So You Want to be a Consultant?

You’re a great problem solver, you love helping businesses improve their performance, you like variety in your work, the high hourly rate charged by the larger consulting firms looks pretty appealing, and you like the idea of being your own boss. But do you have what it takes to be a consultant?

Successful consultants have distinct qualities:

  • 1. They are very disciplined.
  • 2. They can balance the execution of consulting assignments with a steady, organized marketing effort for new business.
  • 3. Consultants are very good communicators, both orally in presentations and sales meetings as well as in written reports.
  • 4. They are comfortable with risk and the variable income associated with not having a regular paycheck.
  • 5. Consultants are incisive and energetic and think faster and more clearly than their clients, and do it all while on an airplane.



It’s Not For Everyone

Consulting has its drawbacks. It usually involves a lot of travel to your clients. It’s not just about the assignment. Consulting can best be described as a three-legged stool. The first and easiest leg is doing the consulting assignment itself. The other two legs are the business development leg and the administration and collections leg. Without all three legs the consulting stool just doesn’t work. And many consultants aren’t good at or don’t enjoy all three aspects of the job. Consulting is a very competitive business. Everyone claims to be a good problem solver. You need a unique value proposition and the ability to very quickly demonstrate that value. Another frustration articulated by new consultants is that they rarely get to execute their outstanding recommendations. It’s harder than it looks. Typically, consultants need to work an extra 30% to 50% beyond actual billable hours. If you want to bill 40 hours, you are typically working 60 hours - traveling plus maintaining your expertise and marketability. All this while in airports, hotels and on planes.

Ready To Press On?

If the disadvantages don’t bother you and you feel you have the right profile, here are a few tips to increase your probability of success.

  • 1. Tap your old employer, suppliers and customers, and other business contacts to find a retainer or two: a couple of companies that will pay you on a monthly basis.
  • 2. Develop a niche. Don’t try to be a generalist. Pick something with a market need, and a clear, concrete value proposition, something that will give the customer an immediate return for your fee.
  • 3. Think specifically about your marketing strategy. How are you are going to get new customers?
  • 4. Join and become active in industry and professional associations.
  • 5. Consider writing a book to get your name and expertise out there.
  • 6. Develop a referral network.
  • 7. Consider recruiting advisors for your practice to identify partners and alliances for marketing leads and cross referrals.
  • 8. Set and stick with a specific amount of time devoted to business development activities, sales and collections.
  • 9. Make sure your computer skills are current and that you are wired and portable.
  • 10. Make sure you have the support of your family to make this change.


Getting Started

If the stars appear to be aligned, prepare a one page consulting capabilities statement with your vision, a few related selected accomplishments (pulled from prior consulting or regular employment) and a brief biography at the bottom of the page.

Get your first customer, preferably a retainer. If necessary, do a little free consulting to build your portfolio. But be careful. You will soon discover that “free” is a four-letter word in the consulting business: set clear expectations and avoid project creep. Do a great job, ask for referrals and in your free time, create your web site with plenty of space for the testimonials you will receive.

Good luck and happy hunting.

John C. Decker is an Executive Vice President with TMI Executive Resources.

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So You Want to be a Consultant?