Succeeding As A Consultant
By Wendy Enelow, CCM, MRW, JCTC, CPRW
Fifteen years ago, working as a consultant was considered an unusual career choice. There were few consulting firms and even fewer individual practitioners. Instead, professionals preferred the stability of corporate employment, with its fringe benefits, so-called "job security" and promotions.
Now corporate life is different: With limited opportunities to advance and little if any stability at large companies, consulting has emerged as a viable alternative to traditional career paths. Unlike permanent executives, consultants create their own employment opportunities by selling their services to multiple clients.
Corporations love this trend since it allows them to hire experts on a contractual basis instead of incurring the costs associated with recruiting full-time employees and paying compensation and benefits. Companies can pay a fee to receive highly specialized functions, knowledge or operating support only as long as they need it. As long as companies aren’t locked into long-term commitments and consultants enjoy brisk demand, it’s a quick deal benefiting both parties.
The prospect sounds great: Hang out your shingle and go to work for yourself (or so some professionals think). Unfortunately, many overlook a factor that’s vital to long-term success — a marketing plan.
With consulting practices now numbering in the tens of thousands, you’ll hardly be the only one trying to capitalize on experience in your chosen niche. Developing a reputation as an expert in your field will help.
"Consulting is all about positioning yourself as an expert. If you can demonstrate that you have the knowledge and expertise that your clients need, and powerfully communicate that information, you will consistently outperform your competition," says Betsy Gooding, president of Practice Advantage, a Charleston-based consulting firm specializing in health care management.
Pitching Your Services
The issue now becomes whether you understand how to market your practice in the face of increasing competition.
"My area of consulting expertise - life coaching - was virtually unknown several years ago. Today, the ‘industry’ of coaching is expanding at a phenomenal rate. Being talented and offering a consistently superior service is, of course, essential. However, it is just as critical that you be able to market yourself, establish your credibility and build your reputation," says Laurie Szczutkowski, a business and personal success coach working from her headquarters in Central Virginia.
Market visibility and a unique message are key says Ms. Szczutkowski who takes every opportunity available to speak before professional audiences, publish articles and engage in other "image-building" activities to distinguish herself from the competition.
"With so many Internet companies vying for everyone’s business, I had to find a way to distinguish my design firm from the others," says Kevin Skarritt, co-founder and vice-president of AcornCreative.com, a California-based technology consulting group. "Through my research, it became immediately apparent that my potential customers wanted more than simply a web page designer; they needed a new media expert. So, to meet the needs of the narrow niche market I had identified, I created a team of Internet technology and design professionals that could meet the diverse needs of my clients. Then, I designed a portfolio of print and electronic marketing communications to promote our unique services."
Indeed, every consultant must be a keen marketing strategist, able to parlay chance opportunities into consulting assignments. Consulting engagements won’t knock at your door. You’ll need to plan a strategy to position yourself and increase your visibility in your niche market.
"Marketing has made the difference between a mediocre attempt at consulting and a really successful venture. By using all the resources at my disposal - print brochures, email communications, website marketing and personal networking - I have built a firm with an excellent reputation and impressive list of clients," says Mike Florimbi, president of Florimbi Partners International, a Dallas-based consulting firm specializing in international development for U.S. corporations.
But which marketing tool is best for you? Should you develop a resume, brochure, flier, print-ad campaign or other promotional material? What about the value of a website in today’s rapidly-emerging e-commerce marketplace?
Unfortunately, there’s no single answer. Your choice will depend on the market you’re trying to penetrate and how much you’re willing to spend.
For instance, whether you choose a full-color brochure, black-and-white trifled brochure, one-page promotional flier, resume or full-scale website depends on your initial budget. Multicolor, multi-page brochures cost thousands of dollars. Webster can run in the hundreds, even thousands of dollars as well. Instead, you might select a one-page flier that’s well-presented and visually attractive, yet at a fraction of the cost.
Either way, it’s best to have your print and electronic marketing materials professionally prepared, experts say.
Regardless which promotional vehicle you pick, it should:
* Appear upscale in its visual and graphic presentation.
* Effectively highlight your expertise and specific accomplishments.
* Include your professional and academic credentials (e.g., degrees, certifications, teaching experience, public speaking expertise, media experience, publications).
* Describe the full scope of your services.
* Promote your past consulting assignments (if appropriate).
* Use testimonials where possible. Prospective clients likely will be interested in what others have to say about you.
Where To Get Business
Also remember that you can’t deliver your services until you’ve developed a client base. To generate a list, use the following resources:
* Contacts, contacts, contacts. Networking is the single best method to build business relationships and identify consulting opportunities.
* Past employers. They already know the quality of your work and achievements. Notify them that you’re now a consultant and available on a contractual basis.
* Professional associations. Become an active participant in as many associations as possible. Attend meetings to network with other members and promote your practice. Get the membership list and do a targeted direct-mail campaign. There’s often a strong affiliation between members that can benefit your marketing efforts.
* Civic & community associations. Through these organizations, you can connect with other professionals who have similar volunteer interests.
* Chambers of Commerce. A great source for networking and identifying opportunities in your local market.
* Colleges and universities. Many schools help start-up ventures in need of specific operating, financial and technological expertise. Establishing an affiliation with one or more may lead to promising referrals.
* Small-business incubators. Another great source for networking with entrepreneurs in need of specific consulting expertise to launch their ventures.
* Venture capital firms. These firms often engage consultants for specific projects, start-ups, acquisitions and other high-profile engagements. Once you’ve established an affiliation, engagements can become routinely available as the firm acquires additional holdings.
* Banks and lending institutions. Bankers know everything about their business clients. Most important, they are aware of companies that need strong and effective management support (particularly in turnaround and reorganization situations).
Marketing Rules To Live By
Once you open for business, never forget the basics:
* Marketing is key to your success.
* Building a professional image and reputation is vital.
* Don’t confuse marketing with sales. Clients want to feel helped, not just sold on your services. So anchor your campaign in your ability to solve problems and provide expert insight. To that end, tout accomplishments rather than your credentials. Clients are interested in results.
* Play it cool. Even if your cupboard’s bare, let prospective clients think business is knocking down your door. Clients may lose confidence in your abilities if you seem hungry for business.
* Sell information in the form of books, manuals, software, audio and videotapes or databases. You’ll educate people and promote your business indirectly as you familiarize prospects with your expertise.
* Individualize your consultations. If you provide help that appears formulaic or packaged, clients may feel cheated. They believe their circumstances are unique and worthy of special, custom treatment and solutions.
* Never cut your fee to get business. Instead, focus on the quality of your service, not your price. Whether clients retain your services will depend more on the quality of help you provide than on the fees. Even if you need the income, cutting your fee without reducing your workload suggests that your fees were inflated to begin with. If suspicions arise, a contract may be lost.
The professional world of consulting offers so very many unique opportunities for success. If you have the "entrepreneurial" fortitude to launch such an effort, the determination to stick with it (even if tough times), the marketing savvy to promote it and confidence in your professional skills, you will succeed!