Becoming A Consultant In 2020: A How-To Guide

So you’ve decided that you’d like to start consulting. Maybe you’ve heard the siren call of setting your own hours, working on cutting edge stuff with cool clients, making more money, or making a name for yourself. Perhaps you’ve read some of the interesting outcomes that folks like Nat Eliason have talked about at length. Freelancing, contracting, consulting - whatever you want to call it. Offering your own services is a great first step in the ladder of self-employment.

There’s a ton of reasons why being a consultant might work for you. One of the great things about starting your own consulting business is that it doesn’t require a big outlay of cash. Starting a consulting business can be accomplished fairly simply by finding businesses that need help with a specific challenge and offering them your help solving that problem.

That said, simple definitely doesn’t mean easy. The low barriers to entry also mean that consulting is fiercely competitive. Ever looked at sites like Upwork, Fiverr, or Freelancer? Dozens of highly skilled people around the world are willing to take on contracts at much lower rates than you’d ever accept. Tons of people try to become self employed as a consultant every year and just as many quit because they can’t make it work.

So the question is, how do you succeed early on as a consultant? For the sake of this post, I’ll assume you don’t already have an established brand that you can fall back on or an incredible personal network capable of feeding you awesome leads. As we'll find out, succeeding as a consultant is actually more about not failing, hence the title of this post. Failing usually happens because you aren't able to sell your services.

I’m going to give you a process you can use to get off the ground running. We’ll try to avoid vague platitudes and instead focus on the actionable steps that you can take to give yourself the best chances of success.

Why Should I Hire You?

Consulting is only about one thing: improving the client’s state. In order to improve a client’s state, they’ll first need to agree to work with you. In order to get them to work with you, they’ll first need to understand your value proposition and agree with it.

Ok, value proposition - vague buzzword alert. What does it mean? The simplest version of this is a statement taking the form:

I help who do what

Seems easy enough? Not really. The key to a compelling value prop is to get as specific as possible about the answers you are filling in for the who and what.

Also critically - and I can’t stress this enough - you are not just making up answers to this that sound good in your head. You want to get laser focused on understanding exactly who your customers are and exactly what their pain points are. You are NOT focusing on the technical skills you have or features of the solution.

The fatal error many aspiring consultants make is to come up with something like this: “I help ecommerce companies to build machine learning models”. Wrong - no one gives a crap about your ability to build fancy ML models. Selling yourself as a list of technologies or credentials completely exposes your lack of understanding about who should care and why.

Potential clients care about you only in your ability to solve their problems, save them time, and make more money. Anything not directly accomplishing this is a complete waste of time for you to try to sell. Instead of obsessing over anything technical or logistical, focus on how you can improve the client’s life.

Ask yourself the following questions to get closer to what I’m describing:

  • Pain Point: What is your client’s important problem that they can’t solve?
  • Imagine: Where could your client be at the end of this journey with you?

Let’s walk through methods you might use to develop your value proposition.

  • Think about past jobs you’ve had. The company you worked for had customers, otherwise they wouldn’t be in business. Those customers have a pain point that they were willing to pay to solve. Could you help those customers solve that pain point directly?
  • Have you or anyone you’ve worked with ever complained about something relating to your work? Chances are, other people have complained about that thing too. Is there a way for you to make that situation less bad for people like yourself or your coworkers?
  • Ask people what their biggest professional challenges or annoyances are. Simple. Effective.
  • Are other people selling solutions to the pain points you are planning on solving as well? If not, try again. Why? If it is a real pain point, businesses should already be paying to have it solved. Sell what sells.

The Subtle Art of Selling Services

Ok so you’ve made it this far. Let’s say you have a solid value proposition. You’re ready to start working with clients. Congrats. Now here is the painful truth (you’ve earned the right to hear it):

All your other efforts mean nothing in comparison to your sales efforts.... including actually doing the work that you are selling.

Consulting is a sales game. Eventually starting any business is a sales game. Don’t like it? Don’t start a business.

Let’s assume you’re ok with this and move onto optimizing your sales efforts so you don’t flounder around aimlessly like most (myself included) did when they started.

Getting your first leads consists of getting leads. Huh? That means not making content. It means pounding the pavement and reaching out to real human beings who hold the bag (of cash). Make cold calls. Send cold emails. Make warm calls to people you know asking them for leads. Send warm emails doing the same. Find any way that you can to get in touch with business owners (the people who actually care about the success of their business) and get talking to them.

Everybody wants to find a clever way to avoid outbound sales. But at the start, there is no other way. Nothing will put dollar bills in your pocket faster than talking to people who own money making machines (businesses) and convincing them to let you solve their problems. No, it is not scalable. But it will keep you afloat, and at this stage that’s all you should care about.

Selling is really hard. The reason being because it is mostly rejection. Being aware of that in advance should help you to mentally deal with it a little, but it will still suck somewhat. Trust the process. Remember that people really only buy 4 things: time, money, sex, and approval. If you try selling something other than those things you will fail. Every proposal and pitch you make should be framed around one of those things. Try to sell solutions to current problems rather than future problems. People buy aspirin more than they buy vitamins.

When you start prospecting for clients, your aim should be targeted on people who buy services. Those are the only people whose opinion matters and who you want to talk to. Likely they go by the titles of owner (ideal because they have the most skin in the game), manager, director, or executive.

Don’t accept a “no” from someone who can’t say “yes”.

The “yes” people are the people we just listed. There are many people who can only say no, including HR, recruiting, and any managers without buying power. It’s okay to go around these folks. Most of their job could be in saying no. You know that you can help this company improve! People who don’t have a vested interest (read: ownership) in the business succeeding likely don’t have any reason to change the status quo. It’s about finding the people who are most incentivized to optimize their business’ profitability and asking them the right questions to see how you can provide value.

Your most important asset is your reputation.

All things being equal people buy from their friends. So make everything else equal then go make a lot of friends.

Being useful to other people is all you ever need to do to sell things. Help people out. Send interesting content. Write nice cards that show you care. Record videos sharing your ideas for growing their business. Introduce people who would benefit from knowing each other then get out of the way. Don’t expect anything in return for these efforts. Be consistent and authentic about these actions. The reason why you’d do this is because most people think sales pitches are repulsive. Being immediately helpful is attractive. If you find a way to help someone before they are paying you, they will find ways to pay you back. Of course, these tips aren't specific to just consulting but since relationships are the lifeblood driving your services business, the advice is extra relevant for you.

Do what you say you will do.

Ok so you’ve got a contract or two by now. In future posts I’ll dive deeper into things like negotiating rates, contracts, and the actual project delivery. For today, I’m assuming you’re a pro in your niche and so once you’ve got a contract the actual project delivery goes fine. Generally that’s not what makes consulting businesses fail.

As a general tip for contract-based service work, make sure that you understand the requirements really well before starting any implementation. Talking to all stakeholders and having a clear picture of what would constitute success is a make-or-break thing. As the project progresses, communicate frequently about any new developments, doubts, opportunities, or questions you might have. When in doubt, over communicate with your client and make sure you are on the same page. Things will never be perfect and if you are proactive about calling issues out, you will bring extra value to the table by acting as a project manager and by solving problems before they even arise. Your client will appreciate not feeling like they have to micromanage you and you will have more breathing room. Win-win. Above all else, do what you said you will do - it is rare in this business.

Catching Waves On The Horizon

While you’ve got a project on the go, you can't stop selling. Your project will end and when that happens you don’t want to be “on the beach” for too long. Smoothing your utilization out is a deliberate practice that can’t be ignored. The way to avoid long droughts of unbillable time is to have a constantly stocked pipeline.

When you finish a successful project, always ask your client if they know anyone else who needs help with a similar challenge. Most good clients will be happy to refer you and warm referrals are the best kind of leads. Always be talking to people. Spend at least a third of your time doing it even when you’ve got a gig. Get someone talking or your pipeline will dry up.

Ultimately you should try to own a specific business problem, so that when businesses go asking around for help with that problem people start saying your name. This is where things can start to scale.

So much of winning new contracts is about timing. Your ideal client is someone whose hair is on fire. If a business doesn’t need their problem solved yesterday, getting them to the finish line in your sales cycle is going to be hard. Making them aware of you and your abilities to make problems like theirs go away means that when that problem arises for them, you will be the first person they call.

Direct sales will kickstart your business though eventually you’ll want to create inbound methods for clients to find you. Don’t try to optimize for this too soon, you should have at least a decent base of work before spending much time on it. At the beginning, it should be all clients that you got by reaching out to them (aka outbound). Over time, you’ll see a significant fraction of your clients come from you just being around and having people know about you when they need help.

If you’ve spent enough time building one on one relationships (i.e. lots), more people you know will know what you do. That means that opportunities will start organically coming your way. Imagine this as your personal surface area - a bigger network will mean more deals coming through your surface area and at least some of them will start to convert. Of course, this is cyclical - more deals means more surface area and more surface area means more deals. Things will seem really hard right at the beginning when your surface area is small but will get easier with time.

When you get to a point where you start getting referrals and you can feel your surface area increasing, pour some gas on the fire. Use whatever means you can to raise your public profile and establish yourself as an expert in your niche.

Here’s an example of some activities that could work for you.

  • Create a website for your consulting work with a blog. Blog about common problems that businesses in your niche face and how to solve them. Don’t worry about writing yourself out of business. Even if people know the exact recipe, they still don’t want to bake the cake. All you’ve done is show you know how to bake it for them.
  • Start reaching out to conference organizers in your niche and ask if you can speak at their conference, citing your website and blog as proof that you are a leading figure in the space.
  • Give webinars offering free advice for those who attend. Post about your event on all social media channels and anywhere else where people in your industry hang out online.
  • Start a podcast focused on your niche. Invite prominent figures in your niche the chance to increase their visibility for free.
  • Join whatever online or in person communities exist for your specialty. Go to meetups around your city (socially distanced of course). Take interesting people in your space out for coffee.

As you create a volume of valuable content, you can then use it as a cornerstone in establishing yourself as a credible authority. As you’re becoming a "visible expert" in your field you can then connect with people who might need your service and are predisposed to trusting you. Keep updating your online presence to reflect any new credibility indicators. While you’re doing all this, keep track of all your contacts in a CRM. Follow up with people and provide as much value to them as you can with your new content.

These are long term games we’re playing. You will not see any results at first. Audience building, conference appearances, blog posts, etc will seem to go out into an empty void. Slowly, you’ll put in your reps, start winning the search engine game, and your peers will begin to recognize you as a leading voice. For now, you’ve got to start building the trail.

We’re casting a wide net of potential buyers that know you and might want to pay you. With this situation, you can roll from one project and client to another seamlessly without scrambling to find the next one.

Success in consulting is mostly about not failing. In this post, we’ve covered processes, tips, and techniques for not failing, which turns out to mostly be about having a steady stream of contracts. The best time to start is today. Good luck!

This post was compiled from a variety of sources including my brain and content others have written about consulting. If you would like credit for something, get in touch.

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