On a fairly regular basis, I’m approached by people exploring the idea of becoming a consultant. They are intrigued by the idea of running their own business, having work/life flexibility, and escaping the cubicle.
From the outside looking in, consulting is a sweet proposition. No boss. No commuting. Long weekends whenever you want. What could be better than that?
If only it was that easy. Yes, consulting is a great way to make a living but it is important to understand what is involved before taking the plunge. Here is some insight from life in the consulting trenches.
Be prepared to work every day. Sometimes, it’s 12 hours a day. Sometimes, it’s an hour. Every day is a work day. There are clients to meet, projects to complete, email to check, people to meet and paperwork to handle. It doesn’t mean it is a 24/7 business or you can’t completely step away from the business. It means the business needs to be nurtured regular basis.
You’re always selling or Alec Baldwin said in Glengarry Glenross, “always be selling”. As a consultant, the next project is around the corner or on the horizon. You’re always looking for an opportunity and working on ways to match what you do with someone who needs it. Selling happens at dinner parties, playing sports, networking events, picking up your kids at school and coffee meetings.
Focus on your strengths. When you’re not sure when the next piece of business will appear, it is tempting to jump on things that pay the bills. However, accepting work not in your wheelhouse is a recipe for failure. It is better to take work that aligns with your skills because it enhances the chances of success. When a prospect or project doesn’t feel right, take a pass.
Work your network. Many consultants offer the same kind of services, making it hard for clients to differentiate. It means referrals and word-of-mouth are important. When someone recommends you to a potential client, selling is easier. To drive referrals, you need to network. You need to escape the home office to meet potential clients or people who could refer business to you. One caveat: be strategic about networking. Focus on events with sales potential. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time.
Work your inbox. As much as everyone says email is a productivity-killer, it is also a business catalyst. Email is a way to connect with people, share information or content, make introductions, ask questions and reach out to people. Email is a valuable tool because it is still widely used despite the rise of social media, texting, etc.
Be a referral machine. When opportunities come your way that is not a fit, refer them to someone who can do the job. It is the right move for the person seeking help and it is a good opportunity someone else. As a rule, I don’t ask for referral fees because there is more value in giving business to people who could do a good job. Hopefully, people refer business to you to create a virtuous circle.
Perception is reality. To differentiate your services, good branding makes a big difference. When your Website, marketing collateral, letterhead, business cards and reports are beautifully designed, it makes a huge impact. Your work looks impressive and its value is amplified. After recently redesigning a report for clients, my work is better showcased and the value is amplified.
Enjoy the highs, don’t get down about the lows. Consulting is an up and down world. Sometimes, you are so busy, it is difficult to keep up. Sometimes, referrals dry up and the inbox is empty. It is important to keep a level head and have faith that interest in your services will materialize at some point. I have learned to enjoy slow periods, although it is challenging to be totally relaxed.
Be disciplined, create boundaries: When running a business, it is easy to lose focus because no one tells you what to do. Rather than work, errands get done, personal activities creep into the mix or family members depend on your flexibility. The key is having “rules” and creating time and place to work.
Always be looking to improve and learn: One of the joys of running a business is how it evolves and grows. There are opportunities to learn new skills and approaches and connect with different kinds of people. When I look at how I ran my business two years ago compared to today, things are entirely different. I’m a better marketer and businessman.
Bonus: Here are some of the tools used to run my business:
WordPress (Website, blogging)
Accompany (iOS calendar)
Evernote (content collection)
Pocket (content collection)
Buffer (social media sharing)
MailChimp (email marketing)
More: Martin Zwilling puts the spotlight on eight key ingredients for a profitable consulting business.
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