Experience Strategy For Consultants: How To Create Transformation For Your Clients With Dave Norton: Podcast #295

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IIt requires a great strategy to provide a great customer experience to generate leads for your consulting firm. Dave Norton, the visionary founder of Stone Mantel, reveals his insights on customer experience strategy to gain a competitive edge in your consulting business. He also sheds light on developing IP to contribute growth to your practice. Furthermore, Dave touches on driving new leads to your doorstep with his outreach strategy. Dave Norton has so much to unveil in this episode. So, don’t miss this one!

Joining Michael on the show is Dave Norton, the Visionary Founder of Stone Mantel, an experienced strategy company with eight full-time employees. With an impressive client portfolio boasting the names like Coca-Cola, Disney, Target, and more, Dave brings a wealth of customer experience expertise to the conversation.

As you are about to discover, Dave has constructed an exceptionally successful consulting practice. However, it wasn’t always the case. He struggled early on before cracking the code on how to grow his business. If you are a consultant motivated to elevate your business from 6 to 7 figures, we have something for you. We are offering a free consulting blueprint that can be your guide on this journey. Visit ConsultingSuccess.com to secure your free copy.

Let me tell you more about what you will learn in this episode. Dave will reveal invaluable insights on differentiating your customer experience to help you gain a competitive edge. You will discover powerful strategies and techniques to set yourself apart from the competition and create a customer experience strategy that ignites enthusiasm in your employees.

He will also shed light on the importance of developing IP and how it can contribute to the growth of your consulting practice. Wait until you hear his unique outreach strategy that can drive new leads right to your doorstep. Get ready to take notes as we explore how to enhance your customer experience, fuel business growth, and gain a decisive advantage in the competitive consulting industry. Without further ado, let’s dive right into our episode with Dave Norton.

Dave, welcome.

Thank you. It is great to be here.

Dave, you are the Founder and Principal of Stone Mantel, an experience strategy company. Your clients and collaborators include the likes of Coca-Cola, Disney, Target, and a whole bunch of other large well-known brands. I thought where we’d start off is to have your definition of experience strategy because you are an experience strategy company. For those who might not be familiar with what is an experience strategy, could you set the landscape up for us a little bit?

There are a lot of people out there that are familiar with CX and the measurement of experiences. There is a whole group of people out there that are focused on experience design per se. There are user-centered design researchers that we sometimes run into on a regular basis, usability, and people. There are a lot of different professions that focus on what type of meaningful experience the customer or the employee should have on both sides.

What we focus on is how to do strategy in such a way that a company can create something meaningful for their customers and, at the same time, creates a value proposition for them. A lot of what you see in CX and the other categories are these industry standards types of things. They will say, “You need to have a journey map, NPS score, or a persona.” Everybody tries to do best practices around persona design or journey mapping.

The net result is that pretty much everyone has the same approach to customer experiences. It is not differentiating and not an opportunity. What we have to do is step above and look at what is going on in consumer behavior that we can attach ourselves to in a strategic way that will allow us to get the job done for the customer in a more successful way than maybe our competitors can do it.

That is where experience strategy lies. I often compare it to marketing strategy. We all know what marketing execution and advertising are. We know different elements of market research, but if there is no marketing strategy, the pieces don’t all work together well. In a marketing strategy, you want something unique and compelling. In an experience strategy, what you want to do is have a point of view on the customer that no one else has.

CSP Dave Norton | Customer Experience Strategy

For those that are still trying to get a clear picture in their mind, what would be an example of some work that you have done at Stone Mantel with the client that you think would be easy to understand or an application that would make sense for people?

We did not work on this one, to begin with, but it is obvious. When Apple took a stance on privacy, they had a point of view. That point of view permeates through everything they do in their design and the way that they get solutions. There is a job to get done. It is to maintain customer privacy, security, and safety. You can rely on that for that.

It is somewhat differentiating. There are a lot of companies out there that maybe have a role to play in privacy, but what makes them unique is the way that they make it permeate everything their experience is about, and they make good decisions because of it. We run a program called The Collaboratives, where we bring companies together on the study topic over a period of time. We finished our final meeting for 2023. Some of the companies were developing points of view.

They were developing their experience strategy around the future of digital clothing, which isn’t something I don’t even think of all that much, but you are going to have all these clothes in the metaverse. Somebody is going to have to support you in the metaverse. Another group was working on their point of view on payments and how to develop a new experience strategy around payments, which is something that is easier for people to understand. These points of view are proprietary to them. We don’t necessarily share them because they are not customer-facing.

What I’m hearing is that experience strategy where a typical company that is not using or applying what you are talking about in terms of experience strategy. The standard might be for a company to think about a strategy in terms of what is best for the business and what is best for them. They might even bring in some metrics around customer satisfaction like an NPS score or something along those lines. Experience strategy is about a more holistic or comprehensive view of not a few pieces, but the driver of the company strategy is from the customer’s perspective.

It is being able to articulate what the customer will want in the near future in such a way that everyone within the organization can begin to rally around that mission and mantra.

My next question is this because you work with some large organizations. We will have some people joining us who might work at a large organization or maybe they are the leader of a large organization. Many people are going to be small boutique consulting firms or solo consultants. Does this idea of experience strategy benefit them? Does this firm size matter? I’m wondering if there are any examples of experience strategy from your own company. Is this something that is best suited or better suited for the mid to larger-size company?

Most companies who are consulting firms understand that it is not, and it doesn’t matter how big or little you are. It is not enough to be a subject matter expert to have a methodology or a process that you follow. You must have an experience for the customer. What B2B customers are looking for from experiences and their consultants is different than the old days when you took them out to dinner, fed them, went golfing with them, and you did a little favor for them. That is not what they are interested in at all.

You do have to have a strategy for how you are going to engage your clients regardless of their size and the category you work in. I’m thinking about all of these amazing consulting groups that I ran into at the Qualtrics Summit in 2023. Many of them were in education. They were working with local school districts or states. It is a different dynamic. They knew that they had to be up to speed, not only on how to make a better customer experience for their clients but how to create a better customer experience that they project to their clients as well.

I want to make us tangible for everybody joining us. Can you offer a couple of examples? Let’s say that you are talking now to a boutique consulting firm. It is a hypothetical scenario. They have 8 to 10 team members. Some might be full-time, part-time, or contractors. They serve whatever industry. If I’m the founder or the leader of that firm as an example, what should I, as a leader, be thinking about or looking at? Where do I even place my attention if I’m trying to improve the overall experience and build a strategy around that? What are some of the low-hanging fruit opportunities?

Articulate what the customer will want shortly so that everyone within the organization rallies around that mission. Click To Tweet

That is a challenging question because it is unique to the particular company and the services the company offers. There is not a blanket statement that I can go after. I’m thinking of a company that I ran into a few years back. They consulted around semiconductors. They worked with a lot of different manufacturers. I don’t know if your audience knows, but there are no 1 or 2 semiconductor manufacturers out there. There are any number of small semiconductor companies that build devices that are custom-made for specific situations.

This particular consulting group was looking to differentiate themselves from everyone else. They had to compete with some big guys. They wanted to find a way to make their overall experience different. The first thing that we landed on for them was thought leadership. What is going on in the category around thought leadership? Are there any opportunity areas for you, as a consultant, to bring a new perspective and framework and to make sure that your thought leadership is truly thought leadership where it is not like ten years old, and you borrowed most of it from a number of books that you read and that it is yours? That is a great place to start.

How does a small consulting firm develop new thought leadership, turn that thought leadership into a story that the customer can understand and solves the problem that the customer is trying to solve, and do it in such a way that gets customized to that particular company and what that company is looking for? You think about those elements right there.

Customization, the thinking itself, the newness of it, and you are beginning to get some key elements that would go into a B2B consulting experience strategy. You want to make sure that you manifest what you are talking about in both the way that you solution for them and the way in which they experience the time they have spent with you. If the time that they spend with you doesn’t represent what you are trying to manifest, there is going to be a disconnect.

The example of thought leadership to me makes a lot of sense. People will recognize the value of developing IP or Intellectual Property, getting it out there, publishing in different publications, running online webinars, executive briefings, or giving talks. The part you layered on top of that is the next step of customizing it. It is being specific and making sure that it is relevant for that true dream ideal client.

I would imagine, or my brain now as you were explaining that, was thinking, “This is the opposite of going broad and having a more general message.” It seems that in order to create the right experience, you need to be specific and clear on who you want the content in this example to resonate with. Is that true? In order for an experienced strategy to be effective, does it need to be focused and customized, or can it be broader and more general?

The insight that is driving the point of view, the thought leadership in this case, can be broad. We have a series of things. Every year, we do primary research on what B2B, B2C, and healthcare customers are looking for. Some of the insights that we come up with are things like, nowadays, customers are not interested in conveniences. They are interested in time well spent. I’m taking a position in that case. I’m saying, “Everybody else out there is focused on convenience.” We are going to say, based on what we are seeing in the research, that it is not about convenience. It is about time well spent.

That is a broad insight. That can be applied to a number of situations. That is great for me because I can talk about it in conferences or a newsletter. When I’m working with a client, and I’m out of sales mode, and I’m into the delivery mode, that is when I need to be able to deliver what time well-spent means for that client’s customers and what time well-spent means for that client as I try to deliver for them. I’m not going to waste their time. I’m not going to do things that they are not interested in doing. I’m going to live with that principle as I’m trying to share that particular principle with them.

You are answering one of the questions that I had. I understand the idea of the research and developing some IP around that, or having a clear point of view than getting it out there and communicating through whatever platform, method, or channel. You start talking about examples of how to deliver the experience inside of the client engagement. It sounds like you first have to not only understand what is the concept that you are trying to help your clients with. In this case, you said, “It is just not the convenience, but it was time well-spent.”

Let’s say I’m a consulting firm, and I’m going to deliver time well spent. Throughout the company, we have to first get clear on what the definition of time well spent is. What does it mean? How does it show up? How do we communicate that? How do we deliver that from our communications with the clients? Do we send gift baskets? Do we send a handwritten letter? Do we do X, Y, or Z? Once you have all that, it is about making sure that you bring that to life inside of all of your engagements with a client. Is that what you are saying?

CSP Dave Norton | Customer Experience Strategy

Yes, that is right. I am a strong believer that if you are a consultant, you are also a researcher. You need to ground your consulting in not just knowledge in general but in specific research that you conducted on the problem that you are trying to solve. That is an important part.

Often, people are putting ideas out there, but ideas aren’t grounded in anything specific or unique. If we come back to this idea of, “How do you differentiate? How do you create distinction? How do you stand out from others?” if you have access to data or research that others don’t have, or you are able to pick, if everybody’s saying, “The market wants convenience,” you are able to come out and say, “No, what they want is time well spent. It is based on this study that we did.”

That creates a whole different experience. That also positions you to stand out from everybody else. You can back it up. That is a great point. You worked with well-known brands, like Disney, Coca-Cola, US Bank, P&G, Adobe, and a whole bunch of others. Did those companies seek you out? Did they come to you or Stone Mantel, or did you intentionally reach out to them?

In the early stages of our company, it was organic growth. People would leave certain companies and go to other companies, and we would follow them. A lot of consulting firms know what I’m talking about. Nowadays, we do a lot of outreach. We have email campaigns, business development teams, and PR folks that we are working with. At the end of the day, it is still the recommendation oftentimes of somebody else. That gets us in the door. Eighty percent of our growth is organic growth, and only 20% is from our own efforts.

What have you done in the marketing realm that has not worked at all, falls flat on its face, and you go, “We tried that, but that didn’t work for us?”

We used to rely heavily on conferences and speaking engagements to generate new opportunities. We do not see those as nearly as effective now. We will do them if an organization invites us to come to speak. We will speak at those events, but we don’t find them successful. In our particular industry, we don’t find trade shows or having a booth at a conference to be all that successful. Unless we have a number of clients that are already going to that particular show or event, sometimes it makes sense.

What we find to be most successful is twenty-minute one-on-one conversations with companies where we talk to them about what experience strategy is and how it could benefit them. That is the first step. We have also modified the way that we deliver our product so clients don’t have to sign up for a major project right away. There are small engagements that they can get involved with. We have certification programs, Collaboratives, and different ways for them to engage with us while they are trying to become more of a champion within their organization to do larger projects with us.

It sounds like you have developed these discovery offers to get the foot in the door, lower risk on the client side, and lower the overall level of investment. They don’t have to think about it too much, and it makes sense to get to taste it, has the appetizer, and see if they want to move to the main course afterward.

You talk about this first step as a twenty-minute conversation. Are those coming as a result of outreach that you’re doing? Is it through referrals or people that you know? I’m wondering. For somebody who is reading this going, “I love to have twenty minutes with a potential buyer inside of an established organization, but I’m finding it hard to get their attention to set up a meeting. I’m not even sure where to start,” what would you advise them, or how are you approaching that to be successful in getting those meetings?

It is hard to get those meetings. I have noticed that over the last several years, as people’s inboxes have become bombarded, it is difficult to get in front of people. Like everybody else, we use a multi-prong approach where we are talking to them by email, we are calling them, or we are doing LinkedIn to try to get in front of the right decision-makers.

Customers are not interested in inconveniences. They’re interested in time well spent. Click To Tweet

In my particular work, the last person I want to talk to is procurement. The buyer needs to be someone who is in need of help to get their work done, not someone who has been tasked with finding a resource. I spend no time. We almost never respond to procurement RFP requests either because if we don’t know somebody within the organization, we are not going to spend time trying to pitch something that is coming out of a procurement process.

We try hard to focus on specific individuals that are going to resonate with our message and going to be interesting. We cultivate and spend time with them. We talk and send them free stuff. We learn from them. We involve them in our communities. Sometimes it takes a couple of years before they send us a real project.

You are investing a lot of time, resources, and money into cultivating and strengthening these relationships. As a leader of the company, do you think about this as a team? You can spend X amount of dollars getting in front of this prospective client and sending them things. What do you think about the investment and budget for developing that relationship? At what point does it make sense and at what point it does not make sense?

The fact of the matter is the more I spend on marketing and business development, the less money I personally make in the short run. It comes out of my pocket. It is the profitability of the company. It can be painful. I have all the respect in the world for people who have budgets and targeted locations that they are going after.

I listen as hard as I can or new opportunities that I think are going to be important, and I go after them. If that requires me to spend some money to make it happen, I spend the money. We watched how our growth goes. Like a lot of consulting firms, we got hit hard during COVID. We are still rebuilding our business. They are starting to get their travel budgets back, and our clients are. It takes time. It is important not to be frustrated with yourself when things don’t work out.

As business owners, it is easy to focus on the short term and judge success, failure, or progress in a short period of time. We are often hard on ourselves and only look at what is ahead and not looking behind to see what we have accomplished. When we expand that horizon to view the longer term, we give ourselves a little bit more grace and room to go, “We have made some good progress, and things will be okay as we keep moving forward.”

You talk about procurement. For everybody who is reading, we had Tom Searcy on the show, who gave some great advice on how to navigate procurement and deal with procurement departments. I’m wondering, Dave, when you and your team are going to market and reaching out and having conversations with different buyers inside of organizations, what do you think about qualifications? Is there any alarm bell or something that when you see this or hear that, you go, “We are not going to take this any further?” Is there anything that you do to ensure that you are not spending time with the wrong people?

Anonymous RFP requests are a big problem. Sometimes we will pitch. We know we won’t get it so that we can get a foot in the door or be able to go back to the people that we are trying to pitch to and say, “We were part of this RFP process.” We have no hope of getting in that way. I’m sure you have heard of these ridiculous timelines. Budgets don’t have anything to do with what it is going to take to do the work.

Another thing that we look for is we think that they understand what it is that they are asking for, which a lot of consultants find themselves in situations where their clients are asking for something, but it is not the right thing. It is not going to be helpful to them. Those are all issues that come up on a regular basis.

The other thing I was wondering about is you are a team of eight people. Could you walk us through the hiring path that you have taken? How quickly into the business did you make your first hire or two, and what roles were they for?

CSP Dave Norton | Customer Experience Strategy

My company grew fast between 2005 and 2008.

Why was that?

It is because there was nobody else out there that was talking about experience and strategy. Everybody was talking about experiences, but nobody was talking about strategy. We had landed a couple of big fish. Those are great. You love it when a whale comes in. The only problem is when a whale comes in, all resources are focused on the whale. You eat the whale, and you have to find the next whale. It takes a long time oftentimes to find that next whale. We got hit hard by a 2008 downturn. We had a lot of financial clients at the time. Some of them up and disappeared. Wachovia was one of our biggest clients. It is a great company. Now, it is mostly a part of Wells Fargo.

I had scaled up to about 10 to 12 people. It is still a small consulting firm. I then dropped down to two people, myself and one guy. We started the process of rebuilding. The next time around took a while. The economy didn’t recover. It took a while. We were hunting whales from 2010 to 2015. We were hunting one whale after another.

In 2013, I knew that I couldn’t keep going after whales. I had to find another way. That is when I developed this Collaborative, which is a year-long program for companies that focuses on and add some elements of a little bit of a conference board thing, but its primary research is around innovation. It is a little bit hard to describe. We had to explain it to companies, but that allowed us to work at a lower price point and have fixed big contracts there where we had control over the content, and we could use it as an introductory way to get started.

We did do that, but that took time and resources. We couldn’t hire. I had to do all of the work myself with the assistance of one person who was part-time at first, and now she was full-time. It has been slow and steady. We have relied heavily on partners who are not full-time outside of small groups to help us. Now we are at eight full-time team members, but we have a fairly large network of contractors that work with us. That is effective.

As you were going through that, did you need to hire people before you had to work for them? Would you wait to hire until you had the work in the pipeline, you felt confident, they would come in, and you went and hired them? What did that timeline or process look like?

Before we started The Collaboratives, we would hire people as contractors first. They would come in, work on a whale with us, and we would decide when the next whale came along that we were ready to bring them on. That was our process. Now what we tend to do is the people who joined The Collaboratives learn so much about us as a company, and we get to see them work.

The last four hires that I have had have been people who were former clients who were in The Collaborative program. I know what product I’m going to get from them. I can be thinking about somebody for a couple of years and say, “When we are ready, I’m going to bring this person over.” We did that a couple of weeks ago.

It sounds like you have this tool or a process building your bench of talent or this network as you might need it. You talked about how you built up the 10 or 12 people quickly. The downturn came, and the financial crisis and you had to go down to two people. Did you, at any point in that period of the business, think about packing it in and closing the doors? Did that thought never enter your mind? I can only imagine going from 10 or 12 people to 2 people. The challenge is financially stress. I’m wondering what it was like for you to get through it. Did you think about maybe not continuing?

Spend 80% of the time on content and business development and 20% on execution. Click To Tweet

It seems it was a while back. I don’t remember ever saying, “I’m going to quit.” I do remember wondering how I was going to get through the next month or two. My company has been around since 2005. I have always said, “I only know my income for the next three months. I don’t have a long-term horizon.” Our client projects are typically six to nine months long. Our Collaborative program runs over a year period of time. That gives me a little bit better understanding of where my revenue is going to come from. I feel a little bit safer because of it, but in truth, I don’t know. I cannot project out more than three months on what my expenses or profitability is going to look like. I couldn’t back then.

How do you deal with that? Are you putting aside? Do you have a fund? How many months would you typically make sure that you are good for?

My principle was to always keep as much of my money in the company as possible. I paid myself a salary that was much less than what I had earned. I built up quite a bit of cash that way. That ended up sadly being used to get through some of those difficult times. We were able to make it through COVID for the last several years because we had those reserves. We didn’t have to let people go this time. I could have looked at that as my money because it was certainly profit that I had earned, but I took the longer view and decided to keep going.

I got a couple more questions, and we will wrap up. I appreciate spending this time with you, Dave. I’m wondering, for you, as a leader. You are the founder of your company, but you have eight full-time people. You work with lots of different companies. I’m wondering how you decide to allocate your time. You have a lot of options in front of you. You could spend time creating content, doing research, doing work, business development, and hiring. How do you decide what to focus your time on to grow and improve the company?

I have the privilege now not to be involved with the project work itself. That is a huge privilege. When you are first getting started, there are 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 of you. The founder is going to be right there doing the client’s work. The thing that keeps us going is our ability to help our clients to see the near future. My focus is on frameworks, concepts, and content around where consumer behavior is headed. I use that content in business development efforts. Eighty percent of my time is spent on content in business development, and 20% of my time is spent on execution.

Before we tell people where to go to learn more about you and the company, I’m wondering what book you might recommend. I’m going to ask you for two books. It could be a resource, but for those that want to learn more about experience strategy and get a better lay of the land in terms of ideas, perspectives, and best practices around experiences or creating better experiences for their clients and business, what is one resource or a book that you might recommend for them. The other question I have for you around the book is one book you have read or listened to in the last several months. It could be fiction or non-fiction, but something you have enjoyed that you think others might also find interesting.

There is one book that anyone who is focused on experience strategy must start with that is The Experience Economy by Joe Pine and James Gilmore. It has been around since 1999. It has been updated multiple times. It is a global bestseller. If you haven’t read it, you probably are living under a rock. That is not true.

It has been around for a long time. If you are an experienced strategy or experienced designer and you haven’t read it, you are doing a disservice to your clients. When you read that, what you need to keep in mind is that it is their point of view on experiences. You, as a company, need to have your own point of view. It is the most important piece out there.

The book that I’m listening to and loving is Beneath the Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan. It has an incredible story. It is fiction, but it is based on the real-life experiences of an Italian kid who threw circumstances that are unbelievable. He finds himself one day helping Jews to escape World War II in Italy. The next day, he was talking to Mussolini. This seventeen-year-old kid, what his life was like. It happened. I love it.

Dave, I want to thank you again for coming on here. I feel like we have scratched the surface. I know you said, “Beneath the surface.” We are scratching a little bit here into your journey and everything that you have accomplished and continued to build. I’m excited to watch as you continue to develop the business and learn more about what you guys are doing. For those that also want to learn more about you, Dave, or about your company and the work that you guys are up to, where is the one website or best place for them to go to learn more?

CSP Dave Norton | Customer Experience Strategy

Go to www.StoneMantel.co.

Dave, thanks again so much for coming on.

Thank you.

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