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‘Consultant’ is a job title you see here, there, and everywhere but it is especially important to understand in the self-employed space. With more freelancers looking to diversify their income during these uncertain times, consulting can provide a potentially lucrative revenue stream. But doing so can be daunting at first. So I chatted with some established consultants about how to get started.
What is consulting?
Consulting is a catch-all term that covers a wide range of services, but by definition describes a person who provides expert advice professionally. This means that anyone with knowledge of an industry, service, or product can leverage their expertise via consulting. Businesses or individuals tend to hire consultants on a freelance basis either for one off projects or for additional support over the long term. The work varies from industry to industry but can range from simply being paid for an hour of your time offering advice to large scale strategic projects.
How to get started
First of all, you will need experience. To be taken seriously by clients you must have some expertise they don’t already have in-house – that’s what they’re paying you for. “The title of ‘consultant’ represents years of experience and training. Clients want to feel they are paying for an expert who is filling a knowledge gap,” Darryl Bannon, a strategic business consultant, explains.
Having said this, consultancy needn’t be something you wait until later life to start. “I think sometimes the word ‘consultant’ can feel scary and might trigger some self-limiting thoughts. Try asking yourself whether you believe you could easily help someone out by simply talking to them. You’ll be amazed at what you know that you take for granted,” Cat Archer, brand consultant and founder of The Brandologist, highlights.
Carve out your niche
It’s important to isolate what it is about your offering that is different – essentially your USP. If your current work is wide ranging, focusing on one speciality will help you stand out. Katie Beardsworth, a classical music consultant, suggests finding a gap in the market you could fill. “Think about what you find tricky about your industry. Maybe others do too, and maybe you can help them with that,” she suggests. After ten years working in arts management, Katie spotted the need for professional development for musicians and now acts as an agent as well as delivering projects such as festivals and concert series.
Darryl, who works with businesses through the lens of change management and strategy, warns against being too vague. “Don’t try to be too broad in your offering. For example, I want to be known for change management,” she explains. This doesn’t mean you can’t offer additional skills or services down the line but being known for one particular thing helps build your personal brand from the get go.
Tell people what you’re up to
The consultants I spoke to all relied on word of mouth and client recommendations to get them new work. To start with, this can be done simply by reaching out to those who might be interested in your services. Try emailing round all past contacts and people in your network to let them know you now offer consulting. Secondly, you can also cold email potential clients about your services – you never know who might have a lead or need your assistance further down the line.
Promote your services
Once you’ve clearly identified your expertise, think carefully about how you might present this to potential clients. Maggie Smart, a consultant working in the fashion industry, advocates for creating a portfolio of previous work. “Take the time to pull together a portfolio and be very clear and realistic about your achievements on past projects that are demonstrable,” she suggests.
If you’re just starting out on your consulting journey, include projects you’ve done via full time employment or previous freelance work.
Depending on your industry, this can be displayed on a public facing website or sent as a pdf via email to potential new business leads for instance. Be aware that some consulting work is confidential, so you may have to talk more vaguely about projects and just quote business names.
While most consultants work in a bespoke way on a project by project basis, it’s important to list the skills and expertise you can offer clients. It could also be useful to set out bundles for potential clients to give an idea about how you can help. “I’ve found it’s better to productise your offering as a consultant. It’s helpful to have a self-contained package as a consultant that you know fits the people you most want to work with,” Cat notes.
Establish yourself as an expert
Positioning yourself within your industry as an expert will help build your brand and spread the word about your consultancy services. “Try to become a voice in your sector,” Daryll suggests. “Try to get on panels. It doesn’t necessarily lead to immediate work, but I have had people engage with me 2-3 years after we initially met,” she adds.
Having a presence on social media platforms can foster this idea further. Different industries suit different platforms – for example, corporate consultants tend to be on Linkedin whereas creative ones are on Instagram – but both offer a place to build contacts and share your work and expertise.
Network, network, network
Maggie suggests finding groups within your industry and events you can join. “I actively network with agencies like Fashion Angel who assist fashion startups, the brilliant DIT (Department for International Trade) and The Women’s Chapter (a fantastic women’s business group),” she says. “In the early days it’s very much about relationships, whether that’s online networking and social media socialising or a bit of both. These relationships aren’t always clients but collaborators and referrers – you never know where it will lead and being part of a community helps to build that trust,” Cat concurs.
Getting to know other consultants or freelancers in your field is key too as recommendations work both ways. “I always refer people to contacts of mine that offer services that I don’t. I work closely with various other professionals in this field, including a marketing and brand expert, a graphic designer, a web designer and a music videographer,” Katie notes.
Building up a consultancy arm of your business may involve playing a long game but the rewards – both financially and professionally – make it worthwhile. But what’s the first step in becoming a consultant? Owning that you are one.
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