Expert Networks ($500 Phone Calls)

What do you think it takes to bill $500 an hour as an independent business strategy consultant?

A Harvard MBA? Deep knowledge of a hot science field? Several years of investment banking and strategic consulting experience? An unlimited expense account and an epic pile of blackmail pictures?

How about a decade of experience in an boring industry run by high school drop-outs?

I was earning several thousand dollars per month delivering a basic “industry orientation” talk to new management consultants and professional investors. With zero marketing / selling and prompt payment. All of these gigs were performed at nosebleed rates: up to $500 per hour.

Working With Expert Networks

Welcome to the wonderful world of expert networks, a platform for short “consulting calls” between experts in an industry and clients in consulting and investment management. The client is generally trying to rapidly get up to speed on an industry for an acquisition or corporate strategy project. You’re basically giving a fast download on how the industry works at a strategic level along with a commentary on any significant current events. The calls are fast and intellectually stimulating.

So why do you get paid so much? Simple – there’s a lot of money on the table and time is of the essence for these clients. These folks don’t care about money, they care about speed and accuracy. They need to be able to persuade their own clients and bosses they are 100% plugged into the space and can be trusted not to screw up a multi-billion dollar mega deal. They are paid thousands of dollars per hour to know the business. Except in this specific situation… they don’t.

You’re being hired to fix this problem – and quickly. So they pay a lot of money ($1000+ per session) to the expert network to be assured the person on the other end of the line knows their stuff and can share ideas with them in a professional manner. This can all be billed back to THEIR clients, who are paying millions of dollars for advice on how to make a multi-billion dollar decisions.

Incidentally, you’ve got a ton of latitude on your fees. Jerking your rate to $500 per hour is a non-existent speed bump in these people’s project budget. “What, the network’s top rated expert in our target industry wants an extra $400 for her time? No, really, why are you asking? Just get them on the phone!” Yeah, that kind of money. You’re a rounding error.

How To Succeed As an Expert Network Consultant

There are three keys to success here: being found, expertise, and communications skills.

The first is the hardest. These people come to you. Having a complete LinkedIn profile helps, especially one which features deep expertise in a particular industry. They also target recent alumni of leading companies in a particular industry. They will collect feedback from their clients on how you performed and will call you back if you are especially helpful. Two key tips here:

  • Focus on what you know vs. what you can do. They’re looking for people can spit facts.
  • Make it really easy for a LinkedIn reader to figure out you know about Industry X

The second key – expertise – is basically your product. And there are several things you can do to really stand out here. As I said before, most of these calls are about “knowing” vs. “doing”. You’re not going to be solving anything on the fly. The bulk of the call is generally data dumping about a particular business and explaining key trends to a smart but new person. While you can certainly “wing it”, it pays to have your information organized and ready to go.

A little preparation goes long way towards in getting you a top rating and call backs. I invested a few hours assembling my notes about the industry, reading recent news, and researching anything that looked like a gap. By the time call number three arrived, I was in beast mode, nailing every question. My phone blew up after that and I became that network’s top expert for that industry.

This audience expects their advisors to deliver concise, well thought out answers. Some experience in senior level finance or strategy roles is helpful. The people you are speaking regularly talk to CEO’s and Corporate Boards. A direct communications style seems to work extremely well with this audience. Don’t play games with what you know or don’t know. If you don’t know something, be open and suggest they move the conversation to other topics. This will generally be respected by the client.

Things To Watch Out For

One area of caution: sharing confidential information about previous employers. If you happen to know the books are cooked or the formula for Scope, you need to keep your mouth shut. That being said, my impression was most of the callers were looking for information that was widely available within the industry yet rarely published outside it. A good chunk of what I discussed could have been gleaned from public websites, marketing materials, industry news, and public analyst reports. In fact, I had a small list of public sources and “recommended reading” that I could quote from. I facilitated their research on the industry: summarizing and explaining key trends and business practices, guiding them towards reliable sources of information, and filtering out unreliable sources (and impractical ideas).

One area to pay close attention to: unpaid time you spend filling out surveys or worse, speaking on the phone with junior members of the expert network attempting to “qualify” for opportunities. Some of these “qualifying” surveys verge on abusive with the level of unpaid insight they ask for. My advice is to have basic stuff you can share to show expertise but punt anything else to a phone call.

Rates are a tricky subject. I’d start at $150 to $300. Remember, you’re only getting paid for time on the phone. Missed appointments are not uncommon and some pre-call research is advisable. You’re going to bill at 50% of the true hours you invest in the process. One network has been pushing me to cut my rates but this hasn’t increased my business; my perception is the client either wants you or they don’t. Invest your time in getting your LinkedIn profile on point and preparing for the calls themselves.

Good Listening skills are important at this level. Be careful to let the consultant finish speaking and make sure you’re answering their point. These folks tend to be very direct and precise.

Where Should Expert Networks Fit In Your Plan?

Since the return per hour invested was extremely high and they paid promptly (often within a week), expert network requests were always a welcome addition to my schedule. However, activity within this industry appears to be very “deal driven”. My industry “went hot” for a couple of months while a mega-merger was going through. Requests were a bit more sporadic after that (a few per month). I’d advise aggressively preparing for any calls you are scheduled for, delivering a great performance, and focusing any additional effort on tuning your LinkedIn profile and increasing your exposure.

Perhaps reach out to other expert networks to make sure you’re listed in their databases.

Expert Networks – Potential Next Steps

With regards to getting started. If you’re reading this article after getting a call from an expert network: Congratulations, you’ve arrived. Take the appointment and do a good job.

As for the rest of you, try reaching out to a few established expert networks to see if you can get into their database.