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Nine terms consultants should avoid. Oops, there's one

A lot of businesses start off providing a service and then fall into the trap of using the buzzwords of the consulting world.

The problem is, consultancies are not usually valuable businesses because acquirers generally view them as a collection of people who peddle their time on a hamster wheel.

The most common way to sell a consultancy is for the consultants themselves to trade their equity for a job in the form of an earn-out that may or may not have an upside.

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If you want to build a valuable company – one that someone will buy down the road – stop using consulting company terminology and replace it with the terminology of a valuable business. Here is terminology to avoid:


Defining your company as a "consultancy" will announce to the market that you are a collection of people who have banded together around an area of expertise. "Consultancies" rarely get acquired, and, when they do, it is usually with an earn-out.

Replace "consultancy" with "business" or "company."


An engagement is something that happens before two people getting married; therefore, using the word in a business context reinforces the people-dependent nature of your company.

Replace the word "engagement" with "contract," and you'll sound a lot more like a business with some lasting value.

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A deck is something you drink beer on. It's not a word to use to describe a PowerPoint presentation – unless you want to look like a "consultancy."


Instead of describing yourself using the vague term "consultant," describe what you consult on.

If you are a search engine optimization consultant who has developed a methodology for improving a website's natural search performance, say you "run an SEO company" or "help companies improve their ranking on search engines like Google."


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Consultants promise "deliverables." The rest of the world guarantees the features and benefits of their products or services.

Associate, engagement manager, partner

If you refer to your employees with the telltale labels of a consultancy, consider changing "associate," "engagement manager" and "partner" to titles like "manager," "director" and "vice-president," and you'll lessen the chance of your customers expecting a bill with 10-minute increments.


The word "client" implies a sense of hierarchy in which service providers serve at the pleasure of their client. Companies with "clients" are usually prepared to do just about anything to serve their needs, which sounds great to clients but also telegraphs to outsiders that you customize your work to a point where you have no leverage or scalability in your business model.

Would your "clients" really care if you started referring to them as "customers"?

It's easy to get stuck in a low-growth consulting company. "Clients" expect to deal with a "partner" on their "engagements," so the business stalls when the partners run out of time to sell. If any acquirer ever decides it wants to buy your consultancy, it will know it has to tie up the partners on an earn-out to transfer any of the value.

The first step in avoiding the consulting trap is to stop using the lingo.

Special to The Globe and Mail

John Warrillow is a writer, speaker and angel investor in a number of start-up companies. You can download a free chapter of his new book, Built to Sell: Creating a Business That Can Thrive Without You.

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About the Author
Founder, The Sellability Score

John Warrillow is the developer of The Sellability Score software application . Throughout his career as an entrepreneur, John has started and exited four companies. He is the author of Built To Sell: Creating a Business That Can Thrive Without You, published by Penguin in 2011. More

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