There was a time when I was writing two or three blogs a week. But this last month has been very dry. I put it down partly to being ill (my usual Xmas Man-Flu) and a certain listlessness I often feel at this time of year. Plus I have been very busy with Stepping Out - which has had a very strong start to 2012.
This doesn't mean, however, that things aren't hard. Everything at the moment has to fought hard for. Anyone selling into the public or voluntary sector faces a tightening market and burgeoning competition. Get this. One tender we won recently, firm in the belief that we were in pole position, saw 18 bids in a week-long tender window just after the new years. We won anyway, firmly on merit, but you can see, there are lots of appropriately qualified consultants waiting for the phone to ring. A lot of these are people fresh on the market from the midldle to senior tiers of public sector which are now shedding like a tree in Autumn.
Three other things tell me it's tight. Firstly, every week I am contacted by consultants and firms reminding me they are available. This rarely used to happen. Secondly, people are always asking me 'How business is going?'. Some of this is just banter, but I sense that a lot of people are trying to get the measure of how firms like mine are actually surviving at the moment. Thirdly, day-rates are tumbling and fixed fees are becoming increasingly common. I am paying myself - and anyone who delivers for us - less per day than a year ago. Such is supply and demand.
So how does a services-based business survive and grow in this climate. Again I would point to three things.
1. Differentiation / Specialisation. Know what you're good at - and focus on that alone. I think Stepping Out is working because we're not all things to all people. We know who we're seeking to work with and what we offer. A lot of people think they can just be John Smith General Consultant (Ltd). Sorry, but you can't anymore - unless you're famous, which you're probably not.
2. Show leadership in your space. Make speeches. Write articles, Write books if you can. This will help separate you from the mass of people all trying to work the space - and show your individual commitment to it. Having something to your name helps clients see you are one-on from the pack and 'safe' to work with in the area.
3. Pick up the phone. There's no point sending letters or emails to people any more telling them you're there. It just becomes part of the wall of electronic noise that fills most of our lives. One very successful entrepreneur, also in the business of selling stuff in the social enterprise sector, generally calls you if he wants your help or your business. It sounds like a step backwards - it's what I saw my Dad doing in his bedroom office on 1970s finger-dial on his rare days working from home - but it does work.
A fourth, though this is obvious, is to work your arse off. Showing persistence and commitment gives off a sign that you'll do this for your clients too. They are buying you, your attitude, your loyalty and your willingness to run through walls - as well, of course, as your wonderful brain! So swanning around like the consulting equivalent of a Premier League superstar will not help your cause. Be humble - as well, of course, as brilliant.