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Competing With The Big Dogs

You run a small consultancy. You're well qualified, experienced and dedicated. Yet you can't get a meeting with the corporate decision-maker.

Your proposal was a work of art. You provided exactly what the client needed, plus a ton of added value. Yet the business went to a well-known firm offering a standard approach at twice the price.

You did a great job for the client, during which a whole lot of other needs surfaced. All are within your expertise, but you weren't even asked to submit a proposal.

Any of these situations familiar to you? If so, what you've encountered is the power of a well-known brand name over rational choices based on factors like expertise, ability or value.

How Corporates Choose

When you sell to established businesses, especially large ones, you start off believing they'll be more rational than the guy around the corner. You have what they want, you give great service and your price is highly competitive. At least they'll listen to you.

Welcome to the real world of small consultancies. The Big Dogs mostly take emotional decisions based on fear and desire. Their "minders" -- the people who control access to them -- know this very well. That's why they won't let you through to talk to the boss.

What do these people fear? Looking foolish. What do they desire? Prestige. What do they dislike most? Uncertainty.

See It From Their Point of View

They'll talk to the person from the big consulting group -- even if he or she is far less qualified or competent than you are -- because doing so meets all the requirements.

Working with a big consulting group seems safe. They have a reputation. Their powerful brand name implies an unwritten assurance of success. And if it does go wrong, they'll take the blame, not the buyer. As they say, "Who ever got fired for buying IBM?"

They also convey prestige. The Big Dogs talk to each other and drop names into the conversation to shine in one another's eyes. Will your name produce admiration -- or a superior smile and "Who on earth are they?"

Action You CAN Take

You aren't going to beat the big consultancies on ground favorable to them, so don't bother trying. But they can be beaten, so long as you go where they're weakest. And you always remember to see yourself from the buyer's perspective.

Here are some possibilities:

1. Narrow your focus. The big guys of the profession do everything. Become known for doing just one thing to an exceptional level. Be the "go to" expert. Experts are often individuals. That's what many of them are academics. And corporate Big Dogs seek them out because working with them also supplies prestige and removes fear. If your focus is really narrow, you'll have zero competition. And you don't have to be an expert to write the book. Writing it is how you become an expert. All you need at the start is determination and basic research skills.

2. Stress your credentials. Add to them all the time. Write THE book on your narrow focus or THE articles. You don't need to be an expert to write the book. Doing it will make you the expert.

3. Seek publicity. Instead of trying to force your way into the executive suite, make them come to you. If you're the person who writes those witty pieces in the local rag on that vital topic to them, they'll rush to call you up.

4. Always focus on what's in it for them. Provide free material. Produce a newsletter that ISN'T full of selling, but contains truly useful data.

Most small consultancies are afraid of giving away what they can see is valuable to clients. Here's a secret. The more you give away, the more people will believe you have yet more they don't know about yet. The seekers for free consulting aren't the Big Dogs -- who are always willing to pay for what's useful to them, if only to stop you selling it to someone else -- but morons at middle management level who want to pass it off as their own ideas.

Be Careful Where You Focus

Finally, think hard about what you choose as your consulting area. If you set out to provide a generic service in an area of consulting just about everyone says they can do, you're laying yourself wide open to being run over by the big guys.

Where the competition is endless, buying from a well-known name seems a good way to avoid being taken in by some snake-oil salesman.

But everyone knows the big consultancies are jacks of all trades. If they want a real expert in a vital area, that isn't where they look.

That's your chance.

Adrian W. Savage writes for people who want help with the daily dilemmas they face at work. He has contributed more than 25 articles to leading British and American publications and has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and The Chicago Tribune.

Visit his blog on the ups and downs of business life.

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