After building enough experience working in a particular field or industry, you may decide to branch out into consulting work. Not only do you have the freedom to choose your clients and set your schedule, but your expertise may influence the trajectory of a company in substantial ways.
So exactly how does one become a consultant? First, we should clarify the very definition of consulting.
What is a consultant?
A consultant is a professional who offers their expertise to a company in a specific industry or specialized field. Typically this involves healthcare, media, marketing, and finance companies, although you will see consultants for just about any line of work.
While consultants can also be in-house employees, it’s more common to contract an independent consultant; this is because the consultant will have a broader set of experiences to draw from, and will only charge for the hours he consults.
What does a consultant do?
Consultants evaluate a specific company process, such as an accounting method or 3D modeling techniques. They then present their findings in a report or through proprietary, custom software. The company can then choose to take those recommendations and implement them as they see fit.
Watch MConsulting Prep’s video for a detailed explanation of how management consulting works.
Who can become a consultant?
Virtually anybody can become a consultant as long as they have the experience. It is worth noting that different types of consultants will require licenses for their consultancy. You can often see licenses in industries with high risk and competition, such as education, healthcare, marketing, and engineering sectors.
In reality, companies will be more interested in seeing a consultant’s previous experience, where they managed to enact some change or positively impact the company.
How do consultants add value?
Consultants are like advisors to kings and generals. They notice industry trends before they can happen, identify potential blindspots or roadblocks in a process, and ultimately offer another perspective on any given issue.
Now let’s walk through the steps involved in actually becoming a consultant.
8 steps to become a consultant
Find a practice to focus on
Maybe you are a spatial thinker and have a natural talent for interior design. Or perhaps you prefer working with numbers and tend to excel with financial or mathematical challenges. Whatever your interest or passion, immerse yourself in it. Read as many books on that topic. Speak with other experts in the field that may lecture at your university. The more you specialize in a particular topic, the more competitive you can be.
Build professional experience
The word “professional” is key. No one becomes a consultant in college or even graduate school, because no one will believe they have the track record. Even if that person has been practicing their craft since they were a toddler, it’s far more important to have industry knowledge and experience. Consultants have been working in their field for years, sometimes decades before they decide to consult.
Get a certificate or license
While certifications aren’t entirely necessary, they can certainly go a long way in proving your competitiveness.
– If you’re consulting on a business’s management operations, you may consider getting a CMC® (Certified Management Consultant).
– If you’re a graphic artist or visual designer, you may consider getting one of Adobe’s certifications.
– If you’re a programmer, there are a number of certifications you may pursue, depending on the language in which you specialize.
– If you’re in marketing, consider becoming an American Marketing Association Professional Certified Marketer (PCM®).
Be careful in finding certifications online. Always do your research and validate authenticity before signing up.
Define a target market
Marketing your services to everyone under the sun is a surefire way to waste time and resources. Instead, think hard about who will use your services. Will you focus on B2C (business to consumer) or B2B (business to business)? Will they be large enterprises, or smaller startups and agencies? Are they in finance, healthcare, entertainment, or some other industry?
These questions will become easier to answer over time. In the beginning, it’s ideal to work with companies in industries that align with your personal experience. Instead of asking others or researching which market is best, ask yourself, “in which market do I have the most knowledge?” When you already know the ins and outs of that particular trade, you tend to have more conviction and sway in providing recommendations.
Find your first client
Just as startups must test their idea with a minimum viable product, consultants must start with one client on a single project. You could read or watch all the material available on consulting, yet nothing will prepare you as much as real-life, hands-on experience.
You don’t need to run any complicated ad campaigns to attract business. Start by looking inside your network. Ask your family, friends, former professors, coworkers and classmates, and other individuals that may be interested. You’ll be surprised by how many leads you can find by simply asking around.
Develop your physical and online presence
After your first few consultations, you will want to start building a name for yourself. Physically, that involves securing office space and meeting rooms where you can host and meet clients. Digitally, it means building a website or an online portfolio that showcases your experience.
Building your physical and online presence is vital to creating a memorable brand. Remember that your consulting firm or service is not the only one in existence— which is why you must find ways to remind customers of your services and differentiators. When customers see an attractive website or a well-maintained office, they also see a reputable business.
YouTuber, kchoi, has developed a following online as she shares her journey of consulting. We recommend watching her video, “A Week in My Life as a Consultant.”
Deliver a valuable experience
It’s no secret that consulting is one of the most lucrative businesses, with the industry raking in $250 billion in 2017. The challenge is in finding clients that can see and understand the value your services provide. Your prospects and clients will not be focused on the hours of research required to prepare for a consultation, but rather the results you produce and the prices you charge.
So, how do you provide value? In an article from Harvard Business Review aptly titled “Consulting Is More Than Giving Advice,” Arthur Turner shares a hierarchy of consulting objectives organized from the most common consulting actions to the most ambitious secondary goals.
Most consultants can agree that the first five actions are essential (although number 5, assisting implementation, might be more contentious). The top three actions are “byproducts” of the first five but contribute to more exceptional consulting services.
Moving up the hierarchy is essential to growing your business but at the risk of increasing your scope. Starting out, you will want to stick to the first few actions while ensuring the work is within your means and ability. Understand where and when you can add value and define rates accordingly. Only then will you gradually build the experience to consult on larger projects.
Become selective with clients
Once you establish a robust roster of reliable and valuable clients, you can have greater control over who you work with. Being selective may sound contradictory to the goal of consulting. After all, wouldn’t you want to work with as many businesses as possible?
Ideally, yes, more work means more money. With experience, you will discover which clients to avoid. Don’t be afraid to reject projects that aren’t a good fit. Being picky about projects can also significantly improve your success rate with multiple clients, allowing you to focus your energy and resources on clients who act on and benefit from your recommendations.
How to find clients
For your business to survive long-term, you will need to master the art of attracting and closing leads. Fortunately, you are not tied to a single method. Below are some of the more successful methods for generating new business.
Who are you most likely to trust with your business: someone you or your network can vouch for, or a total stranger? Nine times out of ten, you’ll choose the family friend or former coworker over someone on the street. The act of networking demonstrates the value of forming, maintaining, and nourishing your professional relationships.
You’re likely aware of LinkedIn by now, the social network designed for professionals. You may even have an account. But are you using it to your advantage?
A few quick tips on using the LinkedIn platform:
– Create a complete and comprehensive profile. Although you may already have one, you might not have included all the important information or details about your professional career. Here are a few steps you can follow to ensure you can create an all-star profile.
– Form genuine connections. After you connect with 500 people on LinkedIn, your profile will stop showing an exact amount and simply indicate you have “500+ connections.” While this makes you seem more reputable, it does not guarantee a practical network. You want to connect with people you actually know and build on those relationships.
– Post regularly and engage authentically. LinkedIn isn’t just about connecting–it’s about engaging. That means taking the time to share videos and articles you believe your network may find interesting. It means liking, commenting on, or sharing posts from others. The more you interact and create value for your network, the greater your return in the long run.
– Join LinkedIn groups. Similar to Facebook, LinkedIn allows people to build groups around specific interests or industries. Once in a group, members can connect with you and see posts you make in the group. Groups offer an effective way to communicate with larger audiences in a more focused manner.
Over time, the connections you make are likely to send referrals your way. Essentially, your clients become brand ambassadors, creating a positive feedback loop that grows as you continue to cultivate relationships.
Read our previous guide on becoming an influencer on LinkedIn.
Many may not realize that LinkedIn isn’t just a social platform; it’s an advertising platform, as well. With customizable ad controls and an audience of over 630 million, LinkedIn is one of the most effective platforms for online advertising.
Your ad can show up in a few ways. Ads can appear in a user’s feed, similar to an organic post or status update. Alternatively, ads can show on the side of the page with a brief description and a small image. Finally, you can send direct messages to certain people, which is often used by recruiters.
Arguably the best part of LinkedIn ads is the level of control you can use. Choose to pay per click, or 1000 impressions (views). Set a budget, and timing of when an ad shows on someone’s page. If it isn’t working, stop your campaign at any time.
You can find out more about LinkedIn Ads here.
To reach potential leads organically, start publishing blog posts on LinkedIn. Blogging can be an effective strategy to provide your network with value while demonstrating your expertise in a particular field or topic. Writing about the pros and cons of various pricing strategies or the purchasing habits of the millennial generation might showcase one’s marketing experience.
Some general blogging tips:
– Focus on relevant topics. What would your connections like to read? What have they shared in the past? The more value you can provide, the more willing readers will be to share your work.
– Write captivating headlines. It’s the first thing people see, and they’ll judge whether or not they read the entire article based on the ideas or questions introduced by your headline. It is best to pair your headline with an equally captivating featured image as well.
– Find a post frequency. Whether it’s weekly or bi-weekly, find a rhythm that works for you. You’ll need to strike a balance between giving people the content they want and leaving them wanting more.
– Add rich media. Videos, images, podcasts and other media elements can break up giant paragraphs of text and make your post more attractive.
If you don’t want to publish solely on your account, you can also guest blog. This is the practice of writing and publishing a blog on someone else’s channel, typically on topics of the writer’s specialization. Guest posts give others free content while generating free traffic for you too.
Be sure to read Neal Schaffer’s post on writing your first blog post on the LinkedIn Publishing Platform.
The importance of defining the scope
As a consultant, it can be easy to over-promise on research and recommendations. After all, you naturally want to impress your clients by showing off your hard work and experience. But then you run into the risk of under-delivering or taking on client requests that ultimately contribute to scope creep. That’s why it’s important to write an SOW (scope of work).
Why SOWs are important
SOWs are the terms both of you will agree to, the setting of specific goals, the absolutely necessary components of the agreement, while clarifying what will not be addressed during the engagement. It also demonstrates the importance of tracking progress and learning to measure value creation, so following up with your client becomes a matter of putting your work together.
How to define the scope of work
Before starting any work on a project, write up an SOW and have it signed by your client. This will protect you from additional work that you cannot be billed for, or from disagreements over your deliverables. Overall, it’s the best way to set expectations with a client.
SOWs typically include:
– The overarching goal or mission of the project
– The various initiatives and steps involved
– Additional work that will not be performed
– Process for enacting the steps
– Each person’s role or responsibilities
– The timeline of the project
– How success will be measured
– Terms of payment
SOWs can be as detailed or as simple as you want them to be, but the most important thing is that it clarifies the work involved in a project to protect the relationship with your client. So be realistic when it comes to estimating dates or workloads. You’ll naturally want to get their feedback and decide on something that works for both parties.
Business 2 Community’s infographic shows some of the questions that every consultant should be asking themselves when preparing an SOW and initial agreement.
Consulting is more involved than people expect. It requires patience, planning, and expertise. Finding clients, demonstrating value, and clarifying the scope may all prove to be challenging obstacles. But those that stick around long enough will find a fulfilling way to apply their skills and knowledge to the improvement of an entire organization.