Tips for Successful Consulting
CONSULTING IS VERY DIFFERENT FROM TERM EMPLOYMENT...
I read recently that the workplace and job market are shifting paradigms, from the employer/employee model to one in which work is being performed more and more on limited term contracts.
However, it seems to me that there abounds significant confusion concerning the terms “contract employee” (or “contractor”) and “consultant”. Consequently, I would like to present to you with several tips on consulting, gleaned from more than a few years earning a living as a consultant.
When marketing yourself, be specific and clear as to your skills, experience, and the work status you are seeking.
Do not confuse being a “consultant” with being a “contract worker”, notwithstanding that a consultant always works “on contract,” and never as an employee. A contract worker might be hired to handle client-defined tasks for a defined period of time, often at seasonal business peaks, with the intent of avoiding additions to permanent staff and long-term, recurring payroll. However, clients generally hire consultants for specific projects, in order to gain the benefit of a well-developed and specialized skill set and/or historical experience that might otherwise not be readily available in a permanent employee at a reasonable cost.
Beyond that, if you’re serious about building a successful consulting practice, you must avoid thinking of consulting assignments as temp-to-perm job opportunities. Consultants are generally "hired guns" who are expected to hit the ground running, get a specifically defined job done, and then move on. Wham-bam, thank you ma’am (or "sir", if you will, so as not to fall into the snare of Trumpism).
Be prepared to spend some time with a prospective client, explaining and demonstrating what you can (and possibly cannot) accomplish, if retained as a consultant.
This is always a balancing act. When you meet with a prospective client for an “initial consultation”, you need to share enough of your accumulated expertise to demonstrate competence and generate credibility. But you don’t want to end up with the client saying to him- or herself at the end of your session, “Well gee, I got the core advice I needed (for free), so there is no point in hiring and paying this consultant for an extended repeat performance.”
Of course, the more complicated and lengthy the prospective consulting gig will be, the easier it is to share teaser information with the prospective client, without giving away the entire book. And the more experienced you are, the greater the probability you will be able to recognize how to allow a prospective client see your stud cards, without showing him or her your hole cards.
Additionally, always keep in mind that, as a consultant, you are not being paid just for what you do, but rather for what you know. In other words, you’re not collecting a fee just to accomplish “work”, but to guide your client or the project at hand onto a path of greatest time and cost efficiency. And you’re being retained to avoid false starts, dead-end excursions, and fatal pitfalls. All of which requires a firm possession of the “three E’s” ̶ experience, experience, and… experience. One of the things I always explain to my clients is it is not that I am so much smarter than anyone else, just that I have already made just about every mistake which I am proposing to help them avoid.
Never begin a consulting assignment without a signed
Contract or Letter of Agreement.
Okay, okay. The legal eagles among you will be shaking your heads and telling me that a letter of agreement is a contract if it meets the legal definition of providing goods or services for valuable consideration. And yes, you are correct. But it's a matter of perception. “Letter of Agreement” seems so much less adversarial than “Contract". So, my recommendation is always to use the former term as your document heading.
Understand that I do not pretend to be a lawyer, and none of this is intended to be legal advice. But there are several provisions you will want always to include in your Letter of Agreement:
1) You will want to specify in detail the Scope of Work to be performed, the project objectives, and a projected time frame for completion of that work.
2) You will want to state clearly that any work not specifically included in the Scope of Work is specifically excluded.
3) You will want to state that subsequent changes to the terms and conditions of the Agreement can only be made by mutual agreement in writing.
4) You will want to include a provision stating that the client’s responsibility under the Agreement includes providing you with any “tools”, information, and cooperation reasonably expected to be necessary to your performance of the detailed Scope of Work.
5) You will absolutely need a provision that clearly specifies how, how much, and when you will be paid, including a provision to the effect you will not be required to be on hand at the client’s work site during any specific hours, except as may be reasonably dictated by the need to interface with the client or members of the client firm, and that there is nothing explicit or implied in the Agreement that requires you to perform your Scope of Work entirely at the client’s place of business. (This last item has to do with the taxing authorities’ definition of being an independent contractor versus being an employee ̶ a distinction that makes a huge tax difference in many countries, especially the U.S.)
This list is not exhaustive, but you can find on the Internet some pretty good consulting agreement templates that can be modified to fit your specific needs. By all means, it is always preferable to consult a lawyer if a lot of money is involved, but keep in mind that no agreement or contract is worth the paper on which it is printed, if the people signing it are not of good will. My personal rule of thumb is not to stress overly much, or spend too much money in the pursuit of a completely bullet proof consulting agreement form, but instead to be careful about with whom you do business.
Go into every consulting situation with the understanding that you will almost always be viewed as an interloper by many, if not all of those members of a firm who were not involved in the decision to hire you.
The point here is to understand the workplace landscape and to keep in mind that, as a consultant, you are an outsider.
To be sure, if you’re sufficiently friendly, unassuming, trustworthy, and transparent, you can (and will) win over many, if not most of the obstructionists.
Just don’t be surprised if you don’t. Understand that in many circumstances, you will need to be exceedingly resourceful, if you are to get your job done. And that if you’re looking for love and accolades in consulting, you’re likely looking in the wrong place.
Indeed, sometimes you will find that the better you do your job, the less you are liked (even by those who hired you in the first place). Because the better you do your job, the more it becomes evident that you were needed. And few people actually care to admit this.
Instead, be prepared to settle for being recognized, albeit grudgingly, as professionally competent, as well as for delivering high value in services rendered for payment received. Always remind yourself that your core goal is to be paid for your services, not to be loved for what you do -- however much that might be icing on the cake.
Maintain your professional objectivity and always render your best considered opinions and advice, irrespective of whether you believe that such will, or will not gain you a longer period of retention.
If you work long enough as a consultant, you will eventually be faced with the temptation to tell someone what they want to hear, or not tell them something that they should hear, in order to keep your client happy, at least temporarily.
When that happens (which it will) remind yourself that compromising your professional integrity is not a business model for stable, long-term success.
As a consultant, your stock in trade is to speak out honestly and candidly, even if confidentially. Your client probably has enough toadies around to fill a conference room, so he or she is not looking for yet another acolyte. He or she is looking for experienced independent third-party opinion and judgment. Withholding that for the sake of possibly gaining a tenure extension or a permanent transition to being an employee will rarely turn out as you might want it to. If you cannot live with that, choose some other path than that of becoming a consultant.
̶ Phil Friedman
Author's notes: This post is a brief excerpt from a soon-to-be-published eBook entitled "Ten Golden Rules for Becoming a Successful Consultant". For a copy of the eBook, when it becomes available, email firstname.lastname@example.org, with "Consulting eBook" on the subject line.
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About me, Phil Friedman: I have spent much of my adult working life as a technical and business consultant in the marine industry. With 30 some years background in the marine industry, I've worn numerous hats — as a yacht designer, boat builder, marine operations and business manager, marine industry consultant, marine marketing and communications specialist, yachting magazine writer and editor, yacht surveyor, and marine industry educator. I am also trained and experienced in interest-based negotiation and mediation. In a previous life, I taught logic and philosophy at university.
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