How to Be a Consultant

 

When little kids are asked what they want to be when they grow up, they usually pick something that seems exciting or heroic. If they had their way, janitors, office clerks and yard care workers would be grossly under-represented (and we would have an abundance of astronauts, firefighters, fashion designers and Presidents of the United States).

As you get older, you start to realize that not all jobs are quite so tangible; there are people who produce ideas and bits of code and opportunities. There are consultants.

Ah, consultants. When some people hear that word they think ‘damn, they must be rolling in it,’ while others reflexively think ‘I wish I got paid to do nothing, too.’ Both opinions are partially correct, though neither is a fair analysis of being a consultant and what it entails.

Generally, consultants are people that are hired from outside a company to come in to the company and help fix something or solve a problem. If no one on the staff knows anything about a particular subject, a consultant might be hired to come in and explain what the company needs to know. If a company is working inefficiently, a consultant could come in and give an outsider’s perspective on what the problem is and how they can solve it.

This means, in essence, consultants are generally not so much doers as they are instigators. They bring change to an otherwise static environment. They shake things up and break the surface of still ponds.

This is why they sometimes make people uncomfortable.

But they also generally make quite a bit of money doing what they do, and that leads one to believe they are at the top of their game, knowing everything about their field that there is to know.

Once again, this is a half truth.

In reality, consultants are, by and large, just very efficient and effective communicators. They do tend to know a whole lot about several different subjects, but their real talent is the ability to analyze a complex issue, render a solution and communicate it in a way that even someone who is completely ignorant about the topic in question can understand and act upon.

And this is good news! This means that you could potentially be a consultant for whatever it is you do!

Consider this: I currently offer a variety of different consulting services, including branding, sustainability, marketing, social media, copy writing and business planning. These are all topics that I know a whole lot about, but do I know more than everyone else? Certainly not. There are people who dedicate their lives to just one of these topics. What gives me an advantage over them, though, is that I am able to communicate solutions to problems related to the aforementioned subjects clearly, allowing my clients to act quickly and effectively.

Is it lucrative? You bet. In fact, I generally make more per hour consulting that I do designing and developing. But I’ve worked hard at being able to solve these kinds of problems, and you should consider doing the same.

TIPS TO GET YOU STARTED

  1. Take a concept that you know a lot about (this can be anything from woodworking to World of Warcraft character leveling), and make sure that it’s more complicated than, say, tying your shoes (most people already know how to do this, and you want to make sure there is at least a small market for what you offer). Find someone who knows nothing about this subject (parents are a good target, as are siblings or significant others) and try to explain it to them quickly (I don’t mean talk fast, I mean use as few words and as little time as possible). The first few times, this will be difficult and your subject will likely walk away with little more knowledge than they started out with. Over time, however, your explanations will become more clear and you will know which parts are most important, what order they should be explained in, etc.
  2. Write up an outline of how to best teach this subject and make sure you identify specific milestones. For example, if you are becoming a bicycling consultant, you would make riding without training wheels, riding for 30 miles unaided and in a row, and riding in a race across the state milestones. Be creative and make sure these milestones are clearly identifiable; if you cannot show progress, then it will be difficult to convince a client that you are not a snakeoil salesman.
  3. Collect and create a packet or disc of resources that will allow your client to more easily move through the steps. This includes worksheets, website and book references, shorts essays or step-by-step instructions, etc. Opt for many small components over really intense long ones (unless what you are teaching includes long, complex processes, like repairing a space shuttle), and if you can put together in a logical order like a workbook, you’re ahead of the game. Bulleted lists are also a good idea, as they are easy to follow and provide quick bursts of information without overwhelming the client.
  4. Attain more knowledge. I know, I know, above I said you don’t need to know more than everyone in the world to consult on a particular subject. But you know what? The more you know, the more value you will be able to give to a client. Do you research, stay up to date in your field (this matters more when you’re, say, social media consulting, but not so much when you’re teaching clients to use a cotton gin). It’s a good idea to have a website where you can stockpile your information and send people interested in your services. Blog! Even if you aren’t a very good writer, this can drastically increase your SEO, and nothing helps bolster your status as an expert like being able to write intelligently about a particular subject. Giving a little something away free and providing value for a lot of people will allow you to more easily package and sell more advanced knowledge to a smaller group of specific people.

In the end, so long as the client is getting value from what you are teaching, you’re doing your job as a consultant. In many fields (design, for example), consultation is part of the process, and I find myself giving branding advice even when all I’m doing is coding an e-commerce website.

Again, it never hurts to show what you know: giving out these tidbits for free has helped me add consultation to my list of services, and there’s no reason you can’t do the same.

Do you consult? Have tips? Have any experiences with consultants? Share in the comment section below!

29 comments

  1. This is all really great advice. I’d like to do some type of consulting someday in the future so I’ll make sure to remember this post. I really like how you included the point on always learning and attaining more knowledge.

  2. This is all really great advice. I’d like to do some type of consulting someday in the future so I’ll make sure to remember this post. I really like how you included the point on always learning and attaining more knowledge.

  3. I’ve been thinking of doing consulting lately. Either lifecoaching or WordPress/Design consulting. I didn’t believe I was an effective communicator because I hate phones and I’m generally an introvert. This was until a couple weeks ago when a friend of mine started expressing his disappointment in college and how much he disliked not being able to travel and play music. We talked from 12am to 5am that night, and by the end he had an ebook planned, domain and hosting purchased, and a clear idea of where he was going.

    Since then, I’ve been seriously considering doing consulting professionally. I guess I’m pretty effective at communicating ideas I’m passionate about. I was glad to see this post because I have no idea really how things should be organized to get into it. This is a great start and more information than I’ve found before, but do you know of more detailed resources (or could you expand upon these ideas even further)? I want to feel totally comfortable with the process before I make any commitment to it.

    Great post though, Colin!

  4. I’ve been thinking of doing consulting lately. Either lifecoaching or WordPress/Design consulting. I didn’t believe I was an effective communicator because I hate phones and I’m generally an introvert. This was until a couple weeks ago when a friend of mine started expressing his disappointment in college and how much he disliked not being able to travel and play music. We talked from 12am to 5am that night, and by the end he had an ebook planned, domain and hosting purchased, and a clear idea of where he was going.

    Since then, I’ve been seriously considering doing consulting professionally. I guess I’m pretty effective at communicating ideas I’m passionate about. I was glad to see this post because I have no idea really how things should be organized to get into it. This is a great start and more information than I’ve found before, but do you know of more detailed resources (or could you expand upon these ideas even further)? I want to feel totally comfortable with the process before I make any commitment to it.

    Great post though, Colin!

  5. Wow, reading my mind! I actually was talking to James today about how I”m going to get business cards with my title as ‘Consultant’

  6. Good rundown. I liked especially the part about trying to explain stuff to parents. I can recall a quote by Einstein that goes along the lines “if you cant explain it to 6 year old you don’t really know it yourself” or something like that.

    I really like what you have written here. I do consult myself and I am strong believer that consulting is not about showing off you know it all (or more than a customer), rather helping customer solve his problems. Sadly I observe too many times the opposite.

    If I may, I’d contribute to the discussion this – listen to the customer, be a great listener. Another one is – lead by asking questions and not throwing directions. Listen and ask questions – most of the times the customer knows the right answer (the solutions). That’s very powerful skill – it empowers the customer and build trust.

  7. Good rundown. I liked especially the part about trying to explain stuff to parents. I can recall a quote by Einstein that goes along the lines “if you cant explain it to 6 year old you don’t really know it yourself” or something like that.

    I really like what you have written here. I do consult myself and I am strong believer that consulting is not about showing off you know it all (or more than a customer), rather helping customer solve his problems. Sadly I observe too many times the opposite.

    If I may, I’d contribute to the discussion this – listen to the customer, be a great listener. Another one is – lead by asking questions and not throwing directions. Listen and ask questions – most of the times the customer knows the right answer (the solutions). That’s very powerful skill – it empowers the customer and build trust.

  8. I think it’s also good to know your limits and what knowledge is just beyond the horizon. You often are in a position to say ‘I don’t know’ but ‘I can learn quickly’ if it’s a related topic.

    I think an honest I don’t know goes much further than a half-hearted I can do something.

  9. I think it’s also good to know your limits and what knowledge is just beyond the horizon. You often are in a position to say ‘I don’t know’ but ‘I can learn quickly’ if it’s a related topic.

    I think an honest I don’t know goes much further than a half-hearted I can do something.

  10. @Nate: Yeah, it’s important to remember that little tidbit, lest we should get too comfortable with what we know and cease to be effective (and interesting) people!

    @J.D.: Great becoming-a-consultant story, J.D.! I definitely think you should get in on the action and add consultations to your menu. I’ll likely write an advanced consulting article in the future, but for now if you want to email me (colin at exilelifestyle dot com), I can pass along a few pointers based on what you’re planning on teaching people about.

    @Meghan: I think that sounds about right. How about ‘Awesome Consultant’ or ‘Consultant to the Stars’? Then again, leaving it just as ‘Consultant’ makes people ask what you consult on, so it can serve as a better conversation starter. Good luck!

    @Alik: Fantastic quote..I feel like I’ve seen that somewhere before, but obviously didn’t remember it in time to put in the article.

    I’ve seen the same..all too often consulting serves as an income generator for people who enjoy living with an expense account, not people who enjoy helping their clients solve problems and get results. Being a good listener is a fantastic way to achieve the latter. Thanks for the input!

    @Anil: Amen to that! There’s nothing you can’t learn, but if you don’t know, make sure that you learn before you try to give advice on that topic. Well-intentioned bad advice usually has the same results as ill-intentioned advice.

  11. @Nate: Yeah, it’s important to remember that little tidbit, lest we should get too comfortable with what we know and cease to be effective (and interesting) people!

    @J.D.: Great becoming-a-consultant story, J.D.! I definitely think you should get in on the action and add consultations to your menu. I’ll likely write an advanced consulting article in the future, but for now if you want to email me (colin at exilelifestyle dot com), I can pass along a few pointers based on what you’re planning on teaching people about.

    @Meghan: I think that sounds about right. How about ‘Awesome Consultant’ or ‘Consultant to the Stars’? Then again, leaving it just as ‘Consultant’ makes people ask what you consult on, so it can serve as a better conversation starter. Good luck!

    @Alik: Fantastic quote..I feel like I’ve seen that somewhere before, but obviously didn’t remember it in time to put in the article.

    I’ve seen the same..all too often consulting serves as an income generator for people who enjoy living with an expense account, not people who enjoy helping their clients solve problems and get results. Being a good listener is a fantastic way to achieve the latter. Thanks for the input!

    @Anil: Amen to that! There’s nothing you can’t learn, but if you don’t know, make sure that you learn before you try to give advice on that topic. Well-intentioned bad advice usually has the same results as ill-intentioned advice.

  12. Consulting is a cool concept in that it sounds straightforward up front–you know a lot about a topic and effectively rent your mind to a client–but at the same time, there are so many different ways to go about mind-renting: through newsletters, books, phone calls, classes, etc. The trick, and I think you’re onto something here, is to take a step back and really think about what audience you’re trying to reach. Only then can you figure out what medium of consulting is most optimal.

  13. Consulting is a cool concept in that it sounds straightforward up front–you know a lot about a topic and effectively rent your mind to a client–but at the same time, there are so many different ways to go about mind-renting: through newsletters, books, phone calls, classes, etc. The trick, and I think you’re onto something here, is to take a step back and really think about what audience you’re trying to reach. Only then can you figure out what medium of consulting is most optimal.

  14. I think it came from Tim Ferris’s book, but to be an “expert”, you don’t have to be a master or specialist really….

    You just have to know more about a subject/field than the average person.

    Also helps if you have credentials. Doesnt have to be a degree from a prestigeus school. Blog helps that. Getting published, giving free workshops, joining associations related to your field…

    Nice article though, definitely insightful.

  15. I think it came from Tim Ferris’s book, but to be an “expert”, you don’t have to be a master or specialist really….

    You just have to know more about a subject/field than the average person.

    Also helps if you have credentials. Doesnt have to be a degree from a prestigeus school. Blog helps that. Getting published, giving free workshops, joining associations related to your field…

    Nice article though, definitely insightful.

  16. I’m a designer too, but I guess what I am seeing is a shift into consulting and training work. Small design firms, want to learn technical things too, this is where designers with technical knowledge can nab some nice work, without too much effort.

  17. I’m a designer too, but I guess what I am seeing is a shift into consulting and training work. Small design firms, want to learn technical things too, this is where designers with technical knowledge can nab some nice work, without too much effort.

  18. Excellent post Colin! You touched on some key points about being a consultant. It’s so amazing that some people are so quick to call themselves consultant and totally forget the key principle about being able to DELIVER VALUE to potential clients. If a consultant can not deliver value they aren’t really a consultant. So because of our current economic employment issue here in the US it seems newly unemployed are not called consultants. For those serious about consulting you must go above and beyond to set yourself apart and that’s where a business strategy, awesome blog, and social media can truly make the difference in reaching success.

  19. Excellent post Colin! You touched on some key points about being a consultant. It’s so amazing that some people are so quick to call themselves consultant and totally forget the key principle about being able to DELIVER VALUE to potential clients. If a consultant can not deliver value they aren’t really a consultant. So because of our current economic employment issue here in the US it seems newly unemployed are not called consultants. For those serious about consulting you must go above and beyond to set yourself apart and that’s where a business strategy, awesome blog, and social media can truly make the difference in reaching success.

  20. I really like your work, Colin. Your shared experiences and tips helps others achieve whatever they want to achieve, or at least, points them in the right direction. Keep up the great work!

  21. I really like your work, Colin. Your shared experiences and tips helps others achieve whatever they want to achieve, or at least, points them in the right direction. Keep up the great work!

  22. Finally! Although an old post, it is good to read a more positive note on consultants. They are in a bad spotlight these days. For me it is just a great way help people doing their jobs better.

  23. Interesting write up thanks Colin. I offer what many would call consulting as my way of life. I love it. And I really like the comment you got from Lenny a couple of weeks ago – a great way of helping people do their jobs better. For me it’s about helping people to help themselves. Knowledge transfer is a fun part of the process. Most of the answers are already in the minds of the people we deal with – we try to help them get it out and use it. Seeing people grow through discovery is very exciting and rewarding.

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