So you want to be a consultant?
In the last few weeks, I’ve been invited to share experiences with a few groups of successful people considering that first leap into consultancy.
The temptations of being your own boss are obvious. Greater control of your time and focus, a chance to excel in your chosen field and increased job satisfaction. Shame then that it also means giving up a guaranteed weekly pay cheque and entitlement to boring things like paid sick leave and superannuation payments that you may have been taking for granted up to now. You miss them when they’re gone.
Three and a bit years in, I’m hardly a veteran in consultancy and have made many mistakes along the way, but its worth sharing the themes that seemed common to all potential new consultants, whatever their age or field of expertise.
1. Choose a niche that you enjoy, can excel in and isn’t already crowded.
However experienced you may be and however big your network, being known to potential clients as a “consultant” simply isn’t enough any more. As proof, a few weeks ago, Jodie Sangster of ADMA posted a request on LinkedIn seeking recommendations for a meeting facilitator, someone skilled in strategy and leading discussions. Within a week she had received more than 50 personal recommendations and a further 20 people had volunteered. For one, half day job.
One of the most successful new startups in the consulting world, the excellent expert360.com has 15,000 vetted consultants like me and you looking for work through their platform.
If anyone needed reminding that today’s world of “consultancy” was crowded and competitive, that figure and Jodie’s discussion thread tells you all you need to know. And apart from the difficulty of standing out from the crowd, it barely needs saying that the usual outcome of such fierce competition is downward pressure on price. Not ideal.
2. Give the customer what they want
Once you’ve worked out your niche and anded a customer, the simplest but most important lesson of all. Give them what they want. Delight and surprise by all means but give them what they want. As a buyer, there was nothing more frustrating than working with suppliers who took it upon themselves to redesign my brief or used my brief as a platform to “value add’ by flogging me a whole load of other stuff.
As an independent consultant the only way to guarantee that you are giving the customer what they want is to a) get it from them in writing and b) reply with a confirmation of what you understand is expected. Tiresome for those of use that dont do detail, but critically important.
Your reply should cover timing, agreed costs and payment terms (so often overlooked) and critically how you will deliver the work.
(NB: I’m seeing a lot of change here. Increasingly, less people want lengthy written reports, full of bar charts and complicated diagrams designed to gather dust forever in someone’s desk drawer. Most nowadays prefer a personal and confidential “warts and all” high level debrief with clear recommendations for action….at which point my work is usually done).
You must know and agree in writing the specifics of what your client prefers before you start. Then in the unlikely event that the brief changes, you have a strong case for also reviewing your end of things and agreeing that more work costs more money. it’s seldom a problem if everything is agreed at the start.
Apart from avoiding a heap of awkward conversations, in a crowded market, understanding and sticking resolutely to what your customer wants will put you immediately ahead of most of your competitors. Even if you have to also remind the customer every so often…
3. Doing stuff for free is not “good marketing”
It’s the single biggest challenge of being a “subject matter expert”. Whether it’s the client who wants to “pick your brains” over a cup of coffee or someone who wants your help putting something together on the promise of future riches, you must have a clear position on what you will and won’t do without creating an invoice. I’m a great believer in the give and ye shall receive approach to work partnerships, but sometimes a line has to be drawn.
In my opinion, the solution to dealing with requests for free advice is to ask someone you trust. Whether they are your mentor, a trusted friend or your partner, people with an independent view are best placed to advise you on how to deal with these types of requests. In fact, one of the most important keys to success in solo consultancy is to have a network of trusted friends and advisors, most likely successful business people in their own right who you can bounce things off. They’ll help you see which leads are worth chasing and which you should politely decline.
Sometimes walking away is a good option. Easy advice to give, hard to follow.
But as a rule, when opportunist companies approach you on a promise to do stuff for free because they’ve got no budget? Read this excellent thread started by Jo Macdermott about just such an example. it tells you far more than I can.
Oh and by the way, it would be a “no” from me.
4. Profile is everything.
Irrespective of how you perceive social media, in a crowded market, it’s impossible to underestimate its potential power in building your profile. It’s become a large part of my business helping senior executives discover how to use social media both as a promotional and listening tool. It’s the theme of many of my postings in here and keynote presentations at conferences. My business would look very different without it.
As a subject matter expert growing a consultancy business, you simply must be active on forums like this, Medium and others. There’s a skill to what and how often, but doing nothing is not an option.
I’ll post again on this subject and welcome feedback and comments. What do other people think are the key issues for people wanting to be consultants? Feel free to add comments below and follow for more of the same!
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5. Build your tribe of like-minded colleagues.
However much you struggle with the 8–6.30 workday, complete with meetings on risk management and compulsory excel training, I guarantee that you’ll miss the company of your workmates. Trust me, you will.
Being a consultant is lonely enough without sitting in your “home office” all day not meeting with people. I highly recommend you actively seek out the company of four or five people in the same boat and make a point of meeting regularly over coffee just to talk. Invite them to invite people from their circle and watch it grow. (Someone who does this really well is Gavin Heaton with his Friday coffee mornings)
For those of you working in a shared work space, inviting a fellow desk sharer out for coffee is the easiest trick of all. Irrespective of their skills or what industry they’re working in, as a fellow “start up”, you’ll have far more in common than you realise. I’ve currently got three clients in the most random of industries who I met through sharing a desk in Blue Chilli. Try it.
6. Become a sharer.
If there’s one single gift that you can offer as an independent consultant, it’s time. It’s the thing that you have in spades and your clients have the least of.
Use that time not spent in pointless meetings and answering emails from HR to collect information about what’s happening in your market, great articles, thought starters, whatever and share them with people who are too busy to sort through all the crap themselves.
Obviously LinkedIn is a great place to share, but according to the likely preferences of your client, consider email newsletters (using the excellent Campaign Monitor), texts, even old fashioned posted letters with an envelope and a stamp. Or just call them for a coffee and share face to face.
7. Be prepared
I’m a big fan of a book by Matt Church and colleagues called How to Sell Your Thoughts. You may have to seek it out as it seems hard to buy nowadays but among the consultancy gold hidden within its pages, my favourite piece of advice is that at all times you should have a twenty minute presentation ready to go at the drop of a proverbial.
It’s possible that you’ll never actually be called to present at a minutes notice, but as a discipline, having something designed, up to date and ready to go is really valuable. That same presentation can become the thing that you offer when propping your wares to conference organisers and probably also the inspiration behind a pinned tweet and blog on your website. It can be something you turn into a webinar or video message. The need to keep it up to date also fires the creative juices. Well it does for me.
Mine’s called “The Media Veteran” and through the use of a boatload of hairy old anecdotes about working on the Peterborough Evening Telegraph, Your Cat and Practical Fishkeeping, (oh yes I did), I take people bedazzled by programmatic advertising and digital transformation on a journey to show that in a world of constant change, the job of the communications person hasn’t really changed at all.
We’re all trying to sell more of ours, or our clients stuff.
Just like Simon Gulliford first told me, many, many years ago. Some things don’t change. Hope this all helps. Comments, feedback, requests for a full presentation of “The Media Veteran” to the usual address…