Here's everything you need to know about what it takes to become a business consultant—and how to get started.
When you and your employees are in the weeds day in, day out, it can be hard to get a clear perspective on the challenges facing your small business—and how to best approach and overcome those challenges.
That’s where business consultants come in. Because these professionals have a degree of separation from their clients’ businesses, they’re able to take a bird’s-eye view of what’s working, what’s not working, and how to fix it. This is why business consultants are such an invaluable asset in problem-solving.
Becoming a business consultant can be a fulfilling, challenging, exciting, and lucrative career path. But what, exactly, does it take to succeed as a business consultant—and how do you get your foot in the door and start a career in consulting? Here’s what you need to know.
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What Does a Business Consultant Do—and Why Is It Such a Good Career Path?
First things first—before we jump into how to become a business consultant, let’s quickly cover what a business consultant is, what they do, and why you may want to explore a career as a full-time consultant.
What Is a Business Consultant?
Business consultants are hired by companies and business owners to help them improve something. That something can take a variety of forms. For example, a business consultant might be hired to help a company improve sales performance. Or another consultant might come on board to help the company develop systems to increase overall productivity, identify cost-cutting opportunities, or evaluate and revamp the organization’s hiring strategy.
Basically, if a company is struggling with strategy, planning, people, problem-solving, productivity, efficiency—or really any other business management-related issue—they could benefit from the expertise of a consultant.
General, Vertical, and Horizontal Consultants
Typically, business consultants fall into one of three categories: General, vertical, or horizontal. Here’s a breakdown of what this means:
General Consultants: Any Industry or Issue
General consultants work in a wide range of industries, sectors, and functions. Instead of focusing on one specialty, their experience and expertise is often gained and applied across different areas, including:
- Business type
- Scale of business and budget
- Business methodology
Because they bring a diverse background to the table, general business consultants are in a unique position to tackle almost any kind of business need, make quick assessments, and find solutions that can be successfully employed across the organization.
Vertical Consultants: Specific Industries
Some companies have needs, wants, and problems that are extremely specific to their industry. In order to successfully address these areas, business owners need to work with a consultant that has an inside-out understanding of how that industry operates.
Vertical consultants leverage their knowledge and experience in a particular industry (i.e., automotive, oil and gas, healthcare, media and entertainment, financial services) to bring real value to their consulting relationships, and to provide tailored, industry-specific insights and solutions to their clients.
Horizontal Consultants: Specific Subject Areas
Other times, it’s not the industry that’s niche, but the project or problem. Subject matter experts (SMEs) are focused on a particular area of business that they have developed niche expertise around, whether that’s through academic training and/or real-life experience working on that issue across multiple industries. Horizontal consultants could position themselves as SMEs in a variety of areas, including:
- Business technology
- Marketing and sales
- Risk management
- Corporate finance
When it comes to business consulting, no one category is better than the other. Consultants leverage their background in order to provide the most value to their clients—whether that’s by consulting on a specific subject area or industry, or providing more generalized services.
Why Is Consulting a Good Career Choice?
There are a variety of reasons why becoming a business consultant is a solid career move, such as:
- Flexibility. Being a business consultant can be a more flexible career path than many other jobs. Since you are not an employee of the company, you have some flexibility in how and when you work. As a small business owner, you also have the flexibility to schedule time off between clients—and don’t need to worry about how much paid time off you’re using, or whether it will get approved.
- Variability. As a business consultant, you’re not tied down to one company or one job. Instead, you’re working with different clients to solve different problems. Things are constantly changing—and that variability can keep your day-to-day experience fresh and exciting.
- Financial opportunity. If you’re looking for a career path that brings in good money, a business consultant is a good choice. According to data from PayScale, the median salary for a business consultant is roughly $75k—but with experience, earning a six-figure salary is the norm.
What Makes for a Successful Business Consultant?
So, what *really* makes a good consultant? Let’s take a look at some of the seven key qualities you’ll want to have to succeed in the consulting world:
1. You Bring Experience to the Table
Consulting isn’t an entry-level role. The value a consultant brings to their clients is their experience and expertise in a specific area. If you want to break into consulting, you must already have that experience and expertise to offer.
Generally, business consultants have years of experience (either on the job, in an academic setting, or a combination of both) before they start taking on consulting gigs. So before you think about branding yourself as a business consultant, make sure you have the chops to back it up.
2. You Can Quickly Build Trust
Business consultants can sometimes seem like interlopers who just walk around telling everybody what they’re doing wrong. This kind of attitude will only make people more resistant to the changes you’re trying to implement. Instead, be professional, amicable, and focus on building relationships based on mutual trust and respect—and leave any ego at the door.
3. You’re an Excellent Communicator
As a business consultant, your job is to diagnose a problem and offer a solution. And in order to do that, you need to:
- Listen to your client to better understand the problem and how it’s impacting their business
- Communicate the solution in a way that inspires the team to get on board with your plan
4. You’re ‘Always On’
When you work for a company full-time, there’s a certain forgiveness for “off days.” But when you’re a consultant billing by the hour, you need to bring your A game every day. And that means performing at your highest level, even if it means putting in long hours to get the job done.
Of course, the best consultants also recognize that no one can be “on” all the time—so they make sure to prioritize rest between clients and projects to keep a healthy work-life balance.
5. You Can ‘Let it Go’ at the End of a Project
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, consulting might feel like a challenge. As a business consultant, part of the job is walking away at the end of the project—and letting your client leverage your work however they see fit.
At the end of the day, if you don’t feel okay walking away and moving on to the next project, a career in consulting could ultimately prove too emotionally taxing over the long-term.
6. You Find Fulfilling Alternatives to Long-Term Work Connections
There’s a lone wolf aspect to being a business consultant. Even though you might participate in company events and celebrations while you’re working with a client, chances are that you’ll always feel like a bit of an outsider. As a consultant, you’ll need to build meaningful connections outside of work—otherwise, being a lone wolf could turn into being lonely.
On the plus side, working on different contracts and with different clients will give you the opportunity to meet and work with all different types of people—which can keep your work stimulating and interesting.
7. You’re Willing to Travel Where the Work Is
As a consultant, you need to go where the client is—and that means travel. If the thought of a long commute—whether by car, train, or airplane—doesn’t sound appealing to you, then you might not be cut out for consulting. The most successful business consultants enjoy—or, at the very least, tolerate—the high volume of travel the job necessitates (and really enjoy all the travel-related perks, like racking up hotel points and airline miles).
Ready to Get Started? 6 Steps to Become a Business Consultant
You know what a career as a business consultant looks like. You know what it takes to be successful as a consultant. Now the question is—how do you get started in the consulting world and launch your own business?
Here’s a look at the steps to take to establish yourself as a business consultant and start tackling client projects:
1. Determine What Kind of Business Consultant You’re Going to Be
Before you get too far into building your business, it’s important to clarify what kind of business consultant you’re going to be—and how you’re going to position yourself to clients. For example:
- Are you going to leverage your 20 years of managerial experience across industries to offer general business consulting services in a variety of niches?
- Do you have a PhD in organizational development that you plan to use to help clients build strong company cultures?
- Are you going to build on your long-standing career at a car manufacturer to offer target consulting services to clients in the automotive industry?
The more crisp you can get on the value your experience brings to the table—the more successful you’ll be at communicating that value to potential clients.
2. Decide What Tasks You’ll Perform for Your Clients
Different business consultants consult differently. Some business consultants act as advisors, putting together actionable plans for the client that are later implemented directly by the clients’ employees. Other consultants stay on board to oversee the work—while others still roll up their sleeves and complete the work or project themselves.
Before you start pitching clients, get clear on what your services entail—and whether you want a more hands-off strategy or hands-on execution style.
3. Earn Credentials and Stay Certified
When a client hires a consultant, they want to know they’re hiring a professional—and credentials go a long way in helping you establish that credibility.
At a minimum, you should have an appropriate degree and/or a background in business management. And if you’re specializing, a degree and/or background in that specific industry or field is a must. But depending on the kind of clients or industries you plan to consult in, you may also need to secure additional credentials.
For instance, if you intend to consult with restaurants on health and safety practices, you’ll need to get certified by the appropriate health authorities. If your industry or subject-area (e.g., project management) requires professional certification, you’ll need to secure that certification before you start consulting—and then make sure to keep that certification current and renew as necessary.
4. Write a Business Plan
All businesses need a solid business plan. As you’re getting ready to launch your consultancy, draft a business plan that clearly outlines:
- The services you plan to offer clients/the problems you plan to help them solve
- Your target market—and the size of that market
- A comprehensive analysis of competitors in your market—and how you’re going to compete
- Your point of difference—how you are going to stand out against the competition and grab your ideal customer’s attention
- A marketing plan detailing how to market your business and attract customers
- Your billing framework and high-level budget
- Any known risk factors (e.g., an economic downturn or a highly competitive market)
5. Find the Right Tools for Running Your Business
If you want to run a successful business, you need the right tools. And, if you can, it’s best to implement those tools from the get-go. It’ll be much easier and less time-intensive than trying to migrate everything to a new set of tools once your business is already up and running and generating revenue.
Spend some time researching the tools you’ll need to effectively launch, grow, and manage your consulting business. This includes:
Having the right administrative and accounting tools in place from day 1 will set your business up for success—and let you focus on finding and landing clients.
6. Go After the Right Jobs for You
Once you’ve set up your business, it’s time to get out there and start finding clients and projects. Tap into your network to let people know you’re getting into consulting. Ask for referrals. Join professional organizations and start marketing your services.
Remember, the more people you get yourself in front of, the more opportunities there are to transform potential clients into paying clients ones—and the more successful your consulting business will be as a result.
There’s No Better Time to Get Started
When it’s the right fit, consulting can be an exciting, fulfilling, and lucrative career path. And now that you know how to become a business consultant, you have everything you need to get started on the path to success.
This post was updated in February 2021.