Consulting is more than just giving advice. Consultants help solve business problems, and they’re being used more often, and by more companies, than ever before.
It’s been said that a consultant is someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time, and then keeps the watch.
A little harsh maybe, but sadly this has too often been the case – in the past and still to this day. However not all consultants are created equal.
Read on to find out what a (good) consultant does, and how to be (or hire) one.
What do consultants actually do?
So, what do consultants actually do – why do they exist? The short answer is to solve business problems, to deliver value. Consultants help their clients solve specific business challenges. That can manifest itself in many ways, for example:
- By providing functional expertise to deliver a specific outcome or result (filling a resource gap);
- By objectively reviewing and advising on how a process or functional area could be optimised (providing an outside opinion);
- By providing strategic advice in relation to a major threat or opportunity (providing specialised expertise).
In some cases, consultants are hired to (temporarily) provide or top-up skill gaps. Other times, they are used where the skills required are not (and may never be) a permanent part of a particular business. For example, for a company that is considering a merger or acquisition, or is embarking on a major software implementation.
Consultants are hired to work on specific problems, unlike advisors who generally have an ongoing relationship with their clients.
And consultants come in all shapes and sizes, from junior to senior, in areas as diverse as IT, project management, financial advice, marketing, human resources, change, and so on.
Who do consultants serve?
Consultants provide the services described above to all types of businesses – including small to medium enterprises, not-for-profits, large corporates, and state and national government departments.
Where there is a need for a specific skill set, you’ll find consultants available.
How much a consultant charges will vary based on the location (country and region), the specific area of expertise, the type of engagement, and the level of experience, and can range from $50 an hour to $20,000 a day.
A day in the life of a consultant
Day to day, consultants could be engaged in many different types of activity.
As an independent consultant, or sometimes as part of a firm, part of your time will be finding and winning work. Generally speaking, the less experienced you are, the more time you will spend getting new clients.
Writing proposals is also a regular activity, linked to the previous point. It could be a proposal to win some work, or proposing the scope of work for a new or existing client.
Often, consultants engage in analysis or reviews, followed by findings and/or recommendations. This is usually where the bulk of a consultant’s time goes, and where they really earn their keep. This is where you use your skills, draw on your analytical ability and experience, review data and statistics, and come up with advice and insights. The better consultants have a framework that they follow for this whole process.
In some cases, consultants are more hands-on, actively involved in delivery (e.g. managing a project, or running workshops as part of business analysis).
Presenting is another common activity, be it to prospective clients (to win work), to new clients (confirming the details of the engagement), or towards the end of an engagement (presenting your findings and/or recommendations).
How to be a good consultant
First of all, don’t take yourself – or your work – too seriously. After all, chances are you won’t be saving the world or curing cancer, so try to keep things in perspective, and enjoy yourself. Besides enjoying your work (and life) more, you’ll find that you’re a better consultant that way too.
Remember that you’re there to help – to solve problems, and recommend or deliver solutions. To make things better for your clients. You’re there to serve.
To make it as a long-term, successful (whatever that means for you) consultant, the fundamentals hold true:
- Be curious and open-minded
- Always act with integrity
- Under-promise, and over-deliver
- Do what you say – be upfront, honest and reliable
- Keep learning and improving
That last point is especially important. For example, if you’re not great at presenting, get better. Take a course, or join a Toastmasters club, and practice. And be sure to keep your skills up to date. Things always change, and you need to keep up.
What to look for in a consultant
Anybody can call themselves a consultant, which is part of the reason consultants sometimes get a bad rap. There are always unprincipled individuals out there looking to take advantage of people (as there are in every profession), so it’s definitely a case of caveat emptor.
The best way to ensure you’re hiring a good quality, reliable consultant, is to look at their track record and references. There is simply no substitute for this.
Having said that, what you’re hiring them for will determine how careful you need to be. Hiring a junior project manager to run a straightforward project over a few months wouldn’t require the same degree of due diligence as, say, hiring an interim CFO for 6 months while you recruit a permanent replacement.
There are also some organisations, like the ICMCI, that promote consulting standards, which may also be useful when looking for experienced, reputable consultants. They generally vet their members and require them to have a minimum level of credentials and experience, and often have a code of conduct which must be adhered to as well.