Collected Management Wisdom from Stratford Managers
10 Critical Success Factors To Become A Consultant
We’d seen that gleam in their eyes before. “I think this time I’ll try something different,” they enthused. “I’m going to use all my experience to become a consultant!”
“Well,” we started, “We love consulting. But not everyone is cut out for it. You certainly have the knowledge, but years of business experience aren’t enough. There are skills that are essential for a consultant that most corporate managers never developed or, if they did, have forgotten.”
Undeterred, my friend said, “That’s why I asked to meet. Tell me what I don’t know. What does it take to be a successful consultant?”
With that encouragement, we launched into the following list of critical success factors.
10 Critical Success Factors to Become a Consultant
You better be able to do Business Development (BD). BD is a permanent background activity when you’re a consultant. You can never stop. You need to be networking and scanning the environment for opportunities continuously, in person and on social media. But finding opportunities is just the start…
You need to be a Closer. Not in a used car salesperson way but as an advisor. One of your most important skills as a consultant is to understand a potential client’s problem (your opportunity) and frame an approach to delivering a solution that the client is prepared to buy. You’re not solving the problem at this point but you have to be able to show a credible path to a solution in your proposal.
You must be clear on the services you offer. This seems obvious but is actually the toughest challenge faced by anyone who wants to become a consultant, particularly anyone with a successful career behind them. You’ve spent your working life selling yourself in your resume and interviews. But when you become a consultant, you’re selling solutions to customer problems. Successful consultants codify those solutions into clearly priced services that are easily understood, promoted and purchased.
You know what you’re worth. While successful BD ensures you’re busy, your pricing determines whether you can actually make a living at consulting. You’ve spent years learning and practicing your craft. It isn’t a commodity. Your rate should reflect this and you shouldn’t hesitate to ask for it. Sure, there will be a negotiation, but it should focus on the scope of work before you get to trimming your rate.
You know your buyer. If you’re an experienced, talented person, it’s actually not all that hard to sell your services. There are many companies out there that are happy to get free, low cost or contingency-based advice. You can fill your dance card pretty quickly. Of course, you have to eat so you better be looking for the type of clients (industry sector, company size, situation/behaviour) and buyers (decision-makers with budget) who have a compelling need for your services plus an ability to pay. It’s OK to work for equity every now and then, or sit on an advisory board or two, but recognize that when you become a consultant, that’s basically charitable work.
You’re a student of your craft. The best consultants are continuous learners and thought leaders because they love their subject matter. They instinctively integrate research, career experience and consulting practice to develop frameworks for analyzing issues and communicating solutions. That’s what it means to be an “expert”.
You’re not afraid to get your hands dirty. It goes without saying that you know your stuff but you can’t just be a theorist. As any good consultant knows, strategy is easy. Execution is hard, but it is where the true customer value resides. When you become a consultant you must be prepared to roll up your sleeves and do the hard work too.
You connect the dots. In addition to being subject matter experts, successful consultants put their expertise in context of the client’s broader business outcomes. They articulate the value of their services not in specialist jargon but in basic business term with concrete, measurable results. It’s this perspective that makes them more valuable to a client than typical employees.
You build relationships and are an outstanding communicator. Every client project is like your first 90 days in a new job – except you need to come with a concrete plan, get started fast and there’s no honeymoon period. This means that you must rapidly understand the political environment and establish trust with your new colleagues. You must also be a highly effective communicator who can deliver sometimes tough messages in a way that will be accepted and acted upon. Then, just as you get comfortable, you’re on to the next project!
You’re “on call”. We know we all dream that when we become a consultant we’ll have more control and flexibility over our time. Maybe we’ll be able to take a few extra long weekends. Maybe even take the summer off eventually. Dream on. At least until you become very well established, you’ll be hustling for every project then working late into the evening and on weekends so you can do BD during the day. And the deadlines are fierce! You were hired because the client has an urgent problem that can’t wait, remember?
We saw the sober look on our friend’s face. “We’re not trying to scare you – but we want you to go into this with your eyes wide open,” we said.
They smiled weakly and asked, “Is that it?”
“Actually, we think we’ve got one more,” we said.
You care. Not to be too dramatic, but a consultant is like a doctor for businesses. You’re in it to help clients and make a difference to their success. You see solutions and potential where the client only sees problems and obstacles. You connect clients to each other and you do your best to bring them business opportunities. Contrary to the myth, few people get rich when they become a consultant (unless you have a scarce, in-demand skill), but it can be one of the most rewarding careers around.