So, you want to be a Consultant? – Gill Hunt, Skillfair
Almost everyone working in a field that involves specialist knowledge, be it Computing, Human Resources, Marketing or whatever, has probably thought of setting up as a Consultant. After all, they get paid lots of money, get to choose their own hours and even get listened to by management! Which when you’re slaving away as a permanent employee can look like a pretty attractive package.
Add in the extra push of redundancy, child-care and family responsibilities or the desire to stop wasting time on long commutes and it’s no wonder that so many of us take the plunge into the world of independent consultancy or free-lancing. Sadly, life as an independent doesn’t suit everyone so it’s well worth doing some hard thinking and planning before you take the plunge.
Probably the hardest aspect of going it alone is that you no longer have the status, support services and general back up that comes with being part of a company. While the practical aspects of working alone (like doubling up as the office cleaner) are fairly easy to adjust to, the one role that is vital to your success is often overlooked by people with strong technical or professional skills. That role is, of course, Sales and Marketing – a function which takes on a whole new meaning when you’re looking at an empty diary stretching into the future, and an empty bank balance to go with it!
What kind of consultant are you?
The first decision to make is what kind of consultant you want to be. Not in the sense of choosing a specialism, this will probably be obvious to you, but in deciding on the scale of your ambitions. Do you want to make time for non-work activities? Or make as much money as possible in a short time? Or build up a consultancy company with employees, a brand and an office?
What kind of clients want your services?
Once you know how much time, effort and money is involved, look at the kind of services you can offer and the clients you need to attract in order to achieve your ambitions. You’ll make the most money by aiming for corporate level clients and adopting a ‘go anywhere for money’ approach – but that won’t leave much time for families or other activities. Many consultants decide to aim for the small business market, but don’t necessarily put themselves in the shoes of the business they’re selling to. Your experience as a corporate high-flyer may not seem very relevant to someone struggling to keep their business afloat. So try and discuss your ideas with some real clients and find out if they would be interested – it maybe easiest to do this with people you know through your existing work than trying to start from scratch.
What’s your brand image?
Having defined your services and client base you need to make sure that you project an appropriate image. That does mean business cards for almost everyone, but don’t go overboard with brochures and smart design unless you’re absolutely sure you need it. By all means write a brochure, it’ll focus your mind on what you’re offering to clients, just don’t get it printed! Almost all consultancy is bought by people from people and brochures don’t really help. In contrast a well designed web site is a must because clients use your web site to get extra information about you and your services.
Now, where are the clients?
Surprisingly perhaps, clients don’t form an orderly queue at your door as soon as they hear you’ve gone freelance. It’s down to you to go out and find them. Even if you’re exceptionally lucky and land an initial contract from a former employer or business contact, sooner or later the stream of work from this direction will dry up. It’s at this point that a lot of technically oriented specialists find the going very hard. If you’ve succeeded in your career to date without needing to learn sales skills it can be tough work to get started.
The best source of work for most consultants are referrals, either from existing clients or from other consultants, but of course you have to meet them in order to get started. Networking is probably the most productive form of marketing for consultants, head and shoulders above advertising, direct mail and so on in terms of value for money. But the critical thing is to make sure you network in the right place. Look for groups that your clients go to and which concentrate on the subjects you specialise in, rather than generic business ‘networking’ groups. If you find the idea of networking difficult, don’t give up, there are many excellent courses that can help you overcome that horrible feeling that comes over you on walking into a room full of strangers!
As well as traditional ‘face-to-face’ networking, there is a new breed of online networks springing up that allow professionals to share information and business contacts without geography getting in the way. Skillfair is one of these networks that aims to help clients get in touch with specialist consultants and also offers regular workshops on business development and consulting skills. Our aim is to generate additional leads for our consultants to supplement their own marketing, and to provide some of the back up and support services that consultants miss out on.
Is it worth it?
Talk to any consultant and they’ll give you the full run-down on the trials and tribulations of the independent life – but ask them whether they’d go back to employment and very few would be keen. Whether it’s the convenience of working in a home-office, taking 2 days off a week to write a novel or just enjoying the knowledge that everything you earn is yours – the benefits are enormous. So plan carefully, then take the plunge – you won’t regret it!
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