So you want to be a consultant?

Today’s job market continues to impose unprecedented challenges on those “more experienced” individuals who are now facing a new reality in terms of what is valued by employers. The outsourcing craze has produced two effects–one good, one not-so-good. On the not-so-good side, employers have a much different set of expectations about labor costs, and have a keen eye on the overall cost of compensation. This fact is what’s driving so much of the dislocation we see in the labor market, particularly among experienced, mature workers.
On the positive side, however, is the fact that companies are increasingly configuring their operations to accommodate a virtual workforce. Contractors and consultants of all stripes move through modern companies as never before, and it may be hard to believe but we’re only at the beginning of the large-scale shift in how companies configure their workforce.
Given these facts, it’s clear that a major option for today’s career make-over is to become a consultant. The freedom of declaring yourself your own boss can be exhilarating. But there are some strategic fundamentals that many people overlook as they move into establishing their consulting business. While your former employer might look like the obvious beach head on which you can establish your new consultancy, it’s important to consider the long term, as you embark on converting a lifetime of experience into a platform for generating sustainable income.
My experience in working in consulting for nearly 20 years in firms large and small, and now as an independent consultant, has led me to develop seven key factors to consider as you build your business strategy. Notice I said that these are the keys to developing your business strategy—too often people jump into consulting by trying to pivot their job skills into a business offering. In some cases, for those with very particular, high demand skills, it might work. But for the most part, it’s equally important to invest time upfront in strategic development. You’ll be glad you did.
They seven keys are:
(1) Winning the Proposal Game
(2) Your Give Away
(3) Dealing with Expectations
(4) Moving In – becoming part of the family
(5) Appearing bigger than you are—project yourself
(6) Eating your own dog food—practicing what you preach
(7) Build your virtual team

Let’s look at each in detail
(1) Winning the Proposal Game. Successful proposals don’t simply win you business. They are the blueprint for maintaining the relationship with the client. Successful proposals usually win on the strength of the team, and the demonstration of capability to perform. As such, be sure to document all your past experience (qualifications) rigorously. Additionally, you need to run the proposal through an applicable project management method to clarify scope, identify resources and role, and to manage risk.
(2) Craft Your Give Away. Prospective clients invariably expect a “freebie” – something that lures them to you and your service; a free taste of the services you offer to get them hooked. In my experience, the best consultants charge prospective clients for their give-away. This approach gets the client’s skin in the game. Important: make sure that you (and the potential client) don’t confuse your give away with your real offer!
(3) Dealing with Expectations. Winning professional services business requires setting high expectations. The biggest source of suffering in professional practice is the inevitable divergence of expectations once delivery begins. Remember: the client is always right – up to a point! It’s important to maintain the view that you’re forming a partnership with clients that allows give and take. Finally, and this is important, don’t be afraid to fire a client. In the long run, it’s more important to maintain your professional integrity than to be abused for billable hours.
(4) Moving In—Becoming Part of the Family. The bard said “Be thou familiar but by no means vulgar…” You want to cultivate a trusted advisory relationship AND maintain your independence. This is a high-wire act for consultants; you have to create your own structure that YOU belong to so you’re not dependent on belonging of the client’s culture and structure.
(5) Appearing Bigger—Projecting Yourself. One of the tenets of small business is to find ways to appear bigger than you are. Overinvest in image – go the extra mile to provide excellent quality in terms of materials, deliverables, web site, etc. Pull in allies from your network to flesh out your team also can be helpful. Be vigilant about this, and also be accurate. Leaving people with an impression is different that mis-representing yourself.
(6) Eating your own dog food—practicing what you preach. Every consultant is vexed by having his or her complete focus on delivery and new business development. Be sure that you clearly exemplify your field of expertise. Too often consultants self-diagnose themselves with the “cobbler’s kids” syndrome. Avoid this: you need to have the shiniest shoes. Doing so will have a lasting impact on your viability.
(7) Build your virtual team. Consultants are expected to be experts in their disciplines. But too often they think that their expertise in on domain extends to other domain. Beyond your professional cadre, it’s important to build a social network that’s balanced with people who have key skills – sales, marketing, branding and image, project management, etc. Train your team’s eyes to spot opportunities for you. They should be clear about what you do that they can reliably identify an obvious opportunity back to you.

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