Should You Be a Business Consultant? Skills, Tips and Getting Started

All career paths have their challenges and downsides; here’s a look at what it takes to become a business consultant.

Being a business consultant can be varied, stimulating and ideal for those who relish constant change, plus the pay can be excellent. Consulting can also seem like a dream position for those who dislike becoming embroiled in the workings of a company and instead enjoy solving problems with a bird’s eye perspective. Indeed, it’s often that bird’s eye perspective that makes business consultants effective in their roles.

Skill Inventory: Climb the Ladder Before You Kick It Away

Successful business consultants have already paid their dues in some way: They’ve developed a successful track history at a number of businesses – perhaps including their own – before positioning themselves as experts who can help other people’s businesses. Their biggest asset, therefore, is their ability to leverage their past experience and intellectual capital to generate new solutions, insights and successes from multiple vantage points.

In order to do this, basic skills in problem diagnosis, problem articulation and problem-solving are essential. If you favor the human interaction side of the business over actual problem-solving, you may succeed at getting roles as a business consultant, but you may not enjoy the actual work of a business consultant.

Personal Skills Matter as much as Professional Ones

Apart from the requisite experience, there are are some personal and lifestyle questions you should ask yourself before deciding to become a consultant. All career paths have their challenges and downsides; it’s vital to go in eyes wide open. So, beyond securing clients in the first place (you’ll need to feel comfortable pitching and interviewing for roles regularly), here are some softer skills that successful business consultants embody:

1. Good Business Consultants are Outsiders Who Can Quickly Build Trust

Consultants can sometimes seem like interlopers who tell everybody what they’re doing wrong. It’s vital for your success that you don’t appear arrogant—that will only make people more resistant to change. Instead, you need to be able to foster relationships of trust and mutual respect.

Also, trustworthiness and discretion will be essential to your business as you’ll likely see a great deal of private company information in the course of performing your duties.

2. Good Business Consultants are Excellent Communicators

As a business consultant, you’re basically diagnosing a problem and offering a solution. You need to be a good listener in order to properly understand the intricacies of the problem you’re there to solve and the organization you’re consulting at. Still, although the company may have sought your advice in the first place, they still might need convincing before they’re willing to change! Hand-in-hand with trust, is the ability to communicate clearly in order to get others to buy in to your plan.

3. Good Business Consultants are Prepared to be “Always On”

When you’re on staff, there’s a certain forgiveness for “off days.” Because consultants are most often billing by the hour, the expectation of performance, and of long hours in order to meet deadlines, is a given. In this kind of “sprint” state, the ability to rest between and projects is key to long-term balance and stress management.

4. At the End of a Project, Good Business Consultants Can “Let it Go”

If you’re the kind of person who becomes emotionally invested in your work and has a real sense of ownership over problems and solutions, you might find consulting difficult. Business consulting ultimately means walking away and letting other people reap the rewards of your work. At the end of the project, you should feel content to disassociate and move on.

5. Good Business Consultants Find Fulfilling Alternatives to Long-Term Work Connections

There’s a “lone wolf” aspect to being a business consultant. Even thought you might participate in staff events and celebrations, odds are that you will always feel a little bit of an outsider. If your contracts are short, you might completely forgo the relationship aspect that so many people enjoy the most about work. On the flip side, because you’re moving around more, you’ll have an opportunity to meet and work with a much broader swath of people, which might be more stimulating!

6. Good Business Consultants are Willing to Travel Where the Work Is

If location is a top factor when you’re deciding where you want to work, consulting may create challenges. Odds are high that you’ll find clients in different neighborhoods, sometimes necessitating longer commutes. Occasionally, long distance travel to head offices or other branches will be part of the job. Because of the nature of the work and the duration of the contracts, it’s unlikely you’ll relocate for a consulting contract. So, in terms of geography (and many other aspects), consultancy work will keep you on your toes!

To Specialize or Not, That is the Question

Once you’ve determined your “fit” with business consulting, it’s time to hone in on the consulting services you’ll offer—specifically how specialized you’ll be. A key step to determining the degree of specialization you should pursue is to scale the demand for services you might consider. If the area you’re considering consulting in is too niche to earn a healthy volume of customers, it’s better to consider branding yourself more broadly. Consulting roles are often broken down as general, industry, and subject matter consultants.

General Consultants: Any Industry or Issue

Generalist consultants initially work in a range of industries, sectors and functional areas, often without extensive prior experience in any one area. Their experience and expertise is, often gained and applied across different:

  • Industries
  • Businesses
  • Scales of business and budgets
  • Business methodologies

With such broad experience, general business consultants are in a unique position to tackle almost any kind of businesses, make quick assessments and find tailored solutions that can be successfully employed.

Vertical Consultants: Specific Industries

Sometimes, problems are highly idiosyncratic to a particular industry and require an inside-out understanding of how that industry operates. If your prior experience was concentrated in a particular industry (e.g. Automotive, Oil & Gas, Healthcare, Media & Entertainment, Financial Services), you might consider positioning yourself to consult within that industry rather than pivoting to other industries.

Horizontal Consultants: Specific Subject Areas

Other times, it’s not the industry that’s niche, but the project or problem. Subject matter experts are focused on a particular area of business that they have developed niche expertize around, through academic training and/or experience working on that issue in multiple industries. Examples of subject matter experts include:

  • Analytics
  • Business technology
  • Marketing and sales
  • Operations
  • Risk management
  • Corporate finance
  • Sustainability
  • Transformation

Next Steps: Get Up and Running as a Business Consultant

Okay! You’ve measured your suitability and made a decision about how specialized you want your business consultancy to be. Now, on to next steps:

1. Decide What Tasks You’ll Perform for Your Clients

Some business consultants simply act as advisors, while staff performs the recommended work. Others stay on to oversee the work. And others roll up their sleeves and complete the work or project themselves. Be clear about what your services entail, whether you’re there in an advice or planning capacity or will help execute on recommendations.

2. Get / Stay Credentialed

At a minimum, you should have an appropriate degree and/or a background in a specific type of business. But depending on the area(s) and industries you intend to consult in, you may need to secure specific credentials. For instance, if you intend to consult with restaurants on health and safety practices, you will need the necessary certification. If your industry or subject-area (e.g. project management) requires professional certification, then make sure you keep your certification or license current.

3. Write a Business Plan that Clearly Articulates the Following:

  • The services you’ll offer or problems you’ll help them solve
  • Who and how large your target market is
  • Your strengths and exactly how your services will help your target market
  • A competitive analysis of who else offers these services and how will you compete?
  • A marketing plan detailing how you plan to get your customers (cover everything from building a website to advertising on social media
  • Your billing framework and high level budget
  • Any known risks (e.g. economic climate)

4. Find the Right Tools for Running Your Business

It’s also good to start your business off on the right foot with the right tools, plus it’s easier to adopt that system from the get-go rather than migrating everything when you’re already busy operating your business.

Take some time now to consider and research the administrative and accounting tools that will help you perform those tasks with ease. The goal here is to allow you to stay on top of the “paperwork” without wasting valuable hours you could be spending on your business.

Some tools you might want to research, include:

5. Now, Land the Right Jobs

In order to find the right clients, you’ll need to arm yourself with a strong resume, network in your profession and get “face time” with prospective clients. Make sure to start with a contact list rich with prospective clients.

The Resume
If you’re a generalist, you may need a few different versions of your resume, tailored to different prospective clients. Specialists will clearly need to focus their past experience around the areas they hope to consult for.

Your clients will want to see highly organized resumes that strongly convey the skills they are looking for: Academic experience, functional experience and a successful track record. Good news: unlike ordinary hires, clients will be indifferent to “career changers” but will want a “success story” to accompany every departure.

Networking & Face Time
A good business consultant has to be a natural networker. It really helps to have others batting for you and educating you about the profession. If you indicate in an interview for a consulting tole that you already know someone at a company, your chances of landing a position will go up dramatically.

Nowadays, of course, networking can also be an online activity. Think about how you can use LinkedIn and other social media to build your presence in groups and communities online. Posting intelligent updates, insights and analysis as a community member will help build profile and brand.

Ultimately, though, you’ll want to move from networking to having “face time” with prospective clients. Research prospective clients and book meetings to explore opportunities to work together.

6. Grow Your Business

If you’re starting out, it’s likely you have a prospective client or two and can still manage all aspects of the business yourself. But as your business grows, odds are you’ll need help. Although it may seem premature to think about this now, it’s good to have an idea of what your business will grow to become in 1 year and 5 years.

Start now with a clear idea what functions you might hire to fulfill. This could be an administrative assistant or accountant to help you with paperwork as your client base grows. Or, you might decide that there are aspects of your work that you enjoy less and you may hire staff to help you with, for example, research.

You may also decide to expand your business, find others with areas of expertise that could complement your own, and perhaps partner or add staff to your company in order to grow your business.

As with growing any company, make sure you have a clear idea of roles, responsibilities and what the right hire looks like for you and your business. Also, make sure that as you grow you preserve the aspects of running your own business that you enjoy the most!

about the author

Content Director, FreshBooks Jane Flanagan is the Content Director at FreshBooks. Follow her on Twitter @seenandsaid.