Monday, November 25, 2013

How to Shine as an Independent Consultant

There are many people out there who claim to be consultants -- I’m one of them. However, the term, which is very loosely defined, basically suggests that whoever is using the title has expertise about that which they claim as their professional niche. And for a fee they can, for an agreed-upon span of time, provide their clients with this expertise.
It is not for me to judge who and who is not a real consultant because, you see, that’s the beauty of a free market and capitalism. If a consultant provides a worthy service for a price the market will bear and can build a satisfactory reputation to match, they will do okay. If they don’t, they won’t. As companies cut costs and increase what is outsourced, it can be a lucrative, albeit crowded and highly competitive niche.
For those who are already consultants and want to up their game, or those who are beginning or even considering pursuing that line of work, I have some advice, if you’re interested. Not everyone is wild about consultants and there are those who populate boardrooms who have a rather low opinion of consultants and with good reason. I can name a number of professionals that do little to solve problems although that is precisely why they were brought on and contracted in the first place. You would be surprised at how many times consultants who are paid a lot of money fail to deliver on what they sold. And I don’t care how many diplomas a person may have on the wall, I have met some people neck deep in titles and degrees and they can talk all around a subject presenting solutions in theory. But clients aren’t paying for theory – they want solutions. They don’t need a play by play of what’s wrong with an academic twist, they already know it and, again, they want solutions.
As an example, how many people who go to a psychologist are ever told they are cured? I am not picking on psychologists or those who find their services helpful. I am simply suggesting that from a cynic’s perspective, they are developing a client base of patients in order to maintain a dependable revenue stream. It is a business as much or more than a practice. If a patient were to actually become cured, they lose a paying client. Or, what if the pharmaceutical companies ever actually cured disease? There would be no need to refill prescriptions on a recurring long-term basis, which wouldn’t keep the money flowing, which, in turn, wouldn’t justify spending millions for R&D. But if you have a disease, affliction or syndrome du jour and you begin to take a pill to alleviate and manage the symptoms – never mind an actual cure, you’re hooked; they’ve got you for the long term. I see the same business model in consulting.
So my advice is perhaps a bit radical (sarcasm) and flies in the face of convention; however, if you want to set yourself apart from the majority, one way to do it is – to do what you say you will do; actually solve the problems you were contracted to fix. In my view that is what a consultant is, and not someone who finds and latches onto a host, always re-assuring their client that a solution is just around the corner in order to extend a contract. Sorry, but building in dependency to justify more work and revenue is, at the very least, misleading, although this is how many large consultancy firms operate, and how do I know this to be true, you ask? I’ve  worked both on behalf of large advisory firms to recruit specialists and I have represented consultants who were not hired because they did not conform to the model of perpetuating more business to rack up billable hours. Instead, they wanted to solve problems and, therefore, they were not selected. These are the people who go off on their own and establish themselves independently, ironic isn’t it? I am not suggesting all consultancies are like this but there are enough of them and, as such, this is one strategy for how one might set themselves apart in a crowded market. Because, if you get down to the core of the issue, it is about helping companies navigate transition, fixing things and solving problems. References of this kind differentiate someone from others, who present a list of clients with whom they are conducting work on never-ending projects.  
Building a solid reputation by leaving a trail of successes in your wake is real job security, especially when companies more tightly control expenditures for outsourced help. But this is not all there is to it, one must continually find new business and a reputation for being reliable and effective builds its own momentum. Or, am I being too idealistic and unrealistic? 
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