The 2nd Most Important Word in Consulting

If you asked me a few years ago for the most important phrase in consulting, the reply would have been, “Yes I can!” The operative word being Yes. Your can-do attitude is your ticket to a successful consulting practice, right? Wrong.

Let’s get the most important word in consulting out of the way so we can focus on the real topic of this article. Right-Side Up consultants’ language consistently sounds client-focused. And the single word that is most focused on the other person is: “you.” “You” is the most important word in consulting.

So, is the second most important word in consulting Yes? As in, “Yes I can!” when a prospect asks whether you can help him?

Good guess. Fair answer. But, Yes is not the 2nd most important word.

I vaguely remember my kids growing through a phase where their favorite word was an emphatic, No!

They were smart, little guys. It turns out toddlers have a worthy lesson to impart:

The value of your Yes is defined by the strength of your No.

As leaders of consulting firms and individual consultants, we can accelerate our growth by learning to say No more and, as a result, narrowing our focus.

If you’re running a one-person consultancy you may handle just about every aspect of the business. You shouldn’t, but you may. Whereas, when you’re running a boutique consulting firm, you delegate and distribute tasks. In fact, in order to create a larger consulting business, you must say No more often and farm out tasks to others. That’s personal focus.

In the marketplace, presenting your consulting firm as able to do anything and everything renders you a weak, unattractive choice to any prospect who can find a specialist. The most successful boutique consulting firms deliberately promote a narrow area of expertise.

To find your Yes, you have to know your Nos.

Rather than emulating Johnny Appleseed, spreading possibilities everywhere, treat your consulting firm like a potato. Go deep, then spread out. (Okay, potatoes may not be the best metaphor, but they’re amazing balls of flaky tastiness.)

Some Nos are easy. You don’t work on illegal projects, or dig trenches, or fry up a batch of curly fries, lightly sprinkled with salt and a dash of… no, you don’t do that.

On the other hand, the Nos right around the edges of your consulting practice are much harder to define. They’re also the most important to think about. Fuzzy edges lead to fuzzy positioning and fuzzy possibilities.

Tight edges bestow tight marketing propositions, confidence, and interested clients.

Spend a few minutes today defining your Nos. Below are a few thought-starter questions for you:

What industries will you say no to?

What style of buyers don’t fit?

What types of projects fall outside your bailiwick?

What size projects are too small?

What geographies are out of bounds?

What problems won’t you solve?

Your Nos are vitally important to hearing more Yeses from consulting clients. I’d like to hear some other ways you could define what you don’t do?

Text and images are © 2018 David A. Fields, all rights reserved.

By | 2018-01-24T05:36:37+00:00 January 24th, 2018|28 Comments


  1. Will Bachman January 24, 2018 at 7:45 am - Reply

    I think you’ve covered the range of No’s.
    Perhaps add:

    “What kind of people will I refuse to work with because life is too short?”

    Here are some suggestions to round out the list of top 5 consulting words:

    3. We. As in, how can we (client + consultant) address this issue together
    4. Why? As in, Why now? Why us? Why not?
    5. Believe. As in, What would we need to believe to justify the investment? Or: What do we believe about the world that our competitors do not?

    Some other candidates

    • David A. Fields January 24, 2018 at 8:23 am - Reply

      Wow, Will. Great addition to the article. I love your other top consulting words. In fact, you’ve sparked another article idea. Thanks!

  2. Don McDermott January 24, 2018 at 8:10 am - Reply

    One of my favorite words is “we”. Helps designate a partnership and togetherness in identifying and handling an assignment. The assignment is a joint venture not a solo flight..

    • David A. Fields January 24, 2018 at 8:24 am - Reply

      You’re totally right, Don. Consulting is a “We” endeavor. At the very least there’s the consultant and the client. Even a solo consultant is not working alone. (As long as s/he has clients!)

  3. Kyle January 24, 2018 at 8:54 am - Reply

    I do one thing really well. Behavioral profiling. But in this niche, I can help with leadership, candidate screening, employee performance, and customer service to name a few.

    I show this on a services page on my site. So the one area of focus gives a diversity of benefits To my clients. At least, that’s what I’m trying to show. Now you’ve made me curious. Is showing the diversity of services not the best approach?

    Hopefully, the question makes sense.

    • David A. Fields January 24, 2018 at 9:16 am - Reply

      Excellent question, Kyle. Is your website promoting different tools and approaches to solving a narrowly-defined problem, or are you promoting a tool as the solution to many different problems.

      In the first case, you’re fine. You’re communicating that you’re a specialist in solving a particular problem (or set of closely related problems). Clients want that.

      In the latter case, you’re less fine. You’re communicating that you think your approach is some magic elixir that cures all ailments. Clients are leery of those claims.

      The more you’re focused on a tool, the more you’re reliant on clients finding/seeking you because they’ve already decided on the answer to their problem and you happen to be one (of many) providers.

      Great case study, Kyle.

  4. Debbie January 24, 2018 at 9:58 am - Reply

    I’d add “our results” to the list

    • David A. Fields January 24, 2018 at 5:11 pm - Reply

      Debbie, it looks the technology may have cut off your comments mid-stream. Adding results to Will’s list of additional important consulting words makes a ton of sense.

      My one modification would be to add “Your results” rather than “Our results.” After all, the most important word is You!

      I appreciate you adding to Will’s ideas. We’re creating a great sub-article here!

  5. Lori Silverman January 24, 2018 at 1:43 pm - Reply

    Hi David. I work with a 100 percent virtual company, with staff all over the US. One “no” is: What works hours will I say “no” to? I’d also add: What types of organizational cultures will you say “no” to? Once again, a great post! – Lori

    • David A. Fields January 24, 2018 at 1:49 pm - Reply

      Excellent point, Lori. We need to set boundaries that protect our non-work time and also our personal happiness. My experience has been that when you make your boundaries clear to clients from the outset, they’re very respectful (and often appreciative) of the limits you’ve set.

  6. Catrin January 24, 2018 at 4:59 pm - Reply

    I think another time you say “no” is when there is a race to the bottom with fees you charge, in other words, a misalignment on value. If they don’t see the value we know is there, and instead demand a discounted rate, we should say “no” and walk away, because we would define our services as discount, not premium services.
    Another time to say “no” is during ongoing engagements. Often Clients try to push scope (scope creep) and there comes a point where that needs to stop or would turn into a different service requiring a different rate structure. Those are the tougher conversations, but that “no” needs to be communicated.

    • David A. Fields January 24, 2018 at 5:09 pm - Reply

      Oooooh, good ones, Catrin! I hadn’t even considered the importance of Nos, and you’re dead right. You have to be just as firm with your boundaries after you engage with your clients as you were before you won the projects.

      Saying No to clients who think they’re buying a commodity is wise. A prospect that doesn’t respect your value during the courting phase isn’t going to treat you like a prince(ss) after you’re married.

      Thanks for the thoughtful additions, Catrin.

  7. ramz January 24, 2018 at 9:15 pm - Reply

    Dear Mr David, that is an excellent fresh perspective on the market segmentation !!

    • David A. Fields January 25, 2018 at 9:00 am - Reply

      As consulting firm leaders we respond to the market. Knowing what part of the market to respond to is half the battle. Thanks for the comment Ramz.

  8. Don January 24, 2018 at 10:35 pm - Reply

    Perhaps this is an anomaly, but here’s a true story involving two large prestigious companies in the same industry..

    1) Client A: well-known CEO selected another shortlisted consultant over me because the other consultant specialized in the relevant area.

    2) Client B two years later: (headed by the same former CEO of client A) had a similar assignment with the same two shortlisted consultants. In this case, CEO selected me since he wanted someone with broad capabilities rather than someone who narrowly specialized in a single area and couldn’t see the broader integration needs.

    go figure.

    • David A. Fields January 25, 2018 at 9:10 am - Reply

      Great story, Don. You’ve actually highlighted two different consulting strengths: 1) tremendous depth, knowledge and expertise in the client’s problem; and, 2) the ability to see how the problem you solve and the work you do intersects with the client’s broader world. Senior executives value both skills.

      It sounds like your competitor may have lacked the second skillset, which worked out in your favor. Hooray!

      Note that you can have broad capabilities in a narrow area. As I mentioned in my reply to Kyle, it’s important to distinguish between the breadth of problems you solve and the breadth of your tool kit. Having an extensive set of tools and approaches to the client’s problem speaks to your likely ability to see the broader world.

      More generally: hiring a consulting firm with wide-ranging capabilities is fairly common, and those projects are typically awarded to large, brand-name consulting firms. It’s much rarer for a solo or tiny boutique to be hired on the basis of having broad capabilities.

  9. Dr Linne Bourget, M.A., M.B.A., Ph.D January 29, 2018 at 2:00 pm - Reply

    Yes, very powerful article!….I started a 7 yr. long and 14 yr. long working relationship with client executives by telling them no, if they did that it would implode their organization. They trusted me and in both cases we did great projects together until one, after several promotions due to our work, moved overseas and the other took early retirement with a net worth much higher than he would have had otherwise! I teach that you cannot say a clean yes unless you can say a clean no.

    • David A. Fields January 29, 2018 at 6:04 pm - Reply

      Congratulations on effective use of No and, more importantly, building high-trust, high-value relationships. Guiding others with No (as in, No, you probably shouldn’t proceed down that path) is often seen as higher impact than positive, “go this way” guidance.

      Said otherwise, when you point Joe to the beach, he’s thankful for your assistance. When you prevent Joe from walking off a cliff, then point him to the beach, he owes you his life.

      Great case studies, Linne. Thanks for sharing them.

  10. Nicholas Tortorello January 29, 2018 at 5:51 pm - Reply

    As a marketing and public policy research consultant, I say “no” to clients who want pre-determined data and results.

    • David A. Fields January 29, 2018 at 11:06 pm - Reply

      Ah, the “Tell me what I want to hear” clients. Those can be a drag, especially when you’re committed to honest research. Good for you for sticking to your principles, Nicholas. You’re an excellent example!

  11. Dr. Anthony M. Okoh January 29, 2018 at 8:52 pm - Reply

    I am a life-time Statistician but unemployed ethical management consultant/researcher! Nicholas just cut me off in this “traffic”. As I explained in one of my books, a research consultant must say a big “NO” to any client who has a predetermined goal in mind, and asks the consultant to “steer your results” to meet that goal. So, I would like to add that the third most important word in consulting should be “Ethics”.

    • David A. Fields January 29, 2018 at 11:12 pm - Reply

      Ethics, integrity, and honesty are all words that should be scratched into consultants’ desks–visible to the eye and obvious to the touch.

      The client’s goal is important here. Are they looking for actual guidance, or are they looking for “sales research?” The latter is the type of research that supports “4 out of 5 dentists recommend…” and similar claims. A carefully crafted questionnaire can be ethical while surfacing supportive data. Steering the respondents to give particular results, on the other hand, is not research at all.

      A client who is looking for pre-determined results to support their own strategic decision is a poor executive and the consultant who meets his need is doing no favors to the client.

      Thanks for jumping into the discussion, Anthony.

  12. Milo Shapiro January 29, 2018 at 10:19 pm - Reply

    Funny timing seeing your article about the power of when to say No. Just this week, I stood my ground when a client told me her organization came up with a different title for my speech on Public Speaking Skills…a title that I didn’t feel reflected what I was qualified to be (or said that I’d be) alking about. They felt their title would bring in more people. I said, “I’d rather we had 75 people who left happy, getting what was promised than getting 100 people, 50 of whom would feel I didn’t deliver what the title said.” Happily, they saw my logic and agreed to almost my original title (I tweaked it a tad for them). Even though it’s hard to not say Yes to opportunity, sometimes the well-expressed No is a wiser move than a sheepish Yes just to get the work.

    • David A. Fields January 29, 2018 at 11:17 pm - Reply

      Extraordinary case study, Milo. Kudos to you for standing your ground and for being rue to who you are and what you can deliver.

      From a marketing standpoint (and speaking is for marketing), it makes little sense to give a speech that extends well beyond your deep expertise anyway. You want prospects who are interested in the problems you can solve, not the problems you’re poorly qualified to solve. Thanks for highlighting that aspect of saying No, Milo.

  13. Warren Miller, CFA, CPA February 6, 2018 at 6:25 pm - Reply

    Well, I’ve been a self-employed consulting guy for almost 27 years. My beloved bride says that I finally figured out that if I was gonna work for a you-know-what-ing idiot, it might as well be me. She was right. But it pays the bills, and we have a lot of fun. I can’t imagine being tied-down working for someone else. When circumstances call for it–as they often do with family businesses and other non-public enterprises–we sometimes have to tell the Emperor that he’s buck-naked. Emperors don’t like that, so my Marine Corps experience comes in handy on occasion. We’re not afraid to fire clients, though we’ve gotten better at screening in recent years so don’t have to do it once or twice a year the way we used to.

    Being able to do good work in the few areas where I have serious expertise (competitive strategy and business valuation) , seeing the world clearly, describing reality (warts and all), and getting paid to do that–well, it’s a great, great country. My bride charms the clients and makes the trains run on time around here, and I do the technical stuff. All that with a bathrobe commute to a 1,700-sq-ft. home office that looks out at 35 miles of the Blue Ridge Mountains – well, there are days when I have to pinch myself to believe what a wonderful life we have and in such a great country.

    • David A. Fields February 6, 2018 at 10:45 pm - Reply

      Congratulations on your success building your own consulting practice, Warren! It sounds like you’ve found a niche that works for you and a home in the consulting profession. Most importantly, you have a supportive home team that, I’m guessing, knows how to say No to you too! Thanks for being part of the conversation.

  14. DR. CRYSTAL DAVIS February 7, 2018 at 9:17 am - Reply

    Thank you for this article and comments. I have copied and pasted the NOs to a clean Microsoft document to answer for myself and my boutique consulting firm. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    • David A. Fields February 7, 2018 at 9:49 am - Reply

      That’s a very smart idea, Crystal. I’d be interested to hear what Nos you come up with for your firm and, importantly, the thinking behind each No.

      I’m glad you shared your next step–it will inspire others to take the same action. You’re creating an impact on the consulting community just by working on your Nos!

Leave A Comment

WordPress Security