From Agency to Consultancy: Why it's hard and what to do about it

Running an agency over the long haul is a difficult business. It’s relatively easy to get started, even if you have little to no capital. But as you grow, that strength becomes a weakness. As competition increases and technology improves, services become commoditized, driving down the price customers are willing to pay. While this is happening, the cost of hiring and keeping good people rises, making it difficult to scale.

At some point in an agency’s life cycle, most founders dream of escaping the stress of these realities by doing one or both of two things: building their own product and/or shifting their services to higher-paying consulting work. There are plenty of stories of agencies who have successfully made this leap, making it seem that with the right information, it’s simple for any agency to do the same. Especially the shift to consulting work: after all, it’s basically trading one service for another.

Alas, “simple” is rarely easy. In the case of shifting from “paid to execute specific deliverables” to “paid to consult on high-level strategic problems,” there are a few challenges to overcome.

Most business customers think of themselves as “idea people.”

Even if the person making the purchasing decision doesn’t think of themselves that way, their boss or their boss’s boss probably does. Idea people don’t hire an agency to give them more or better ideas. They hire an agency to execute on those ideas, freeing up the core team to do higher-level work.

There are a few exceptions:

  • The problem you would be solving as a consultant is one they’ve tried to solve many times, and failed. In this case, the customer is already very aware of the problem. Earning their trust will involve explaining the problem in the way they’ve experienced it and providing proof that you are able to solve it in a way that they couldn’t.
  • The problem you would be solving as a consultant is outside of their expertise, and not solving it is getting in the way of one or more of their top priorities. In this case, the customer is very aware of their priorities. Earning their trust will involve understanding their priorities and demonstrating the connection between the problem you would be solving for them and helping them to achieve those priorities.

To make sure what you’re offering falls into one of these categories, one of your first priorities in shifting to consulting work is customer research. This can be costly (in money and/or time), but getting it wrong is the reason most agencies have trouble making the shift.

You’ll want to prioritize your research in three different areas:

  1. Find product-market fit. Finding the right problem that your customers are willing to pay to solve is not as easy as it sounds. Consulting can be ambiguous from a customer perspective; selling it successfully requires getting specific. You can certainly try putting up a “consulting” page and describing the general ways your agency can help solve business problems, but most customers will not go to the effort of figuring out what specifically to hire you for.
  2. Establish your positioning in the market. This is about more than coming up with compelling messaging. It’s about understanding the options that your customers have available to solve the problem that you solve and positioning your strategic advice as the best one relative to those options.
  3. Establish an effective marketing and sales pipeline. Since selling strategic consulting involves proving your expertise over time, this means longer sales cycles, and “selling” to people who don’t need you yet, or don’t know they do. You’ll need to establish a way of showing up over and over to decision-makers; ideally with information they will welcome and find value in, even if they aren’t actively looking for a consultant.

Each of these priorities has broad scope, but even a basic hypothesis for each of these areas will give you some ideas to start testing, or can help you see what you might be missing.

Existing relationship dynamics are hard to shift.

If your agency has been playing the role of order-taker, it will take time for existing customers to begin to see you as a trusted advisor. If you make the shift slowly and strategically, you will keep some of your customers, but not all. Even then, some of the customers you keep may have been excellent at providing context for deliverables, but they may not be excellent at collaborating on strategic outcomes.

There’s not a whole lot to be done about this, except to accept it and plan for it. New customers are more expensive to acquire than existing ones, it’s true, but the way we establish relationships in the beginning are powerful determining factors in the future of that relationship. If you’re experiencing resistance in selling consulting to your existing customers, it’s not necessarily proof that you’re selling the wrong thing. You may just need to adjust your expectations and focus more of your effort on new relationships. When thinking about the 80/20 rule of where to put your marketing and sales efforts, making this shift successfully often means focusing 80% of your attention on finding new customers where you can establish your agency as a trusted advisor from the beginning, and only 20% on educating existing customers.

The biggest challenge, of course, is time. Time that in the best short-term scenario, you do not have, because you’re selling all of your billable hours already. If you aren’t currently selling to capacity (and maybe this is why you’re making the shift in the first place), take that as the gift that it is. Use it for customer research, and to make experimental offers to test what you learn.

Even if you don’t have an abundance of time and can’t move quickly, it’s worth it to use whatever time you do have to make progress toward this shift. Once you’ve established a solid foundation, the grass really is greener. This particular grass looks like clients who respect your agency’s expertise and can’t get what you offer anywhere else, services that have higher margins and better client outcomes, and a business model that is scalable through books, seminars, classes, retreats, or other educational products.