A friend recently asked me for advice on how to be a successful consultant. They’re finding that people and businesses are regularly asking for their advice and that, as interesting as those conversations are, they require a significant investment of time. The advice benefits the person or organization asking, but my friend isn’t getting compensated for the time. This is a classic situation where the thought of doing some consulting on the side, or starting a consulting practice, takes shape.
It should come with no surprise that I’m a big advocate of consulting: after more than a decade-and-a-half of consulting for some of the most interesting and inspiring organizations in the world, I have no intention of getting a “day job” anytime soon. So, when a friend or colleague asks for advice about the world of consulting — something that happens with surprising frequency — I’m very happy to wax poetic about my experiences at great length. Today I’ll share just a few of the key things I’ve learned along the way.
Reflecting back on more than a hundred consultations, I’m thankful for a journey full of growth and improvement. I’ve deepened my knowledge in the areas that I consult — digital publishing, software development, e-mail and content management, and so on — but I’ve also racked up a fair amount of knowledge about the practice of consulting itself. It’s actually a topic that I’m slightly obsessed with: not just how to consult, but how to be a successful consultant.
I define “successful” quite simply:
- The organizations I work with are happy with the experience and outcomes (and hopefully make some positive changes);
- I can survive financially doing work that I love (preferably, from anywhere in the world).
So, the question that most people ask is: “How do I get there from here?” Or “I’ve got a 9-5 salaried position, but I’d like more variety in my work life, how do I start down the path of consulting?” Here’s what I usually recommend:
First, invest in a copy of Peter Block’s book “Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used.” This was recommended to me by Jon Stahl back in 2003 or 2004 and reading it had a profound impact on my processes, and — ultimately — gave me a sense of clarity about my role as a consultant in various types of projects and situations. Given the wealth of information in that book, I won’t touch on Peter’s suggestions here.
Next, give some thought to what consulting “products” you can offer. Consulting is a nebulous art and to a lot of people holds little meaning. “I’m a consultant” doesn’t really answer the question “What do you do?” very precisely. And, as Peter Block points out, we are all consultants of one kind or another. In my experience, having specific “consulting products” helps people visualize something tangible that they can invest in. For example, I’m a digital publishing consultant and I have a small number of hand-crafted products for publishers around software development, e-mail and content management, and so on, and being able to say specifically, “I have a standard approach, it requires an investment of X, so-and-so invested in it, this is how it worked out for them, and I can do that for you too,” helps organizations see how that solution could apply to their own needs.
Along the same lines, I’ve found that it’s helpful to have some variations of the same “consulting product” to better fit with a range or needs. In my case, I use the length of the commitment, or the depth of the consultation. For example, I do a fair bit of consulting around e-mail programs for publishers, i.e., e-mail list growth, acquisition and retention, list hygiene, automation, and, obviously, using e-mail to drive outcomes. The products I offer are based both on length of commitment — i.e., an audit and recommendations would be a short engagement, whereas an audit, recommendations, and ongoing evaluation would be a longer engagement — or how hands-on the work will be, e.g., an audit and recommendations vs. actually being involved in the implementation. I’ve also found it useful to do some thinking upfront about these variations and my own comfort level, e.g., what’s the length of engagement where the client will receive the optimum value and does the client have enough internal resources to actually implement the recommendations on their own? These variations provide opportunities to test out the consulting relationship with shorter, more light-touch engagements and can shed light on how a longer project might unfold.
Now that you have your products and various sizes and types of engagement around that offering defined, it’s time to get your pricing memorized. At some point in the conversation with a potential consulting client you will be asked “What do you charge,” or, if you are not asked that question, you should be ready to say, “My consulting rate is X, is that something you can work with?” In either scenario, you should be clear and concise: What you charge by the hour, by the day, or for specific types of consultations. You want to be very clear about the investment required to move this conversation from “just talk” to “let’s get to work on this.” Being unclear here — for example, by waffling on your pricing or not having it memorized — often makes the next step, getting a committment from the potential client, very difficult. I usually provide my hourly rate, and then examples of the investment required for typical projects at the 20, 40, and 80 hour points, and I’m clear about what’s delivered in each of those situations.
If the cost of the investment is a challenge for the potential client and you would really like to undertake the engagement, the best advice I’ve ever received (which I used often in my early consulting days) is to offer to provide some extra hours on a pro-bono basis. For example, I might say “I really find this project interesting. I believe that I can bring a lot of value to it. I sense that the investment is an obstacle for you. I could invest another five hours into the project at no cost, to ensure that you get what you need, if that would help us to move this forward.” In case you’re missing the point here: don’t lower your rate simply to get the project. Lowering your rates has many potential consequences, e.g., devaluing your time in the potential client’s mind, having to explain different rates to different potential clients, billing issues (“What did we agree I would charge?”), and — eventually, as your practice grows — making some work less of a priority than other work because the rates being charged are different. Trust me: one rate, stick with it, and offer other perks or incentives to move things forward.
Finally, the step that most people who are new to consulting have the most difficulty with in my experience, is actually transitioning from a conversation about an area of expertise to a conversation about consulting, and — ultimately — to a conversation about how to get a commitment to move forward on a specific project. There’s no one way to perfect this process but, without a doubt, practice makes it much easier. There are, however, several tips that I’ve found useful along the way:
First, when a colleague or potential client asks to have a conversation with you about your experience — perhaps to give them some insight, or advice or what-have-you — make that initial conversation short and convenient; I usually answer “Sure, let’s have a thirty-minute conversation on the phone.” This ensures that we can both explore this relationship with the minimum time investment. I actually do pay attention to the time when on the call and try to leave the last five or ten minutes for closing the loop in some way, i.e., answering the question “Is there potential here to move forward with something tangible.”
Second, when we arrive at the end of that first conversation, I make a point of presenting my products and their pricing and indicating that some commitment would be required to move this conversation forward. For example, I might say (as long as it’s true!) “It sounds like my Product X would be a great fit with the challenge you’re describing right now. My consulting rate is Y per hour. Clients typically invest betweeen Z and A for this kind of work, depending on the length and depth of engagement.” Now the conversation is framed properly and the person at the other end has the information they need to decide if they would like take the next step.
Third, if the size of the project is large and there are other stakeholders involved in making a decision, I will certainly make another hour available to define the scope of the consultation and the deliverables, but — if you do agree to move on to this step without starting the clock — be clear that the meeting is to define the scope of the project and not to brainstorm ideas, and also try to ensure that there are decision makers in the meeting, by which I mean the person who could sign the contract or consulting agreement.
Last but not least (in fact, it should almost be listed first), the most important skill to learn as a new consultant is saying “no.” I’ve (politely) turned down more consulting opportunities in my life than I’ve undertaken by a factor of two at least. Knowing when to say “no” is a blog post unto itself, but — for now — it’s worth taking a few moments to reflect on how long each consulting enagement can typically be (often months, even for short engagements) and really thinking about the fit between you, the client, and the project. If you have any reservations or red flags in the initial conversation, or any follow-up conversations about the scope, saying “no” can often save everyone time, energy, and resources. Thinking back on my own experiences, I can’t think of any projects that I’ve turned down that I regret turning down, but — on the other hand — there are projects where I said “yes” and have experienced some sense of regret at some point. Saying “no” is almost always the right thing to do if there’s any question about the fit, because, in the end, you can always use that time to improve your consulting process, to find new clients, or to just take some time off.