Having been a consultant (marketing and management) for very many years I regularly get asked questions about how to become a consultant and how to do it. This article contains some of the advice I regularly give. I hope you find it interesting and useful.
Let me know if you have any comments or questions, or if I can help – I have helped and advised many consultants in many fields
WHY DOES ANYONE NEED A CONSULTANT ANYWAY?
1. Lack of available personnel. Sometimes even the largest firms lack personnel at specific periods of time or for specific tasks. They may need assistance during a temporary work overload, or they may require unique expertise that is not needed on an ongoing basis every day of the year. Temporary assistance might be needed. A firm may need unique expertise on a short-term, project basis.
2. The need for an outside opinion. Not infrequently a company has a problem and management feels the employees are too close to it to understand all the ramifications. It makes sense then to bring in someone from outside – someone with competent problem- solving skills but not necessarily knowledge of the business. In fact, sometimes the individual’s very ignorance (assuming, of course, a talent for problem-solving) helps to provide the answer. Peter F. Drucker, perhaps the world’s greatest and certainly the most famous management consultant, has frequently said that he brings to the problem not so much his experience in a specific industry as his ignorance.
3. Company politics. At times the solution to a problem may actually be known, but for various political reasons it cannot be presented by those who understand the problem.
4. A need for improved sales. No company can exist without sales. This is true no matter how knowledgeable its president or senior staff, how skilled its financial people and accountants, how innovative its engineers in developing or manufacturing new products. A company that needs to increase sales rapidly will sometimes turn outside its own marketing staff for help.
5. The need for capital. Every company needs money. This is especially true of a succesful company. In fact, the more successful a company, the more capital it needs. The need for capital is a continuing problem with many companies. An individual who has expertise in finding sources of capital will be in continual demand.
6. Government regulations. No company is immune to government regulations, and all companies need to ensure that they fulfill these regulations in the most efficient and effective manner. At the same time they wish to minimize any negative impact on their business and, if possible, use the regulations to help the operation of their business. If you have knowledge in any of these regulatory areas or can become an expert in them, there is a real market for your consulting services.
7. The need for maximum efficiency. If you know how to increase the efficiency of an organisation, you have something important to sell as a consultant.
8. The ability to diagnose problems and find solutions One reason that the MBA degree (Master of Business Administration) is so sought after by many businesses is that the graduates with these degrees are supposed to be very adept at diagnosing problems faced by business and developing solutions for them.
9. Training employees. The operation of any business is becoming more and more complex, and today many employees are continually trained throughout their careers. Managers need different types of training for leadership, organisational, and planning skills; computer operators need additional training with the latest equipment, techniques, software, and programming. In fact, developments are occurring so rapidly that virtually every single functional area of business needs continual training.
There are five broad levels of possible consultant involvement in examining the problem and its possible solutions.
1. The consultant is asked to understand – define the problem – and to find a solution.
2. The consultant is provided with the problem and asked to find solutions.
3. The consultant is provided with the problem and asked to assist to develop solutions.
4. The consultant is asked to assist the client both to define the problem and develop solutions.
5. The consultant is asked to comment on the problem analysis and solution proffered by the client.
Some Characteristics of Consulting
In addition to consultants who might be brought in from outside the organisation, many people in staff functions within the organisation have a consulting role – personnel, finance, systems analysis, auditing, organisation effectiveness, safety, human resource development, etc.
The consultant does not have direct control over the client or the problem – yet still has to be influential.
The consultant does not have direct responsibility for deciding on and implementing action – these are the final responsibility of the client.
The consultant is both a part of the client system and apart from it – ‘on the margin’.
The consultant provides knowledge and skills appropriate to assisting the client to solve problems, reach decisions and implement action.
The relationship between consultant and client is frequently a temporary one associated with particular problems or issues.
The relationship is characterised by a level of mutual trust to enable effective collaborative working to occur.
The exchange which occurs in the relationship involves both ideas and feelings.
The Purpose of Consulting
The consultant’s aim is to bring about a change in the client’s actions in the direction of more effective and efficient activities.
The consultant needs to:
– make an impact,
– have an influence,
– get a response,
Consulting skills include:
Professional Bedside Manner. This refers to your ability to get along with your client. Developing a pleasant bedside manner, so that your clients have confidence in what you say, can be as important as your technical knowledge.
The ability to diagnose problems. Your ability to diagnose the problem correctly is extremely important. It is one of the most significant criteria of an outstanding consultant.
The ability to find solutions.
Technical expertise and knowledge. Expertise comes from your education, your experience, and the personal skills you have developed. But it may be in any one of a variety of areas and it may develop in a variety of different ways.
Communication skills. The number one attribute is superior communication abilities. (Analytical skill is second, and the ability to work under pressure is third.)
Marketing ability. You must learn to be a good marketer (and a good salesperson). For consultants sell not only an intangible product, they also must sell them selves.
Management skills. An outstanding consultant must also be a good manager of resources – particularly Time
Professionalism and ethical approach
SETTING YOURSELF UP
To open a business is very easy. To keep it open is another matter
The first step is to actually define your business its product and its market.
Most people begin with the vague notion that they want to be consultants. It is important to be specific. Your market wants to know that your business is clear in your mind before they even consider paying you to perform a service for them.
The longer it takes you to explain your consulting service the less interesting it becomes. Most consultants make two mistakes in this area. Firstly they either explain in long convoluted sentences about what they do, which does not enlighten the client. Secondly they don’t want to be tied down to one area and profer a host of services.
Sam Goldwyn is credited with the suggestion that if you cannot write down what you can do for him on the back of your business card (in a way that is self explanatory in its nature) then it is a sign that you don’t know what he wants or what you do.
Here is an example from an industrial psychologist I worked with:
” I help manufacturing organisations obtain better performance from their employees. I design selection procedures, job descriptions, reward systems and training programmes to better the fit between employer and employee, to increase the productivity of both.”
To help you specify what your practise does, learn to use the reporters best friends: WHO does WHAT to WHOM, HOW, WHY, WHERE WHEN and at WHAT EXPENSE. Think of what you have to offer client in a language the client will readily understand.
PHASES IN THE CONSULTING PROCESS
1. Initial Contact
2. Establishment of a working relationship
The (written) agreement/contract. (Needs to be detailed and specific
3. Assessment of the problem
4. Action Planning
5. Action taking and evaluation
1. INITIAL CONTACT
. Who takes the initiative?
. How to make contact?
. Who is the client?
. What sort of problem is it?
. How ready is the client to work/to change?
. Can you work with this client?
2. ESTABLISHING A WORKING RELATIONSHIP
. Understanding the clients needs
– personal needs, power needs, organisational needs
. Developing mutual understanding
– the consultants role and responsibilities
– the clients role and responsibilities
– outcomes to be achieved.
. What sort of relationship?
. Contract details
– work to be undertaken
– reporting details
– financial considerations (How will you be paid?)
3. ASSESSMENT OF THE PROBLEM
. Methods of gathering data
. How does the problem manifest itself?
. What are the causes of the problem
. Who is involved and how do they contribute to the problem?
. What are the forces for and against change?
4. ACTION PLANNING
. What are the objectives of making a change?
. What alternative actions might be taken?
. What has priority among these?
. How well will the chosen action solve the problem?
. What risks exist?
. Who is to be involved?
. How and when?
5. ACTION TAKING AND EVALUATION.
. What will it take to get this project underway?
. Who should be involved, and how can they be involved?
. How can we ensure influential support?
. How can action be sustained?
. How can this project be developed to be self sustaining?
NEGOTIATING THE INITIAL INTERVIEW
LOOK AND ACT LIKE A PROFESSIONAL
The first impression you make with your client should be the very best; part this is made up of your appearance and your behaviour; you want to look like, and act like, the professional that you are.
Dress is extremely important because it helps you make a good first impression. There are only two rules: dress as neatly as possible, and try to look as much as possible like your client expects.
In this first interview, you should be professional but not pompous. You should always strive to be friendly and to understand your potential client and build empathy with him.
You must maintain a professional attitude, and at the same time you must be tactful, friendly, and empathetic.
SEVEN ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS
During the first interview, there are seven questions that you absolutely must ask in order to better understand the client’s problems and also to help you to decide whether to accept the assignment
1. What problem needs solving? Whether the client contacted you or vice versa, it is important that you draw them out and understand exactly why they are seeing you.
2. Exactly what does the client want you to do? What are the specific objectives of the assignment? Even though in this first interview your primary purpose is to gain information, and even though you are still feeling out the situation.
3. How will you know if the objectives have been met?
4. Are there any particularly sensitive issues that you should watch out for? Any organisation made up of human beings contains political problems of one sort or another. As an outsider attempting to insert yourself into and analyze a particular problem or set of problems, you may stumble into difficult political situations in the organisation.
5. Who will be your main point of contact? Avoid working for committees
6. Will there be a backup contact?
7. What authority does each player have?
Naturally, the only way you will remember all you learn during the initial interview is to take notes. For this purpose I recommend a notebook. As soon as you start the conversation take it out and begin to take notes. If you don’t understand a point, ask the client to repeat what was said.
I want to emphasise that in the very first interview you must find out everything that you possibly can. Never hesitate to ask for such information as the company’s annual report or product brochures if you feel it will be useful to you. In fact, even after you have returned to your office, do not be afraid to call and ask for additional information if it will help you consider different ways to attack the client’s problem.
Don’t Give Advice Yet – Its OK to make broad suggestions as hints
During the first interview, many new consultants are so eager to help the potential client and show that they recognise both the problem and the solution, they immediately begin talking and giving advice. There are reasons you must not do this. First, you don’t really know enough about the situation yet to give advice. This is probably true in 95% of the cases. However, even in the 5% when the answer is obvious to you, do not volunteer anything unless you are already being paid for your time.