How to Become a Consultant: Steps to Take and Things to Consider
Becoming a consultant might seem like an easy path to take at first glance. You get to give people advice and get paid for it, right? As it turns out, it can a be a little more complicated than that, especially when you’re first starting out. Being a consultant can be invigorating, but you’ve got to be willing to do the hard work first.
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Identify Your Niche: What is Your Area of Expertise?
Before you put any money on the table, you need to stop and consider what you’ll be consulting on. This may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people barrel into the industry without the proper forethought. You can’t just have a proficiency in a topic, you need to be an expert. There has to be a reason that companies hire you instead of just doing the necessary work themselves.
It’s equally as important to specialize. When you are first starting out, you might not be able to specialize as much as you’d like due to lack of experience. If you’ve had a long career in the industry, and are now branching out to consult, you’ll have a better idea of what specific market you can fill.
Acquire Certifications, Licenses, and Other Credentials
If you are starting a consulting business, there is some required red tape that you’ll have to jump through. In contrast, being a freelancer is generally a much simpler path that requires a high degree of self-motivation. If you don’t have that, that doesn’t mean that you can’t be a consultant, just that you’ll have to do it under someone else’s name.
No matter what path you choose, you will benefit from acquiring the relevant certifications. Although they are rarely required to be a consultant, they prove your expertise in your field. Unless you already have a steady stream of contacts and a reputation in the industry, clients will want to see that you know what you’re talking about. And rather than hire you and find out for themselves, they’ll prefer to see evidence of your expertise. If you want to be competitive, you’ll have to have some credentials.
Do some research. The more technical your field, the more weight your certification or license will have. Find some groups with good standing, and ask some consultants or potential clients what certifications would look the best.
Select and Research Your Target Market
Look into how you can be most effective in your industry. That will help develop your target market. Do you do best on an individual project level? Or on large scale overhauls? Maybe you do your best work remotely, or should you focus on working onsite? Your particular expertise will help inform this issue.
Then, do some digging. Don’t be afraid to appear nosy; you’re trying to fill a gap in the market. Ask potential clients what knowledge gaps they suffer from. Try to see where certain industry leaders went wrong and where they went right. Gather as much information as possible before you decide where you can be the best use.
Set Your Rates and Develop a Fee Schedule
Next, you need to decide how billing will be handled. Every consultant does it a little differently. It will depend on whether you decided to work onsite or remotely, where are you located, and how saturated the market is. Ultimately, you’ll have to decide whether you want to charge hourly, per project, or on retainer. You probably won’t have many clients wanting to put you on retainer when you first start out, but don’t necessarily jump at the chance if it does happen.
Whatever billing situation you decide upon, you need to decide how it fits into your career goals. If you’re looking to jumpstart a career in consulting, then turning anything away might be risk. However, if you’re just looking for something to fill your time and pad your wallet after retirement, then you can afford to be a little more selective. Either way, handling your finances as a freelancer is difficult, so make sure to keep clear records.
Network, Advertise, and Promote Yourself
In order to become a successful consultant, you need to successfully sell yourself. Consultancy is a unique business, because you’re not just selling a product. You’re selling your judgement and experience in a particular industry. That expertise needs to come in confident, competent, and well-respected package.
Make sure to diligently keep up with contacts in the industry. It might be cumbersome, but you never know when you’ll need to lean on someone for support or a recommendation. Even if you can’t name all of their kids, checking in for a quick update every once in awhile is a good idea.
You can’t rely explicitly on old friends and colleagues, though. You also need to get your name out there in other ways. As a freelancer, your best tool is word of mouth, but you shouldn’t shy away from other effective methods of advertising. Don’t underestimate social media, especially LinkedIn, to keep drawing in new clients.
Becoming a consultant is more of a climb than most people believe, but that shouldn’t dissuade you. If you are an industry leader with valuable insight and expertise, then consulting is a smart career choice. Yes, anyone can become a consultant, but not everyone is set up to succeed in the industry. Take the necessary steps beforehand, and you’ll thank yourself later.
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Dayton is a chronic Wikipedia addict, which is detrimental to her social life but stellar for her writing. She resides in Boise, ID, surrounded by her own frantic outlines, highlighted encyclopedias, and potatoes. The latter was not by choice.
This post was updated February 28, 2019. It was originally published March 15, 2018.