A Unique Client Pipeline for Consultants
For five years, Independent Consultant, Diane Davidson of Clever Fox Advisory has used a unique pipeline for sales. She’s sharing how she does it, why she does it, and her secrets on service flexibility to meet customer needs and demands.
Notes from the Show
Diane Davidson has an extensive background as a corporate consultant, but five years ago she went into business for herself as Clever Fox Advisory. Diane has a unique approach to building a pipeline that leads to contract sales and allows her to structure her time for a 2-3 month yearly vacation.
Clever Fox Advisory’s customer outreach comes purely through the network; Diane connects and registers with larger consulting firms recruiters and is at the top of their list for her target skills. These recruiters are in the business of selling projects, as Diane says, so when a project is the right fit, she is able to contract with a company independently to solve their unique problems.
In this framework, Diane works with a variety of companies in and outside of her industry specialty. She doesn’t like to stay for more than a year because maintaining fresh eyes and an outsider’s perspective is an important piece of her work.
This also lends to Diane’s ability to pivot, be flexible, and take the pulse of market trends and demands. Diane stays up to date on the news and economics so she can be ready to help customers with problems they don't even know they have yet.
You can find Diane Davidson on LinkedIn or reach her via email.
Leveraging your network for sales.
Accessing customers from corporate consulting firms.
Utilizing consultant recruiters
Being flexible in services to meet customers needs.
Taking a pulse on the market to be ahead of trends and demands.
Mentioned in this Episode:
Transcribed by AI Susan Tatum 0:36
Hello, and welcome back to stop the noise everybody. Today, my guest is Diane Davidson and Diane is the owner of Clever Fox advisory. She's in her fifth year of having her own consulting firm and comes with a really heavy consulting background and you worked at Ernst and Young and Capgemini and slalom,
Diane Davidson 0:55
Susan Tatum 0:56
So, first of all, welcome.
Diane Davidson 0:59
thank you for having me.
Susan Tatum 1:01
It's great to have you here. And we have a wonderful topic that we're going to be talking about today, because Diane has a what for me is a unique approach to building a pipeline, which we'll get into but a question that I want to ask you, because you have all of these years of experience as a consultant with with a big with a big consulting firms. Does the fact that you have that background really, really help you now in when you're consulting with manufacturing firms is is your specialty, right?
Diane Davidson 1:29
Yeah, it is definitely. It's interesting right now that I'm kind of further in my career, I always wonder like, Oh, I wish I would have started my own business earlier. And I really realized like, especially at EY like they come in with a playbook of how they run their projects. And as a consultant, you kind of learn that playbook. And so I've got these really good skills. And I'm very, like, I follow up, I know all these life cycles. Okay, here's how you start a project. Here's how you, you know, here's what we do in the build phase. Here's what we do in deployment. Here's what and I've seen it on that larger scale that I don't think I could have gotten that experience had, I only worked at a consulting firm for three years, right, and then came out so and then because I worked at a lot of different firms. And I did that because I just couldn't find something that was a good fit for me. And honestly, that fit was just working for myself. And it was like I couldn't figure out what was making me happy there realized, oh, it's because I want to be in control of everything. But I think going to see what worked and didn't work at each firm kind of helped me build what I would say is my go to market approach. And I think a lot of my clients like that, because I'm like, This is what I've learned at this firm, this firm. This is how I run projects. And I but I also have that what I'd like to call pedigree of saying like, but I learned it from somewhere. And then I you know, morphed it into my own brand.
Susan Tatum 2:53
Yeah, yeah. So you so you, you combined it all and took the best of the ones of the three that you had worked with, and put your own stuff in there. And so it makes total sense to me. So you build your.. the majority of your business comes, it's working for large companies, as a subcontractor to the large consulting firms. Did I get that?
Diane Davidson 3:18
Right? Correct. So and I kind of got like a partnership, but only because I think sometimes people take subcontractors, it has like a negative connotation. But for all intensive purposes, I work as my own consultant, you know, I have my own contract with that consulting firm. Because of the nature of the work I do, I can only really, so I do a lot of process improvement on the financials, I can only do that with large corporations doesn't really work as well with small businesses, not that they don't need me, but the pipeline will be constantly going into the market to find clients, that it was very hard to get a foot in the door at these large fortune 500 companies, right. And so I figured out that if I build these relationships, they've kind of already done a lot of the business development. And so what with these consulting firms, and I've specialized enough that the skill set that I have is kind of rare. It's you know, years of my experience. And so if they and I noticed this when I was at EY and in the other firms as well, not everyone specializes is does process improvement for finances, we see process improvement for supply chain all the time, but we don't see it in finance a lot. And so made it very easy in that I'm going to a I'm building relationships with consulting firms, and they do all the business development, they had the pipeline and so I it takes out kind of the trying to sell to someone who may not want to buy so they kind of know that they're gonna have projects that we talk, we talk about it for a good fit, and then they just kind of let me know and then they'll come with a portfolio of projects. So I still get to run as a independent which I love and I am in control of. You know, I don't travel, I think I've mentioned that to you before I, it's just not what I prefer to do now. So it's like they and I am upfront with all the firms I work with. But they come to me with, Hey, we have this project, and then I say yes or no, but I built relationships with five or six different firms so that I kind of have a suite of books to fill my pipeline.
Susan Tatum 5:29
So you so that, yeah, so you don't have to do the business development from you're not you're, you're not having to re educate a prospect over and over and over again.
Diane Davidson 5:36
Susan Tatum 5:37
And it's obviously working for you, because you take a month or two of every January and February, from what you're telling me.
Diane Davidson 5:45
Yeah. But because the web work is all transformational work, if you think of transformation work, it's typically the most stressful thing for a company, they do it once every five years. So it can be very intense. And, and honestly, I just enjoy working 10 or nine months a year. So last year, I took off three months. And so I'll get clients, I'll kind of fill my pipeline, I'd built these relationships, and then I'll kind of let them know, these consulting firms, you know, there's recruiters, their staffing is just nice, because you, it's like I'm purchasing, I'm selling my services to someone I know is going to make a purchase. It may not be this week or this month, but I know that consulting firm at some point will need to they're in the business of selling projects.
Susan Tatum 6:30
Right. Does it also help Diane, that they understand what you're selling?
Diane Davidson 6:35
It does. I think what I sell to even I struggle sometimes to explain it to people. I think when you say finance transformation, unless you've actually gone through that it can be a little more complex to understand what exactly are the benefits I can offer? Yeah.
Susan Tatum 6:53
So how did you build this pipeline? You mentioned? So there's a recruiting group inside these large consulting firms?
Diane Davidson 7:00
Yes. So they, they actually most of them all your big four will have essentially a area designated to working job with independent consultants. And so I have either reached out because I have worked with someone that worked at the for EY, that's who gave me my first consulting project. They knew me I'd worked there. They said, You know, we know that you don't like to travel, but we have a project in Chicago. But now because I work with them as an independent, I met all these other people that are in their kind of, they call it gig economy, but I'm in their gig economy programs. So anytime they have a project they know my profile, and they have a project that matches, they'll reach out to me and say, Is this something you're interested in? Or do you have availability? For people, I don't have that relationship I register with a typically have kind of a web site, and I'll register and then they'll do an interview. And I just kind of follow up with a recruiter slash, you know, the staffing manager, just like you had when you worked inside a consulting firm, right? You had somebody that your engagement manager who staffed you, I just constantly reach out to them, check up on stuff. Anytime I know I'm coming available, I'll reach out about six weeks earlier and say, Hey, I'm available. Here's an updated resume. Here's the types of projects I'm focused on. Because I do pivot my skills. Here's what I most recently accomplished. Let's do a quick catch up meeting.
Susan Tatum 8:24
Okay. And so now you.. So you're, you're working your network constantly throughout the year.
Diane Davidson 8:30
if I need to, if I need work, like right now, I'm pretty good for the year. So I will probably reach out towards November right now it's kind of slow. So I may not, but I also refer other consultants to them, which has been nice, because they're always in the business of looking for new consultants, people reach out to me about projects and how to become an independent. And so that's a way to also help that relationship, right, I pass a referral, that person does work for them, and they do a good job. They're happy. So I think what I like about it versus cold selling or going to is it's very mutually beneficial. I talked to them, versus I tried to go to a fortune 500 company, and I say, Hi, I'm selling financial transformation, they're probably going to say you have the wrong person. Why did you call us? We only work with certain firms. I think that's the when you work with these larger corporations, they have trusted and vetted advisors, and they only work with certain consulting firms, or they only work with certain staffing firms.
Susan Tatum 9:36
And do you see that you mentioned the fortune 500? How far down does that go? That they're pretty much focused there. They already have contracts for the big stuff like to the 1000 to the 5000.
Diane Davidson 9:47
I would the 1000 for sure. I think even your 5000. My current client that we're looking about trying to onboard a vendor and for a project we want to kick off and the the onboarding process and the the vetting process is six months for them. So you can understand most and they're a billion, they're a $5 billion company, you can understand they don't want to really go through that process very often. So even as a small business, they don't want to vet and it won't take long to vet, right. I don't have that complexity. But they, but I went through my current client through a staffing firm kind of an intermediary is what I like to call them. And it made it easier because then the company that's made they trust the company that they're working with that I have all the required paperwork, in my onboarding process took a month instead of six months.
Susan Tatum 10:37
So I'm gonna keep picking your brain here for a minute, Diane, because I do get when I collect questions from consultants about just various things, what's what's, what are they struggling with? One of the questions that keeps coming up is how do you get into big companies? And so what I hear you saying is that, really, if you really want to get into the big companies, and you don't know somebody, then it's the the, the way in is through a larger firm that already has a contract with these folks.
Diane Davidson 11:07
Correct. Then you've built the relationship, you're contractually obligated to perform that relationship, right? So the contracts, read your contract, but most of mine have said after a year there. So let's say I do work with my client through this intermediary, they still for a year after they still kind of own that relationship. But if I want to go and do business with that client in two or three years, I can approach them directly on my own.
Susan Tatum 11:34
So the big consulting firms would allow you to do that as well?
Diane Davidson 11:36
because they can only hold you for a certain period of time that you normally in your contract. That's also something I look at at my contracts, is how long I need to maintain that relationship before I can foster my own relationship. I haven't had to do that just because the nature of this model has worked really well for me, and I've consistently used it for the last five years.
Susan Tatum 11:58
Yeah. So you haven't taken you haven't you haven't felt the need to go direct with any of the companies that you were working for?
Diane Davidson 12:06
No, just because most of the time, the work that I do is so finite, I'll do it for a year. And by the time that kind of wraps up, I'm ready to go anyways, the reason I am a consultant is because I like to see I like to learn about new companies. And I like to learn and solve problems. And then once I've solved that problem, I kind of want to move on to a new problem and a new company.
Susan Tatum 12:29
I think when we talk the first time that you said, I heard you say that you don't like to stay anywhere for more than a year or you feel like you start getting you lose your independence or you you lose your third party. I guess you you lose your Outsider's viewpoint.
Diane Davidson 12:46
And I got to think when I come in with fresh eyes, where I am very easy for me to say, Oh, I don't personally think this business process you're doing is a best practice. And here's what I have seen other clients. After about a year, I'll be like, well, we shouldn't really do it this way. But we've done it like this before. So it's okay. Right? Like I start in graining start drinking the Kool Aid. Alright. And next thing I know, and that, you know, I have become friends with the people I work with I and not that you can't be friends with them, right. But I think sometimes that outsider perspective, I start losing it. I also do believe what makes me great at my job is to have an outside perspective. I can say, you know, I've worked at these 20 companies. I start staying at companies for two, three years, I am going to lose kind of my skill set a little bit, right, because I'm going to be very ingrained into that one client, that one. So I'm industry agnostic. I work on a lot of manufacturing clients, but I've also worked on service clients, I've worked on government. So I do try to kind of pick up because each person gives you a different challenge and helps you solve a problem. But if I stay at a company, too long outside of I worked at one company, and they were a global mining company. So they sent me to China they sent me that's the only time I will kind of stay because I'm going to different countries to learn different business practices.
Susan Tatum 14:15
And you'll agree to travel under those circumstances.
Diane Davidson 14:17
That's correct. Right? If you send me to a very interesting foreign country, I'm very into it. The Caribbean is preferred. So listeners who are looking for a financial consultant, I'm available.
Susan Tatum 14:30
That exact strategy is how I wound up visiting every continent except Antarctica, during during my life so far. So it does work well.
Diane Davidson 14:43
It does, right. It it
Susan Tatum 14:46
You know, I think one of one of the most valuable things that consultants offer their clients is that broader perspective of what's going on out there. What are other companies doing what else is happening in the industry? So one of the things one of the other things that we wanted to ask you a bit more bout was that we talked, you talked about pivoting. And I would had been asking you what are you seeing with the current economy, and it becoming a little bit cooling off and getting a little uncertain? And so you, you would said that it you were the work that you do shifts, as the economy changes where the focus is. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Diane Davidson 15:22
Sure. So I think a couple years ago, when I started, I was doing more, what I would say is like digital transformation, really focused on customer, mainly broadening products, market share increases. And I think because people were very much money, and your costs were less important, because there was a lot of demand for products, right, people were consuming a lot more. And so we were very much focused on increasing revenue. I think as revenue, we're seeing, you know, some layoffs, slowing of the economy. So demand for products and services has fallen a little bit. I know it's for products, for sure. I know services, like people are still taking vacations like crazy. But so as revenue increases, I'm seeing companies come to me focused on cost cutting, and cost cutting doesn't just have to mean getting rid of people, it can be improving services, right. So my current client is increasing their dashboards and analytics internally, and trying to get rid of some of their legacy systems. They'll be able and all the dashboards I'm working on to design with them are around cost performance measures, since their manufacturing, it's around like scrap, it's around defect codes. It's around engineering processes. And what that translates to bottom line. So if I think about the equation, you know, it's no longer sales, they're focused on their cost and to drive their margins. And so I've been really focused on my services are around that process improvement, which I enjoy anyways, that's where I wanted to do. I wanted to do it. Eight years ago, I kept going to these consulting firms, and I was like, I want to do process improvement. And they're like, there's no demand in that. And I'm like,
Susan Tatum 17:11
Diane Davidson 17:12
Yeah, they would say, we don't we don't have the market share for that. But we want you to be a project manager for this digital transformation. And I was like, No, I want to be a process improvement consultant. And they were like, No, there's no demand in that. It's funny, the same firm that told me that I noticed the other day on LinkedIn that they're now offering processes. So I was like I was ahead of the trend. There was nobody was interested in purchasing it. But now there is a lot of demand. I've noticed people come to me a lot now because I think you see I have a Six Sigma background. So I come in, I'm running six sigma on some of my projects. I have a couple of Greenbelt projects I'm running. And we're really focused on that cost cutting and, and not headcount. None of my projects are headcount reduction. They're all about inefficiencies, identifying waste, whether waste is actually physical waste, or productivity, waste, streamlining processes, and then using analytics to to track because I think that's the one thing, right, like, there's so much people than cost cutting is oh, I just lay a bunch of people off. And it's like, well, that doesn't really solve your problem.
Susan Tatum 18:23
Right? Yeah, it can create bigger ones. So what did you do? So you said, when you you noticed in this last time when the economy started to cool off about you that the shift was from, I think you said strategy to process improvement. And they went and changed. You changed your website, you changed everything?
Diane Davidson 18:43
I changed everything because I had done some process improvement projects, but it was very low. A lot of mine were these future implementations. They were focused on getting new technology solutions, and I just did not. I didn't see demand in there. I saw us also offshoring a lot of that work. Yeah, I saw rates getting compressed. And I just was like, I'm not going to focus on that. So I redid my website, I went and got a Six Sigma Greenbelt, I'd been talking about it for years. And I finally and the company I worked for at the time, was like, I don't think there's demand. So I went and got it anyways, took the classes. They wanted me to get a PMP certification. Nothing wrong with that, but I just wasn't what I wanted to do. And I was like, I'm gonna give this greenbelts six segments. And I really started to, you know, try to take clients that were doing process improvement. So as I was working on my first kind of year as an independent, I did an implementation because that's what I got. But when I got into my second year, I made sure that I only picked clients that were interested in process improvement services.
Susan Tatum 19:52
So you know, there's two, there's two really important messages there that I want to reiterate just in case it escape some of the listeners, and one of them is that you're paying attention to what your clients want. You're you're watching the market demand. And yet, and you are you have the flexibility, you change what you're doing to meet the market demand.
Diane Davidson 20:14
I read business news an hour a day, and I only read financial news. And I specifically read in a couple of different news outlets, but I read about CFOs perspectives, and I really tried to figure out where they think that our economy is going. But then like specifically not, you know, like, it's not like when you watch the news, and they're like, oh, it's going up, you know, like I really tried to see where are, you know, like Gartner publish? What is CFOs Looking at, and I'll look at the topics. I'll go through and look at each of the topics, and I'll read the ones that I think are impactful. As I see that coming up more, right. Because once I started kind of picking up on that, it seems like you start seeing it more, then I'll start basically pivoting my offer. And I'll start trying to write articles, write content, pick clients that are, you know, changed the portfolio of how I'm what's on my website, what I put in my resume, what I put in my one pager and say, This is what I'm now offering so that I can build a portfolio. Because if I wait until it's like AI, right, like AI is now everyone does AI but if I had now to say, oh, I want to learn AI that that ship has sailed, like I met I'm a laggard, right. So the best thing to do is really see what I would say like Gartner, you know, it caught economical news, I read like CFO weekly, what they're writing about, that's where you want to start picking that up, because they're creating the demand. They're educating the customers, once they've educated, um, that's when the CFOs are going to start looking for it.
Susan Tatum 21:51
Okay, so So what you're saying there is, by the time your cut, your customers are expressing a demand for it, you've waited, you should be you should be pivoting before they realize they have that demand. So you should need to be, you need to be following the thought leaders, and the economists and whatever is what the people with their finger on the pulse of what's going to happen tomorrow,
Diane Davidson 22:15
right? Because they're because by the time you're caught, your customer is looking for it, there's going to be someone like me who's already upskilled themselves to get to that, you don't want to wait to your customers looking for it, you want to anticipate customer needs as much as you can. Now granted, I've done this once and it was very successful, we'll see the next time the market.... like consulting, right. And I can forget
Susan Tatum 22:42
I was just just gonna suggest that you have some kind of newsletter or thing that you sell to other consultants that says this is where you should be,
Diane Davidson 22:49
right. But you do want to upskill right, like AI and I don't play in the AI space. But that's kind of one of the items, I would say, if you're trying to learn AI now, I think you're a little bit behind the curve. I think you want to try to hit that the first time it starts coming out, right? And people start discussing it. Because now what you're going to do is if if I let's say I want to start offering those services, that market is flooded? there's so many people and there's gonna be people that three years of experience or five years, right, I'm going to show I'm going to have compressed rates, I'm going to have compressed offerings, and they're going to want to go with someone, the only reason they're going to pick me is they think I'm going to be cheaper, or they're looking for someone more junior, right?
Susan Tatum 23:35
Yeah, people's cheaper, right?
Diane Davidson 23:36
And so you really want to try the thing that I think I've been doing very well. I mean, because I'm a solo consultant, it's probably a little bit easier, right? I'm one person I can pivot based on how my mood is today, you know, versus trying to take the whole for. Yeah, but I think the thing I do really well is I do read a lot of news and I do try to reel and I test stuff, like I'll go out and start writing articles or reaching out to people or I'll join small business groups and just be like, What do you think about this? And I'll I'll kind of test people's reactions. And there's ideas I've had that I thought was really great. And, and they fail. Now I didn't I never implemented them out. I'll do you know, a good couple months of testing. What what do you think about this? Or what if I did this, I think at one point, I wanted to come up with a template that did GL accounts, like hierarchies. And I built it out and I spent a couple months on it. And I wrote about it a couple of times and nobody was interested. Not one person wrote back you know, like, and, and I'm glad I and I really thought I was like, Oh, I'm gonna build a software solution. And I never got traction on it. And so that's when I was like, Alright, not a good idea, but I'm into it.
Susan Tatum 24:52
Well, you know, and I think that's one of the the most interesting things about the digital world that we have now is that you can test ideas. I mean, even If it's as simple as posting something somewhere with with some bullet points and seeing what the reaction is, there's, there's just no excuse for going blindly into something now,
Diane Davidson 25:09
right. Like LinkedIn is great, right? I check my impressions, and I see what people are commenting. And I have conversations with people. And, you know, sometimes it's just like, you and I are talking, right? Maybe I just slept in like, Hey, I was thinking about this, give me your opinion, like, what do you see other consultants? Right? And I do want to meet people, and then I kind of get a feeling for it, you know? And then I kind of know if it's a good idea. I think, too many people, I've worked with some other independents. They're very, like, I do this one thing, and I'm a master at this. Yeah, it works. Until it doesn't work. And that's kind of where I didn't want to get into is, it doesn't work with my brand. Anyways, I'm a very curious person. So I need to constantly learning new things. But I've noticed that once you ge to an expert level, eventually they start making either technology to replace that, or they start sending it off shore or air,
Susan Tatum 26:13
or there's just a glut of people offer offering similar solutions. And then that really gets a premium. So one more question for you, when you started your company.
Diane Davidson 26:17
Is this what you thought you'd be doing? I mean, honestly, the first year, I was just happy to have a contract. And then I think the next year, I was like, let me try again. And then I got another contract for a year. And I was like, Oh, my God, I'm a real business. So I think it wasn't until like year three, that I really thought about it strategic. I think year one and two, I was just like, I'm gonna try this. And I have some monies and savings. So if it doesn't work out, I'll be unemployed for a little while, but then I'll figure it out.
Susan Tatum 26:47
Yeah. Where are you? So you're you it seems to me like you are perfectly happy with the business that you have now. You're like we're saying you take two, three months off a year? I know you're traveling to do some interesting investments. So are you is there like building a big company? It is Clever Fox advisory? Start getting employees at any point in the future? Are you shaking your head people know,
Diane Davidson 27:14
Clever Fox advisory may have like Clever Fox boating, we may buy a sailboat that we charter out to other people we may have like, but I don't, I don't enjoy managing other people. I also like to come and go as I please. And I truly believe if I'm going to manage someone I need to be, I need to probably not come and go as I please. Right. Like they need to have a manager that they know where she's coming and where she's going. And they need to have someone who enjoys. I've had a lot of managers in my life who didn't enjoy managing people. And I think I like to mentor people, but that's different than managing Right.
Susan Tatum 27:54
Very, yeah, very much.
Diane Davidson 27:55
And so for me, I think a couple years ago, if you had asked me that, I would have said yes, we're gonna get employees. Now I'm really content and I really enjoy being a one person business.
Susan Tatum 28:06
Amen. Okay. Thank you so much for being here. For the listeners that want to follow up with you. What's the best way to do that?
Diane Davidson 28:12
Then you can reach out to me at Diane at Clever Fox advisory.com That's my email address or Diane Davidson, D I A N E on LinkedIn. Clever Fox advisor is the company. I have a small webpage. I think we have seven followers. So if you want to follow along, we're looking for followers, and we is just me in the webpage. But yeah, LinkedIn and email are kind of the two areas I'm constantly in.
Susan Tatum 28:41
Alright, great. Well, thank you for sharing so much with us.
Diane Davidson 28:46
Yeah, no problem.
Susan Tatum 28:47
Very enlightening, and have a good evening.