Posted on September 4, 2009 by Colin

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!