Updated: Feb 18, 2020
People decide to become consultants for many different reasons. For some people, they choose consulting because they like helping other people, and they think that consulting is one of the best ways to do that. Others want a work lifestyle with more daily freedom and flexibility. For others, they just want to do the work that they like best instead of doing a bunch of other things that tend to come with employment. Then others decide to be a consultant under more difficult circumstances, like getting laid off from a job.
Once you decide that you genuinely want to become a consultant, the question is: now what do you do? While there are all kinds of business basics that need to be decided, such as your price, how you set up your business up, etc., I am not going to cover those in this blog. I have other blogs that either cover the business basics topics or I will very soon. Instead, this blog focuses on answering fundamental questions about how you want to be a consultant and build a consulting practice. There are important questions to answer upfront so that you make decisions that enable you to become the consultant you want and join or create a consultancy that matches what you want, who you are, and what you can do for clients.
Now you may be asking yourself, "Why can't I just hang out a shingle and chase down any business that I could get?" Well...you could do that. A lot of consultants start that way. But it's not the most efficient or effective way to do it—even if it works in the short term. Ultimately, it can become more challenging to develop, let alone execute, a business development strategy that is focused enough to have a high success rate. It has even less of a chance of working in the long run because you'll have a difficult time developing and articulating the specific ways that you can provide value to clients. You're likely going to have to keep spending your time, energy, and effort chasing business rather than building a practice that attracts clients and makes business development easier over time. You also might end up with a consulting practice or a day-to-day life that isn't what you want.
For all those reasons, I always encourage folks who are new to consulting or thinking about becoming consultants to pause and assess what they could do as a consultant and what they want. Reflecting and focusing at the front end can make the leap much easier and help you be successful faster. And it can help make sure that you create the life that you want.
The most important thing to do is to answer the questions I pose below as honestly as possible. The questions are for you! The more honest you are, the more likely you will be to end up where you want to be as a consultant.
What Am I an Expert At?
One of the first questions is to ask what am I an expert at? I've seen other blogs on consulting that minimize the importance of having expertise or suggest that you can gain expertise by watching videos on YouTube, reading books, and things like that. You can definitely learn things by doing that. You can definitely augment your skills and expertise. But for a consultant, expertise matters. Having real expertise is about being able to make promises that you can keep because you understand what is happening in the market, what your clients do and care about, and what it takes to deliver something to a client with real value.
So what expertise do you have? Be as specific as possible when you're answering that question. The more precise you are, the more you can hone in on precisely what you might be able to do as a consultant. To get a better understanding of your expertise, consider your knowledge, skills, and accomplishments.
What Knowledge Do I Have?
Knowledge is one of the main things that a client wants to buy from a consultant. So consider what knowledge you have that would be valuable to a client. This could be content or process knowledge. Content knowledge is the facts, concepts, and topics you know about a particular subject or field. Process knowledge is knowing how things work. For example, you may know everything about a specific technology system. That is content knowledge. If you know how to implement a technology system, that is process knowledge. Most consultants have both content and process knowledge. Knowing what you have will help you decide what type of consultant you want to be.
What are My Skills?
Consider what skills you have. Generally, skills fall into two categories: hard skills and soft skills. Hard skills are the technical or functional knowledge or ability that you have to perform a certain task. Examples include data analysis, finance, systems or business analysis, program design, and graphic design. These skills require very technical or functional knowledge or abilities to do them well.
Soft skills are a bit different. Soft skills are interpersonal or social knowledge, abilities, attitudes, or attributes. Soft skills include things like strategy, problem solving, facilitating, team building, political savvy, and giving feedback.
Hard and soft skills also often overlap. For example, writing is a hard skill because there's precise technical knowledge that you have to have to be able to write well. But if you're going to write something that has to persuade people to do something, such as give your client a grant or agree with a particular strategy, you will have to possess specific soft skills so that you know what actually resonates with people reading your writing. Program management can be the same way. Program management requires particular functional skills to being able to manage and monitor a project throughout its existence. But you also need to have some soft skills to do it really well. For example, you need enough soft skills to know when to switch things up to keep the project on track or the client happy.
Having both hard skills and soft skills are both absolutely critical for a consultant. The specific ones you have can tell you a lot about what consulting you can do well. You want to avoid picking a type of consulting or services that don't fit with your skills.
What Are My Accomplishments?
You also want to consider your past accomplishments. What were the results that you achieved or helped achieved that you could use to demonstrate your value—to yourself and to clients? Also, consider how you accomplished or contributed to those successes.
When you consider your accomplishments, you'll usually reveal other knowledge and skills that you have. It also will help you figure out exactly how you could add value as a consultant and past successes that you could build your consulting practice around.
Who Am I and How Do I Work?
The next questions to ask yourself are: who am I and how do I work? Who you are and what are your ways of working should inform your choices about consulting. For example, do you tend to be efficient when you work? Consultants have to be effective but not necessarily efficient. If you are not efficient, you will want to build a practice that doesn’t require it. My husband was a very successful consultant for about 7 years. He is highly effective, but he is not very efficient. For example, he is very effective at writing grants that get clients money to do the things that they want to do. However, he doesn't write grants quickly. He had to decide how to build his practice and price engagements fairly, that is, not by the hour, to match how he works.
Do you tend to think more conceptually or concretely? Some people can do both; however, most people tend to be on one side of the continuum. If you are conceptual, you think in terms of concepts or the bigger picture. If you are more concrete, you tend to be more detail oriented and comfortable with specific, sequential tasks or activities. Different types of consulting work require different types of thinking. One is not better than the other. Often the best results can come from conceptual and concrete folks working together! But no matter what, you want your consulting practice to match the way your brain is wired to think.
Another important question is: are you an introvert or an extrovert? Again, some people are a little bit of both, but a lot of people lean a little or heavily in either direction. If you're an introvert and you build your consulting practice around extroverted type of activities, such as working with groups, you're likely going to be more tired after you do those types of activities. You might decide that you want to build a consultancy around activities that tend to match who you are as an introvert. Or, like me, you may choose to adjust how you do consulting to accommodate your need to recharge after being with groups. For example, I am a big-time introvert, but I am really good at group facilitation, in part because I am an introvert. I'm good at reading the room and picking up on nuances of how people are responding to things that are happening in the meeting. But I can't do it all the time, and I have to mix in more introverted activities like writing.
What Do I Need and Want?
You're also want to know the answers to questions about what you need and want for your overall life. For example, do you want to travel? Not all consultants travel a lot. If you know upfront that you don't want to or you can't travel because of family obligations or other reasons, then you can build your consulting practice accordingly.
Do you like working with colleagues are as part of teams? If the answer is yes, working at a firm or building your own might be a better choice for you. If you like working by yourself, you might need only to do things that one person can do or develop relationships with other consultants and firms when you get work that requires a team.
There are a whole host of other ways you can assess what you need and want that should inform choices you make about consulting. Do you want to be sitting at a desk a lot or out in the world with others? Do you think you’d prefer short-term or long-term engagements? Do you want to be out front or behind the scenes? Depending on the answer to these and other questions, choose to select service offerings or ways of delivering your services that match that preference.
Who is My Target Market?
Based on your answers to the previous questions, you need to answer a critical question: who my target market? The critical thing to remember when answering this question is that there's a difference between need and demand. What you ultimately want to be able to answer is where is there a demand for the type of services I offer? Let me explain the difference. Need means that they actually have something that you would offer that would help them. Demand means they know they need it and they have already decided that they want it. There are a lot of clients who have needs that they don't yet know they have. What you don't want to do as a consultant is spend all of your time trying to convince them that they need something when they haven't made that decision yet themselves. You really want to target those organizations or companies who have a demand for it. That can be a gray area because sometimes it's a little bit of both. Maybe they have a demand for one piece of what you can do, and they don't know that they need the rest. You can help them understand that they need the rest. But you want to start with at least some sense of who has some type of a demand for what you can offer.
You also want to get very specific when you're answering this question. You want to know things such as is there a demand within an entire industry or a particular niche within that industry that you can offer your consulting services. For example, I'm a healthcare consultant, but I don't serve the entire healthcare industry. I tend to specialize with particular types of healthcare providers that have specific demands. The clearer you are about where the demand is and how you can serve that demand, the more easily you can build a practice and market yourself.
There are other ways to consider your market and the demands you want to focus on. For example, what are the specific demands that new companies or organizations have that are different than more established ones? Would you be better at helping startups or those long-standing companies? Or are you more able to respond to the demands of big, complex organizations, smaller organizations, or somewhere in-between? Who in the target market do you think has a demand for what you offer? Is it the CEO or somebody else in a leadership position? Is it middle managers? Is it folks who are working on the frontlines? What do they care about? For example, do they care about moving quickly because the market really demands that, or do they want to have long-term strategies that don't require them to make any quick decisions? Are there things happening in the broader environment that they need to pay attention to if they want to thrive?
Slice and assess your potential market in multiple ways so that you can hone in on where the demand for what you offer truly exists. This will make it easier for you to decide what your consulting practice will be and then build it.
Do I Want to be Independent or Join a Firm?
Another critical question to ask yourself is: do I want to be an independent consultant or build or work at a firm? If you want to join a firm, what type of firm? There are all kinds—from big, worldwide firms that are complex to mid-size or small, boutique firms. Each operates and functions differently. The smaller firms tend to have a less structure but often offer greater freedom and flexibility. The larger ones might have more security; might pay more; but you likely won’t have a lot of autonomy or flexibility, particularly when you first start. As an independent consultant, you have maximum autonomy and flexibility but have to do everything yourself. Or you might decide to create a firm on your own and be responsible for the staff you hire.
One key way to decide is to determine what your risk tolerance is. If you need or only feel comfortable with the security of having a regular paycheck with benefits, then independent consulting may not be your best choice. If you have a high tolerance for risk and want the other things that come with independence, then being an independent consultant or having your own firm could be right for you.
If you need to have things more structured for you, then a firm might be a better choice. If you like to create the structure and the process yourself, want more autonomy and flexibility, and have a high tolerance for risk, then being an independent consultant might be a better fit. There is no right answer. There is only the answer that works best for you.
Inform Your Decisions
Those are the main questions that are essential to ask yourself when you think about what type of consultant you want to be and what type of consulting you want to do. Answering them honestly and clearly and then using your answers to inform your ultimate decisions will help you do consulting in the way that works best for you and your clients.
If you want to assess your hard and soft skills and accomplishments and develop a clear and compelling description of what you can do as a consultant, I’ve got a tool that can walk you through it step by step! Know Your Zone: The Consultant’s Guide to Describing What You Can Do will get you ready to understand what you can offer as a consultant and get clients!