Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Why Consulting isn't for Faint-Hearts

Last year about 70,000 people in the third sector lost their jobs – pushing on enough to fill Wembley Stadium.  While some are happily now in new jobs, many will be making a go of it as independent consultants.   Some of these folks will, no doubt, be loving it – and telling anyone who will listen that losing their job was the best thing that ever happened to them.   Other newly self-employed, however,  will be sat, quietly desperate, in the spare bedroom opening another pack of Custard Creams  and waiting in vain for the phone to ring.

So how do you make that transition to running a successful independent consultancy? Having attempted the journey myself, I would offer three main pointers.   The first is to understand that as an independent you will need to specialize.  Whether you realise it or not, there will be something -  a single stand-out skill or attribute – for which you're best known.  It's this ‘something’ we need to understand - because this is the one thing that people will pick up the phone specifically to ask us to do.   Our specialism is the essence of our usefulness to others.  Therefore it’s vital we figure out quickly what that is.

The second is to realise that in consultancy everything matters. To win work from clients,  it is not just your encylopaedic knowledge or contacts that will bring in the business.  You need to look and sound the part.  Your website should be fresh-looking.   Your answer-phone needs to sound like you are pleased to hear from people.  Hair, teeth and clothes all matter too.  Nobody hires a consultant who looks like s--t.   If you're a voluntary sector scarecrow, get down the hairdresser before you step out into the real world.  While you’re out, buy some good shoes.

Thirdly, and perhaps, more importantly, you need to deliver. This sounds rather obvious, but it's the main fear in the mind of every client - 'What if this hired-gun lets me down?'    You deliver by listening very carefully to what the client needs.  You deliver by carefully agreeing the scope of the project,  charging a fair price and only taking on work you can deliver to a truly exceptional standard. 

Note my use of the word ‘exceptional’.  As a consultant, it's rarely enough just to put in a ‘decent’ performance, like you might do week-in-week out at work.  This seldom leads to a long relationship with a client.    While you'll always get paid for a decent job, the client will move on if you don’t totally wow them.   Should you manage to do this, however, your client will get you back time and again.   The best business is repeat-business.  Remember - consultancy is, above all else, a relationships business.   Love your clients.  

Of course, your decision to step into the world of consulting depends, in large part, on whether you’re personally suited to do it.  I'm not just talking about how clever or knowledgeable you are here, but also your character.   Resilience is key -  particularly in year one when you're still finding your feet.  You can feel very unloved on a bleak Tuesday afternoon when even the dog declines a walk with you.   Self-doubt, if it lives within your heart, will tap you on the shoulder and suggest you apply for that supervisor job you’ve seen down at Tesco (regular hours, paid holidays, people to talk to).

So should you be one of this year’s Wembley-sized crowd of third-sector leavers this year, think carefully before you make your move into consulting.   It’s not for faint-hearts.