So, You Want to Be a Consultant?

by Sandra Needham

Consulting is a growing $3 billion industry dominated by home
businesses. Home-based entrepreneurs who desire greater work flexibility
and have the initiative to aggressively sell their expertise are finding
consulting work to be a financially rewarding opportunity.

The key to becoming a successful consultant is to work in a field with
which you have experience and holds your interest. Your experience and
educational background can be a springboard into consulting. The options
are limitless. Professional consulting services cover a variety of
business services including marketing and advertising, financial
management, strategic management, computer software and hardware
trouble-shooting, and human resources management. Personal consulting
services include wedding planning, interior design, education and career
planning. Businesses and individuals who need specific expertise keep
these consulting services fueled.

The term ìconsultantî often takes on hazy and ambiguous meanings. Much
of the work performed by professional consultants is often a mystery.
You may hear statements like ìIím a financial consultantî or ìIím a
computer consultant.î But, rarely do you hear the more complete
description ìI make my living by giving advice on taxation procedures,
credit policies, investment opportunities and short and long-term
budgeting plans for small and medium sized businessesî or ìI develop
information systems consisting of computer hardware and software
components which enable businesses to be more productive.î

Professional consultants rarely elaborate on such details in casual
conversation. The work of consultants in all industries, however, share
the common tasks of analyzing, interpreting, imagining, developing, and,
above all, communicating.

The Successful Consultant

Consultants share similar personality traits and strengths. A consultant
is, first and foremost, a problem identifier. To be an effective problem
identifier, one must be perceptive, possess strong analytical skills,
and be adept at grasping business relationships. This requires analyzing
numerous constants and variables in a clientís business organization and
determining which ones need the consultantís attention.

After identifying and analyzing problems, consultants recommend
solutions that meet the clientís needs and fit within their budget. This
requires imagination and strong reasoning skills. Devising only one
solution to a problem might not be acceptable if many different facets
exist, each needing to be addressed individually.

A consultant must also be an excellent communicator. When dealing with
clients, the consultant should be both a good listener and a speaker. He
or she must un derstand the problems discussed by the client. This
requires active listening skills and the ability to understand implied
messages. After a consultant develops solutions to problems, he or she
must convey them to the client in a coherent manner, both verbally and
in writing. Final written proposals should be thorough and
understandable, clearly outlining how feasible action steps are
measurable and will solve the clientís problems.

Do You Have the Right Stuff?

The following excerpt on becoming a professional consultant is from
CONSULTING Ready Works, a new software program authored by Bill Salmon
and Nate Rosenblatt (Round Lake Publishing 1997). To be a successful as
a consultant you will need to identify the technical expertise you can
offer your clients (content skills) and the interpersonal skills you
will bring to your consulting relationships (process skills).

Content skills include specific knowledge or expertise. For example, you
may know the retailing industry, or you may be a mail order specialist,
or you may have expertise in the publishing industry.

Content skills also include work skills. To help catalog some of these
content skills, think about your proven abilities. Go back over your
academic training and employment experience and list every skill you
recognize in yourself that someone else also recognized in you. Try to
be specific. For example, donít just say ìI write well.î Say ìI write
effective reports.î Or donít say ìI am very organizedî but say instead
ìI can handle a number of projects simultaneously, and I manage my time
so that things get done before deadline.î

In addition to content skills, process skills are also critical to
success as a consultant. These skills are divided into five major

1. Strong communication skills

The ability to speak and present well, to write clearly and effectively,
and to listen are qualities of all good consultants. In fact, many
consultants consider the ability to communicate as their number one
skill. People with technical degrees in high-demand consulting fields
often lack good communication skills. If you need help in improving
communication skills, there are many inexpensive self-help programs

2. Proven problem-solving skills

Top consultants understand that the first thing they have to do is
define the problem (itís not always what the client thinks it is), and
then help the client find a solution. Many potential clients look for
consultants with business degrees because they feel problem-solving
skills (known in the business schools as decision analysis) are their
stock in trade. It is more important, however, to be able to show how
your problem-solving ability has positively impacted real-life
situations than to wave around an ad vanced degree.

3. The ability to market yourself

It doesnít matter how specialized or unique your field is. If you canít
market yourself, if you canít get the sale, youíre going to be looking
for a new line of work. You must be able to tell your story effectively
ó and sell yourself ó to prosper as a consultant.

4. Excellent interpersonal skills

This is the least tangible of consultant success skills, but one of the
most important. If you cannot build interpersonal relations with others,
your chances to win clients and retain them are hamstrung. Interpersonal
traits include your behavior and attitude in general, and how you are
perceived by the outside world and, in particular, by your clients. To
succeed, you must establish credibility and create a sense of trust and
confidence so your clients are comfortable sending projects your way.

5. The know-how to run your own business efficiently

Starting a business requires a certain type of know-how; managing and
ìgrowingî a business requires still yet another. As strong as someone
might be in technical and communications expertise, they still may not
know how to run a business. The ability to make your consulting business
last (and to generate ongoing income) requires business management
skills, which often only come with experience and the ìschool of hard
knocksî. If you lack experience in business management, consider
attending extension classes at your local college. Or perhaps attend a
local seminar that addresses your areas of weakness. HBM

Originally Published at

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