How To Tell If You Are a Consultant (Or Want To Be One)
Thinking about the freelance life? There are many ways to earn your bread as a freelancer. Fields like copywriting or website design may quickly bring clear pictures to mind. But you may have a hard time visualizing yourself as a “freelance consultant.”
Preconceptions about what it takes to be called a “consultant” often get in the way. You could miss some good ideas and great opportunities simply because you assume you are not in a consulting business.
The most common misunderstanding about what it takes to be a consultant has to do with size: the size of the consulting business, and the size of the consulting client.
Really, Size Does Not Matter
On the one hand, there are some massive consulting firms out there, like the well-known McKinsey group. But consultancies come in all sizes, and there are certainly many highly successful solo, freelance consultants. That’s easy to see.
The more problematic “size” misconception is that consultants are people who work with big corporate clients. In reality:
- While many consultants do focus on large clients,
- Some consultants focus on small businesses, and
- Some consultants work exclusively with individuals.
Indeed, some work across several levels. I have worked with some of the biggest and best known companies in the country, but I spend a lot of time advising individual freelancers, providing marketing support for training consultants.
It’s A Matter Of Wits
Are you, could you, would you like to be a “freelance consultant”? Consider this rough definition:
- Freelancers are people who live by their wits.
- Consultants are people who sell their wits.
Freelancers have very little given to them. They don’t have a boss telling them exactly how to do everything, and when to do it (client directives and deadlines notwithstanding). They have to figure out how to run their businesses.
Freelancers can, of course, provide very concrete services. You may turn to a one-person shop to get your plumbing fixed or to do your taxes.
Basically, consultants give advice, and clients pay for the opportunity to receive that advice.
The consulting angle comes in when one of the primary services or products you provide is your knowledge, your expertise, your skill in influencing people. Basically, consultants give advice, and clients pay for the opportunity to receive that advice. Often, they pay consultants because they know more about best management practices, safety issues, environmental law, or some other subject, than the client does.
They also pay consultants who can make advice stick. Companies hire professional trainers because they not only know their subject matter, they’re exceptionally effective in communicating that knowledge in ways that produce long-term benefits to the client.
Remember, it is not just large companies that will pay for advice. For instance, coaching is a significant area of consulting activity. Some very successful coaches work one-on-one with individuals to improve either their personal or business lives (or both). (And some coaches are hired by large corporations to work with their executives.)
The Consultative Approach
Being a “consultant” is less an either-or proposition than it is a position on a spectrum of possibilities. A more consultative approach involves more time understanding the client situation, more independence in crafting and proposing solutions, and more independence in how the job gets done.
A more consultative approach involves more time understanding the client situation, more independence in crafting and proposing solutions, and more independence in how the job gets done.
For instance, I recently saw a major blogging platform promoting their design services through a case study. One of their users had contacted them with a detailed description of how he would like his blogging site to be rebuilt into a full purpose website. The blogging service created exactly what the client wanted, and it looked lovely. But they didn’t do any consulting on the project.
Had they asked a lot of questions about the client’s business; probed deeper; anticipated future as well as immediate needs; suggested features that the client might not have been aware of; and provided a more informed framework for the client to make decisions about his website, they would have been playing a consulting role, even as they provided basic technical services.
Indeed, it’s almost a natural evolution. Often, if you are really good at what you do, clients start to ask your advice. After years of providing straightforward services, you find yourself spending more time sharing what you have learned to help clients achieve their goals more quickly. (And you should find yourself charging more!)
You have, perhaps without realizing it, entered the consulting business.
Whether your clients are big or small, whether or not concrete products and services are part of what you offer, when clients are mainly after what’s in your head, and your ability to share that effectively, you have some great consulting opportunities ahead of you.