Management consultancy can be a challenging, exciting and lucrative profession. There are many positive aspects to a career in consultancy. It offers a variety of ever changing work across a wider diversity of industries, geographies and clients than almost any other job. It is not without risks. The demand for consultants and resulting level of fees fluctuates depending on the state of the economy. So it is not a profession for the totally risk adverse. But in reality, the same can be said of most careers nowadays. There are no risk free jobs.
There numerous opportunities for skilled project managers to become consultants. There comes a point in many people’s career when thoughts turn to becoming a consultant. Perhaps you want to do something more interesting, earn more money or get away from an irritating boss. None of these are assured, but all are possible as a consultant. Maybe you are redundant and need a new job. Whilst this is not the ideal reason for becoming a consultant, many successful consulting careers have started following redundancy. Possibly you want more control over your career. As a self employed consultant - it is all in your hands.
So what does it take to become a consultant? There are a lot of details to be thought through in order to have a successful career as a consultant. Do you want to work for yourself or as part of a larger firm? Are there specific industries, specialisations or geographies you want to work in? What skills, qualifications or accreditations help in being a consultant? It is easy to generate a long list of issues. However, behind all this apparent complexity, it is simpler to become a consultant than most people expect. Fundamentally, there are two core questions you need to be able to answer:
- What service are you going to sell?
- How are you going to find paid engagements?
Let’s look at each of these questions in turn.
What are you going to sell? Clients buy consultancy because they have problems which they perceive consultants can help them to resolve. In selling yourself as a consultant you are not offering your skills as you would as an employee. You are not simply another resource - you are selling a solution to a client’s problems. If you are involved in discussions with potential clients they will soon ask what your services are. In answering this question you are telling potential clients when they should call you up for help.
In pondering what service you could offer clients there are two extremes to avoid. The first is worrying that you have no worthwhile skills. The second is to try and position yourself as someone who can solve any problem in the world.
Now there are many problems for which project management may be part of the right solution. Therefore being a project manager is a good basis for becoming a consultant. But be aware that clients hiring consultants at high rates are not usually just looking for someone to run a project – they are looking for them to help them overcome their specific business challenges.
Everyone has capabilities. No doubt some are more useful or valuable than others, but many people have some valuable skills. Start by thinking through what you have done in the past, and what you are good at. Whatever you offer must be of value to the client. However, you do not need to be a world class expert. There are very few world class experts, and rarely are their skills needed. You simply need to be better at something than some clients. If you are a competent and capable person you do not always need to know a huge amount about a specific problem to resolve it. You just need to know enough.
On the other hand, you should avoid presenting yourself with too broad a skill set. Make your experience look too wide and you come across as a jack-of-all trades. You may be able to help any client, but present yourself as a jack-of-all-trades and you will not be credible. Customers don’t have general problems – in their eyes, every problem is special and needs a specialist. When clients buy consultants, they want a specialist and are willing to pay for specialist knowledge. However, if you make your experience look too narrow, then when someone wants the expert they may come knocking at your door, but the chances are that this will not be often. So, you need to think about how to describe yourself as sufficiently broadly skilled to appeal to a variety of roles, but sufficiently focussed to be regarded as capable of meeting the challenges of a specific customer’s issues.
Finding paying clients
Let’s assume you have worked out what services you are going to offer clients. The other important question is how are you going to find work? Consultancy is not always an easy product to sell. Potential clients do not stick up adverts saying they need consultants. Somehow you need to find clients. If you are employed by a major consultancy they are continuously undertaking business development to find work. On the other hand, if you are self employed you need to find it yourself.
Consultancy is rarely, if ever, sold by cold calling strangers and offering them your services. New consultants are often attracted to the idea of agencies that place consultants. These can be helpful, but they tend to service only a small proportion of the overall market. There are web sites which advertise for consulting roles. These can be useful, but they generally offer work at the lower end of the market in terms of rates. The best way to find consulting work is from your personal network.
A network of hundreds of contacts who trust you is a major asset as a consultant. Being naturally gregarious and having no problems contacting people you know slightly and building relationships with them is valuable. But it is not essential. Everyone has the capability to develop their network. Who do you know? Call them up, tell them what you are doing and ask them to tell anyone else. Most will not need you, at least not now. Keep calling them up from time to time. Ask for feedback on your services. Ask what services they do need and work out how you can align what you can do with their needs. Keep yourself in fresh in people’s memories.
One of the most important groups in your network is other consultants. Occasionally they are competitors, but most of the time they will be helpful. Many consultants get all of their work from other consultants who have more work than they alone can fulfil.
The fact that most people will not buy your services should not concern you. You do not need to sell to every client. You just need to sell to enough. It does not bother the salesman at a Rolls-Royce dealership that most people walk past without ever entering. He or she is only needs to sell a few cars. You should take the same approach. You only have so many hours in the day and so many days in a week. You are trying to fill them with profitable consulting work and nothing else.
There is one easy way to sell consultancy: let clients ask you for help. This may sound too good to be true, but it happens - and it happens all the time. Managers have problems every day. Often they do not have the resource to resolve all the problems they have. Traditionally, organisations had lots of people with spare time to sort out problems. In these days of restricted budgets and lean organisations problems arise all the time which there are not enough people to sort out. In these situations, clients regularly resort to consultants. The consultants they normally call are the ones they know and have had good service from in the past.
Once your career takes off, and as long as you full fill your client’s needs, you will start to build a network of people who trust you and will use you again and again. You do not need many clients. I know some consultants with very successful practices, who have been kept busy for years with only 2 or 3 clients. I’m not suggesting this will work for everyone, but you need a smaller client base than you may expect.
There is a lot more to being a consultant. The type and volume of work and level of income varies significantly between the most and least successful consultants. How you engage with clients and deliver quality results is a critically important aspect of success which I have not covered here. You core skill as a consultant is the skill of being a consultant, which takes time to learn and master. But if you understand what service you are going to sell, understand how you are going to find clients, and deliver value to those clients you do sell to, you are off to a good start.