes at the company – structural changes, mergers and acquisitions, recessions. There’s that little thing that happened in 2008.

DOUG FORESTA: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: That was not fun to go through with that client in particular. Also, leadership changes, the person in the client or the clients that you work with – getting promoted, leaving the company. So much can happen.

I caution services businesses like mine where our client relationships are everything, be cognizant of spreading out and diversifying your risk and your risk of losing clients and how that will impact everything – your cash flow, your teams, all of it.

That’s diversifying your revenue in one definition. Doug, you and I talked about diversifying your revenue in terms of lines of service.

DOUG FORESTA: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: We grew up at JBC as, effectively, a training company I would say. I was a trainer. Before I did diversity and inclusion training, I did soft skills training, and I taught everything in the soft skills catalogue. Those were fun days. I would wake up and be in a different classroom with a different company teaching a different skill set that a leader needs. It was really fun.

But we were a training company doing leadership, and mostly in the classroom. In the last couple of years, we’ve built more into a consulting company, which we’ll talk about in a moment, which is different.

DOUG FORESTA: Right.

JENNIFER BROWN: It’s not the same thing as a training company. We’ve also diversified into keynote revenue, book revenue, and recently, if people are listening here and are on our mailing list – which you should be if you’re not – we just announced that we’re launching a practitioner coaching program online. That’s the closest that we’ve come to productizing.

When we say “productizing” in the services business, productizing means that you’re building a product that people can purchase, versus buying time in somebody’s brain to be an advisor, which is what the lion’s share of our revenue and business model has been.

We’re really excited to diversify into this platform which monetizes our relationship with individuals. It literally will be like, “I want to buy this program and participate in it as a learner with JBC and the team, and I’m going to plunk my credit card down.”

Believe it or not, we haven’t done anything like that. We’ve been high touch, custom, all advisory, and getting paid to work a client from point A to point B. It’s usually phone, it’s flying and being on site with somebody, but it’s definitely about our knowledge and expertise. It’s always different every time. We’re always tackling something new. We’re building things from scratch sometimes. It’s very high touch.

That’s a certain kind of business model that comes with its own difficulties, because it’s difficult to predict that kind of work. Of course, the benefit of productization is that once you build it, you repeat it, and it does the proverbial “making money while you sleep” concept. And I say “proverbial,” because –

DOUG FORESTA: Right, exactly! (Laughter.)

JENNIFER BROWN: Let’s be honest, a lot of work goes into all of these things. Again, it’s a risk mitigation strategy to diversify your sources of revenue. Make sure if you’re a consulting company, make sure you also have products, make sure you have keynote income and book income. We don’t have income from the podcast yet, Doug, but who knows? That might be in the future.

DOUG FORESTA: That’s right. If anyone’s listening, we want to, exactly.

JENNIFER BROWN: Who knows? That is a protection for you against downturns, against losing those big clients. The concept of making money while you sleep is, of course, one of the ways you can create a lighter lift for your business and for your life. If you buy into the fact that you can be a one-person, million-dollar business, for example – I think there’s a book written about that, which I do not think is as easy as it makes it sound. The concept of not having a heavy infrastructure and being really smart about how you build your business so that you have revenue streams and you’re not paying a lot of people to help you construct what you’re selling, utilizing technology, product delivery, and having great funnels. There are people who do this really well.

We just came of age at JBC, I built the company probably 12 or 13 years ago at this point. We didn’t know those models existed. Sometimes, I don’t think I would have built that business anyway, even if I had known that that was a best practice and the virtual lightweight, one-person, million-dollar company. Would that have appealed to me? I really like coming into a client saying, “What are you struggling with? What can we build? What’s going to get you from A to B to C? How can we collaborate with you to build that and create it?” Ultimately, it’s such a creative endeavor. It’s interesting, it’s complex, and it ties into organizational change, which gets me intellectually stimulated. And I love working with people. When you think about a productized business that’s a solo shop, it’s kind of an isolating business model. It’s as if you’re saying, “I’m going to create this whole system, I’m going to launch it, and you’re not even going to know if there’s a human being behind it.”

DOUG FORESTA: I also wonder if the product would have been as rich. I’m sure you’ve drawn from all of your experiences of everything that you and the team at JBC has done over the last 13 years to create this product. I wonder if the product would have even been as rich a product, because you wouldn’t have those experiences to draw from.

JENNIFER BROWN: You’re right. The question is: What do you do first? If you know you want to be a business owner, what kind of business do you want to build? What brings you satisfaction? How do you want to work every day? If you want to build products, you’re spending a lot of time with technology. You’re thinking about the funnels and the progression of your buyer – get this for $9.99, and then move them up to buy this for $300, and you’re moving them. There’s a whole science behind it, moving them towards more and more expensive products with you, and deepening that relationship along the way. If that appeals to you, that’s one thing.

I agree, Doug, some people build those kinds of products businesses that feel like they have no substance to them. Have you noticed that?

DOUG FORESTA: Yes. 100 percent I’ve noticed that.

JENNIFER BROWN: It’s air. What are you selling, exactly? We at JBC have so much to sell, actually our challenge is different. After you’ve been consulting for ten years and you have the most amazing team, like I do, who have way more years of experience doing this than I do even. I happen to be the CEO and I built the house that we all live in, but the people that have come my way are 20 years in this work. I learn from them every single day.

Our challenge having been in the trenches of consulting is boiling down our expertise to something that can be productized, right?

DOUG FORESTA: Because you have so much.

JENNIFER BROWN: It’s interesting. The simplification is so much harder.

DOUG FORESTA: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: I just wrote the draft for my second book, and we were so worried about length because there’s so much to say. The discipline switches. If you’ve been doing something for a long time, it becomes more arduous to be brief and concise.

The other thing that I did a little bit out of order is I didn’t start JBC with myself as a keynote. I was a bit in the background for a while until I had really written the book, then my profile took a front seat. Previous to that, I was leading from behind and putting the team’s capabilities out front.

It took me a while to find my way to becoming a keynoter at the point when I felt I could take on those big audiences when I had the kind of reputation because people who are authors get assigned a lot of status, fairly or not. It’s a fact. It changes everything to have a book. It will be interesting to see what having a second book does.

DOUG FORESTA: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: I wonder whether it will be as huge of a lift. Hopefully, it is.

I know a lot of people who just start with a keynote business and they put themselves out as a speaker and maybe an author. It’s an author/speaker combo, which is a really common combination. Nobody I talk to wants a consulting business like I’ve built – nobody. (Laughter.) It’s so funny.

DOUG FORESTA: How come?

JENNIFER BROWN: Everyone I talk to says, “I really don’t want that. I don’t want the headaches, I don’t want the expense, I don’t want mouths to feed. I don’t want people counting on me.” It’s inconceivable for 99.9 percent of people I network with. It’s really interesting. They ask, “Why did you build that? How did you build it?” That’s a great question. It hasn’t always been the easiest thing to be carrying for a decade. Absolutely not.

DOUG FORESTA: Sure.

JENNIFER BROWN: But it allows us to have so much bigger impact than I could ever have alone, and I love it for that. I love collaborating with people that inspire me and that I learn from. It’s more fun for me. I’ve put up with the financial drain and strain of having it, the stakes, the difficulty of finding great people who are a good fit for us, which is a very slow process. All of the accountability and responsibility you have when you have a team of about 20 people. It’s been the toughest thing I’ve ever done, and also one of the proudest things I’ve done, too. It’s like someone describing the kids, right?

DOUG FORESTA: Yes. Exactly. With that, talking about that team, what do you look for when you bring on a consultant to JBC? What qualities? I’m really curious about that.

JENNIFER BROWN: We’ve built our team slowly. It’s one of these “you know it when you see it.” It’s a combination of a lot of different things. It’s rare that I meet people who have all of the pieces.

It’s a combination, certainly, of technical expertise. I’ll speak about our consulting side for a second, the people who are servicing our clients. They have been chief diversity officers, have been in diversity and inclusion roles in companies. I think it would be tough to do what we do without corporate experience, because that’s who we serve. You have to have spent that time internally, understanding how those big institutions function, how decisions get made, the language that they use, everything.

Sometimes we have folks who come from the advocacy world. Perhaps they worked for an LGBT rights organization. That’s possible, absolutely. Sometimes we even have people from the academic world who are professors, say, and didn’t spend too much time in corporate. It’s a world you have to know. That’s technical expertise.

The whole stance of a consultant is, “I’m here to solve a problem with you, for you. I’m confident I’m going to be very aware of your needs, wants, paranoias, and anxieties as a client. I’m going to take charge, but not in an overwhelming way. I’m going to lead you through a process. I’m going to be very customer oriented, customer service minded. I’m going to be available and reachable all the time.” It’s not people who are chintzy with their time. It’s very much do what needs to be done to delight the client. You never know where that’s going to go. That sounds bad. It’s not going to go to an inappropriate place. (Laughter.)

DOUG FORESTA: You know, it’s funny, I wasn’t even thinking that at all.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, sorry, I don’t know why that popped into my head, no. (Laughter.)

DOUG FORESTA: Say more about that, though. What do you mean? It could lead to other work? Other possibilities? Other projects? Is that what you’re saying?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. What’s interesting is you become a trusted advisor. You become an appendage of somebody’s team, and you become an extension of the people they trust as a part of an internal, trusted group.

DOUG FORESTA: Right. Makes sense.

JENNIFER BROWN: When you are a supplier, we try to become a real partner and a real collaborator and someone who knows where the bodies are buried. We have the inside scoop of the dynamics in so many different organizations. We need to know that stuff in order to partner with our clients to help them, in turn, lead their organization. They have their internal clients, but they are our client. Right?

We are Jiminy Cricket whispering in their ear, giving them things to read, helping them understand how they set up an argument internally, what information needs to be known by whom and at what point. We’re imagining and putting ourselves in their shoes and trying to help with head, heart, and hands. What kind of help do they need? Do they need head help, meaning a shrink? (Laughter.) Yes, because doing diversity work is really so tough and so difficult on our morale. We all struggle to be strong and resilient because the kinds of things we hear internally can be really disturbing.

We are sitting here pushing, pushing, pushing every day and we get these comments and questions that show how far we really have to go. There is real pushback, and in some quarters, dislike for the message that we’re bringing. That can be very demoralizing and it wears on you.

Part of our role with clients is, yes, to actually support their morale, absolutely. That’s the heart piece, right? I hear you, I see you, I feel you, we understand what you’re going through. Sometimes it’s just to provide reassurance, “We’ve seen this before. You will get through it, and here is how you will come out the other side.” It’s tricky. These roles are not really set up for success in terms of how they’re resourced.

I just met someone who leads diversity for 22,000 people. She’s a one-person team. Just the sheer numbers.

DOUG FORESTA: That’s amazing.

JENNIFER BROWN: How can you be successful? You have to be a magician to actually impact that number of people with the budget you have, with no head count. It’s not necessarily set up for success. But at the same time, that’s why you need that trusted advisor partnership with a firm like ours and others, too. Certainly, we’re not the only ones you need partnership with.

This is what our coaching practitioner program that we’re launching is going to talk about. Who do you need around you to support you, to provide the services so that you can leverage yourself and you can reach 22,000 people just as you? It’s all about the team you have helping build things for you, support you, come in and deliver for you. It’s a game of leverage.

We are that partner. That’s why, when you think about productization and developing one product and selling it and having that be your business model, it becomes clear to me, “Do you want help our client solve their problems, or do you want to be selling a product to them and have one option of what to buy from you?”

That is the fundamental question. Do you want to run a services business or a product business? How do you want to be of service, and what do you think your biggest towering talent is in terms of how you assist clients?

To me, building a product and putting it out to market and saying, “Do you want to work with us? Buy our stuff. This is the kit.” And some of my competitors, that’s what they do. They have a kit, they have an app, they have a process that you go through and it doesn’t really deviate client to client. There is a finite menu of choices that you buy from those kinds of vendors. Honestly, that’s true for a lot of my competitors. I have to say, they’re smart. The beauty of a product business is you invest all your money up front, you build something, and then all you do is market it. All you do is push it, push it, push it out. You become a sales machine as a company.

It’s simple, but it just doesn’t have the heart and it doesn’t have the touch. I think D&I challenges are complicated. They are complicated. They cannot be solved with someone so simple.

DOUG FORESTA: If only it could be.

JENNIFER BROWN: I wish.

DOUG FORESTA: Jennifer, we are pressing up against time, and we are going to have to do a part three of this, because there is still more I want to ask you.

Two things: At the end, I want to make sure that you tell our listeners how they can access the new coaching program. But before I do that, I want to ask you a question. As concise as you can possibly be with this answer, and I don’t know if there is a concise answer. You mentioned at the outset that there’s a difference between being a training company and a strategic consulting firm. Can you explain for us, briefly, what is that difference between a training company and a strategic consulting firm?

JENNIFER BROWN: Well, strategic consulting is meeting the client where they’re at, as we often say in the consulting world, and working on the actual strategy under which training can and should live. Training is part of every change strategy, whether you’re doing IT implementation or you’re acquiring a company, it’s all about change management.

Really, we work on the high-level, 30,000-foot view with clients. How are you going to design a change process to get from A to B? What are your strategic initiatives, objectives, goals? How will you measure success? Strategy is the roadmap, it’s the development of that roadmap.

If you’re a new practitioner in an inclusion role, or an inclusion, equity, and belonging role, you have to lead an entire function and an entire organization on a journey. You need a strategy that you’re following, of course, which seems obvious. We specialize in what those strategies need to include, how to build it, and what are the pieces along the way?

Training is one of those levers, one of those buttons you can push to create change, to support the change. Training is the learning piece of change, it’s the behavior change piece. Often, it’s the classroom or online piece of how you get your stakeholders to change their hearts and minds, to show up differently, to behave differently.

Unconscious bias training is an example of one of the kinds of training that we might do. We do inclusive leader training, as well, which is less about the science of unconscious bias and more about what being an inclusive leader actually looks like and sounds like. We talk about recruiting, interviews, meetings, and all of the places where you can role model inclusion.

Strategic consulting is the 30,000-foot view. If you’re a training company, then what you’re doing is you’re building training over and over and you’re rolling it out. It tends to be more productized because there are a finite number of trainings that you’re going to build, and then you literally are in the business of rubber-stamping that and rolling it out to thousands of people.

DOUG FORESTA: We offer this course, we offer this course.

JENNIFER BROWN: Exactly. It’s a menu. You asked me earlier, Doug, what kind of competency I look for in our people. We can’t just be trainers; we have to be consultants as well. Which means we’re not just selling training and our conversations aren’t for the purpose of saying, “Buy our training.” As a consultant, you’re saying to somebody, “You have this big, audacious goal of achieving gender parity by 2025.”

DOUG FORESTA: How do we get there?

JENNIFER BROWN: How do we get there? Yes. By the way, we’re going to be working together for one year or two years, and within that relationship, we’re going to touch so many different parts of your organization. Depending on what’s needed, our solution in that moment could look like a lot of different things. It could be facilitating a meeting or developing a business case in a slide deck, it could be coaching one on one and checking in with key stakeholders and seeing how they’re doing or getting people on board and increasing stakeholder buy-in, which sounds like a fancy phrase, but a lot of the time we spend is getting ideas adopted in the organization. Who has power? Who’s going to need to lead.

We also spend a lot of time on communications design. What kind of memo goes out from the CEO to announce something? Why is that important? What needs to be included in something like that?

None of the things I just described are training.

DOUG FORESTA: No.

JENNIFER BROWN: They’re levers for change. That comes from the strategy that we develop. As I said, training is one of many great ways to create momentum for change, but it’s at the learning level and it’s a classroom intervention.

My folks are trainers and they’re consultants. That blend of the ability to switch between these things, trainers are easier to find, consultants are much harder to find.

DOUG FORESTA: I would imagine so.

JENNIFER BROWN: Absolutely.

DOUG FORESTA: More skill sets.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s why we grow slow. This consulting skill set is a rare piece in our world of D&I experts. It requires patience to consult, customer orientation, ability to show initiative and solve problems that you’ve never solved before, an ability to think holistically about what you’re looking at, and not only solve a problem or help build a solution, but guide a client towards that and work with multiple stakeholders in an organization, some of whom may resist you really hard. It requires the ability to be sensitive to all of that, and yet create and accomplish something given the complexity of organizations. It’s tricky stuff. It’s tricky. It’s so far beyond being able to get up in a training classroom, deliver content, and create a fun experience for everyone where they learn something. I used to do that. It’s really fun, but it’s so much less complex.

DOUG FORESTA: Yes, it’s not the totality of what being a strategic consultant is.

JENNIFER BROWN: Exactly.

DOUG FORESTA: Jennifer, this has been such an amazing, value-packed episode. We really will have to do a part three, because there are still more questions I want to ask you.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yay!

DOUG FORESTA: We have to wrap up for today. As of this recording, today is actually the launch of the coaching program, is that correct?

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. Yes. We’re actually having an information call on Monday, the 13th of August. I know this is going to air a little bit later.

Yes, we are launching this fall. We’re launching our first D&I practitioner program, and we may actually be shifting the name of it to include the word “equity” because we are focusing a lot more on that, and our clients are asking for clarification around that and how to lead strategies around equity as well.

We’ll be launching in the fall. If you’d like information about potentially signing up, it is a serious program. It’s a deep dive into DEI strategy taught by our chief strategists. The people on my team are working with Fortune 500 clients every single day talking about these exact issues. It’s a deep dive. It’s an entirely virtual program, but it will give people access to some of our best folks.

If you’re interested in learning more, you should definitely sign up for one of our informational calls where we’ll go into more detail about what the program components are, what the take-aways are.

It’s ideally meant for practitioners within the first one month to 24 months of leading DEI. It’s meant for the new practitioner. It’s meant to help you build your skill set, your knowledge, your research, your data, your business case, your ability to analyze where the organization is, and hit the ground running. Those first months are really important for you, for the organization, for the way that DEI is viewed in the organization. It really matters how we show up in the first year to two years that we’re in these roles.

Oftentimes, Doug, people are in these roles for the first time themselves, and the company has never had somebody in the role before. We’re in an age where more and more diversity-related positions are being created at smaller, newer, and younger companies as well. It’s really exciting, but the down side of it is that there aren’t enough experienced practitioners available for these positions, so they’re thrown into the deep end. This program is meant to ground them in what they really need to know and what they need to bring and in what order they need to role that knowledge and change effort out in the organization.

My hypothesis is this is a really big hole in our field for these new practitioners and for these companies that have never had a practice before in the inclusiveness space. It will really help us be more effective, and ultimately, create the kind of change that we want.

If you’re interested, send us an e-mail at info@jenniferbrownconsulting.com. That’s the best way to get in touch with us. We’ll add you to our mailing list so that you can stay up to date on the news of the Q&A calls and the dates for the launch of the program and all the other particulars.

DOUG FORESTA: Jennifer Brown, thank you so much for another amazing episode of The Will to Change.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you, Doug.