Have you heard the phrase: "You owe me for the years, not for the minutes"?
When you think of consultants, the first ideas that might come to mind are busy schedules, high-profile clients, and lucrative salaries. But why do these companies pay consultants so much money for advice or even seemingly small tasks that could've been done in just a few minutes?
That phrase is exactly why. Consultants have dedicated their careers to offering years of experience in a specific area to businesses and entrepreneurs who need their expertise.
If you’re passionate about helping others succeed by providing niche expertise that’s been honed by years of education, experience, and skill development, a career in consulting may be for you.
We’ve compiled this guide to dig deeper into the lucrative and fulfilling world of consulting — and how to start and market a consulting business of your own.
What is consulting?
Consulting is the process of providing expert advice, opinion, and/or strategies for a fee. Consultants — whether individual or firm-based — specialize in a niche industry or trade.
Let’s hone in on an important aspect of the above definition: expert. Consultants are experts in their field. They possess knowledge so valuable that someone else — an individual, department, or entire organization — is willing to pay for it.
Consulting is about much more than giving advice, though. Consulting can include a wide range of activities, including problem diagnosis, data collection, feedback, strategy-building, and implementation.
Consultants and consulting firms are highly sought after because they can bring a unique and fresh perspective to a pressing business problem or challenge. Sometimes, business owners and leaders need a new set of eyes when approaching an issue; as a consultant, you can provide that unbiased perspective.
Simply put, consultants work to make their clients more successful. This can require a lot of work, which is why the consulting business is so lucrative.
Consultant vs. Contractor
You may have heard the words consultant, contractor, and even freelancer used interchangeably.
If you were to open your own consulting business practice, where would you stand?
While all of these parties work with businesses (versus being employed by them), that’s about where their similarities end.
Contractors (including freelancers) are self-employed workers who are contracted out by companies to provide services.
Consultants, as we’ve defined above, primarily provide an assessment and expert advice. They can be self-employed or employed by a consulting firm.
However, if, as a consultant, you were asked to provide a service or deliverable, you could be hired into a contractor-type role.
For example, let’s say you were hired to assess a sales team’s performance. Upon initial assessment, you recommend a new sales strategy and training plan. If you were then asked to draw up and deliver this written strategy and training plan, you would be considered a contractor (in addition to a consultant).
Consultants exist in practically every field. Let’s discuss the different types of consulting in which you can specialize.
Types of Consulting
- Management Consulting
- Strategy Consulting
- Operations Consulting
- Financial Strategy Consulting
- Human Resources Consulting
- IT Consulting
- Business Consulting
- Sales Consulting
- Marketing Consulting
- Environmental Consulting
- Financial Consulting
- Career Consulting
- Healthcare Consulting
- Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Consulting
- Public Relations Consulting
- Brand Consulting
Consulting refers to a variety of specialists in virtually infinite industries.
In this section, we’ll unpack some of the most sought-after types of consulting practices, any relevant niche opportunities that fall under them, and what your career in these respective trades may look like.
1. Management Consulting
Management consulting is the most common type of consulting and includes many different niche consulting careers under its umbrella. Firms like McKinsey, Bain & Company, and Deloitte primarily work in management consulting. It’s a $250 billion industry — at least, where it stands as of 2021.
As a management consultant, you would work with business leaders to help their companies run smoothly. This typically involves assessing certain processes and providing advice on how to improve or implement new ones.
Not all management consultants are the same — some follow a generalist approach and assess each organization as a whole, and some specialize in more specific departments or fields.
2. Strategy Consulting
Strategy consulting is an important subset of management consulting. The purpose of strategy consulting is to review key business strategies and provide expert advice on how to improve or develop new ones. Strategy consultants are typically experts in a certain industry or field and advise on high-level, strategic business decisions, such as company vision, resources, and investments.
3. Operations Consulting
While strategy consultants primarily work with the “why”, operations consulting addresses the “how”. These consultants address operational processes including procurement, outsourcing, supply chain management, and more. Also, operations consultants often do more for businesses than give advice — sometimes they also offer implementation and deployment services to help clients put their new processes to work.
4. Financial Strategy Consulting
Financial consultants, or advisors, help businesses make informed, objective, and legal financial decisions to improve returns. This sector of management consulting works in corporate finance, financial restructuring, risk management, and even real estate. All financial consultants must meet certain requirements and obtain a license to offer financial advice.
5. Human Resources Consulting
The purpose of human resources (HR) consulting is to help companies hire and retain remarkable employees. These specialists address HR processes including training and development, conflict resolution, management philosophies, benefits and pensions, and employee satisfaction. HR consultants also ensure businesses are following legal and ethical personnel practices.
6. IT Consulting
Information technology (IT) consultants implement and manage new technologies, such as systems integration, software development and management, and enterprise architecture.
As an IT consultant, you might help businesses figure out what software to invest in and how to use it to meet goals, solve challenges, and implement important changes. This consulting division is a highly specialized and lucrative industry, worth almost double the management consulting industry — $460 billion.
7. Business Consulting
Business consulting is a broad term that refers to specialists who work with businesses on anything from financial advising to training to layoffs. (You’ll see that this category overlaps with others in this list.)
As a business consultant, you’d typically work with small to mid-size businesses (SMBs) — as opposed to management consulting, where you’d work with enterprise-level businesses — to objectively assess challenges and provide solutions.
8. Sales Consulting
Sales consultants work to improve the performance of sales teams, regardless of size or industry.
As a sales consultant, you’d typically work in sales training and development, but you could also be brought on for other purposes, such as choosing a CRM, improving the sales process, or boosting team morale. Because sales is considered one of the most important parts of a business, financially-speaking, quality sales consultants are highly-valued and sought-after.
9. Marketing Consulting
The purpose of marketing consulting is to evaluate a business’s marketing efforts and provide guidance on how to improve to meet goals and bring in revenue.
As a marketing consultant, you might specialize in a certain field of marketing, such as content marketing, PR, or social media marketing. Or, you might focus on a niche marketing process, such as defining target audiences, customer acquisition, or brand awareness.
10. Environmental Consulting
Are you passionate about environmental laws and regulations? Environmental consulting may be for you. As an environmental consultant, you may advise businesses on how their practices affect the environment around them and often work with industries like construction, waste management, real estate, and energy (but can be hired by any type of company).
Environmental consulting is particularly important as companies work to reduce their permanent impact on the environment.
11. Financial Consulting
Financial consulting overlaps somewhat with the financial strategy consulting we discussed above. The main difference, however, is that this category also includes independent financial consultants that work with individuals, families, and entrepreneurs.
As a financial consultant, you may help with everything from day-to-day expenses, investments, and taxes to cash-flow issues, insurance, and financial legalities.
12. Career Consulting
Individuals and businesses alike use career consulting to either equip themselves or their employees to grow in their jobs. As a career consultant, you may help clients with skill development, resume building, job applications, interviews, and understanding the job market as a whole. If you have a background in HR or recruiting, career consulting may be for you.
13. Healthcare Consulting
The purpose of healthcare consulting is to maximize the impact and output of healthcare organizations. Healthcare consultants are basically management consultants that work in the healthcare industry. They analyze the personnel, profits, and processes in an organization and provide advice on how to improve and solve pressing challenges.
14. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Consulting
It's not uncommon for companies of any size and industry to find themselves lacking the specific skillset that diversity and inclusion consultants bring. Hiring an HR consultant is simply not enough to overcome implicit and explicit bias in an organization and that's what makes DEI consultants one of the most sought-after professionals in this market.
As a DEI consultant, you'll bring an objective point of view to business' equity problems — especially those that involve personnel and culture. If you have a background in HR, psychology, sociology, or nonprofit management, you may find that with specific training and education, DEI consulting could be your next career move.
15. Public Relations Consulting
While public relations might be a staple in enterprises, the function is more often coupled with marketing and communications in smaller companies. But public relations is a discipline all its own, and unfortunately, that fact is usually realized in the middle of a crisis.
As a PR consultant, you might work on a retainer to help plan for crises before one occurs or you may be brought in during the middle of a crisis to determine a company's best course of action to work with the public and media.
16. Brand Consulting
As a brand consultant, you'll be responsible for assessing where a brand currently stands in the market. Competitor analyses, research, and design may fall under the scope of work, but if you prefer to specialize in one area, that's certainly an option.
Brand consultants may work closely with marketing and sales consultants to bring products to market, adjust prices, and offer creative expertise to position a company a certain way in the minds of consumers.
How to Start a Consulting Business
- Assess your skills and strengths to choose your niche.
- Analyze your market needs and pain points.
- Develop your brand, website, and service offerings.
- Open your business.
- Market your business to attract new clients.
- Stay organized and scale.
Are you specialized in a certain field or niche industry and believe you could offer quality advice to others? You may consider opening your own consulting business.
Here are six steps to follow to start a consulting business that helps both you and your clients succeed.
1. Assess your skills and strengths to choose your niche.
Before anything else, brainstorm and define what skills and strengths you believe would make you a good consultant. Remember — consultants are experts in a certain niche. Their knowledge is valued so highly that they’re paid to share it.
More importantly, good consultants aren’t experts in everything.
What makes you an expert? What do you love to do and talk about? If you had to stand in front of a classroom and teach on any subject, what would that be? What do your friends, family, and coworkers ask your advice on?
These are just a few questions to ask yourself to start thinking about what skills and strengths would make you a consultant. Jot down your answer before moving forward.
If I were answering for myself, I’d say I’m an expert in writing and content marketing. I’ve worked in this field for my entire career and genuinely love creating content and helping others do the same.
2. Analyze your market needs and pain points.
Once you establish your consulting niche, you should have a better idea of what industry and market you’ll be targeting. Following my personal example from above, I would be targeting the marketing industry and specializing in content marketing and creation.
Narrowing your market as a consultant allows you to understand the needs, challenges, and pain points your potential clients face, which can help clarify how you can use your skills to provide solutions.
For example, let’s say my target audience as a content marketing consultant struggles with consistent content creation, SEO, and tracking published content.
Defining these factors allows me to know precisely how I can help my clients (e.g. with writing, SEO, and metrics) versus simply saying, “Hey, I can help you with words!”.
Just as you specialize in a certain skill set as a consultant, you should also specify what services you provide for your clients. This information can also help you better market to clients, which we’ll talk about below.
3. Develop your brand, website, and service offerings.
The next step in getting started as a consultant is creating the external-facing components of your business. This includes your website, branding, and service offerings. These resources can help clients identify you and can help your business stand out among competitors.
The other important part of this step is outlining how you work with clients and how much your consulting costs.
Whether you organize your services into clear-cut packages and prices or simply list your services and request that clients call you for more information, you should at least give visitors an idea of what you specialize in and how you can help them (hence what we defined in steps 1 and 2).
4. Open your business.
You know what your skills are, how your skills can help others, and how potential clients can discover and learn more about you — it’s time to open your business. This step is a bit more complicated than flipping a proverbial sign from Closed to Open.
First, consider the legal structure of your business. Legitimizing your business gives it credibility and gives you direction when it comes to taxes, staffing, and other legal details.
Next, think about what tools you may need to conduct business and connect with clients. These might include tools to help find new clients and jobs — like a LinkedIn membership — and video conferencing software like Zoom or Skype.
At this stage, you should also open a business bank account, invest in an accountant (and eventually an assistant), and order business cards with your branding and information.
5. Market your business to attract new clients.
Now that you’ve opened your business, it’s time to grow.
A consulting business isn’t a business without clients. Selling your consulting services isn’t like selling a car, a house, or software. Sometimes, you may find yourself selling your services to people who aren’t even aware they need them.
Consulting marketing can adopt a variety of marketing methods:
- Speaking and teaching
- Social media marketing
- Print or digital advertising
- Cold calling and emailing
Regardless of how you promote your consulting business, invest in consulting marketing methods that will get you in direct contact with your potential clients.
Methods like blogging, podcasting, and social media marketing don’t necessarily draw a direct line to new revenue, but they are powerful for growing awareness and establishing expertise.
A healthy mix of direct marketing and awareness marketing will help your consulting business succeed.
Once you get in front of potential clients, have an established elevator pitch and client proposal template ready to go. Half the consulting “battle” is providing advice; the other half is selling your advice in the first place.
As you grow your client base, use a CRM like the HubSpot's all-in-one CRM platform (which comes in a free version for small-to-medium businesses or a paid version for enterprise businesses). It can help you keep track of client information as well as the context of your relationship with each client.
6. Stay organized and scale.
As you grow and master your consulting business, stay organized and consistent. High-quality results are the best way to incite referrals from previous clients — and referrals can be your best source of new sales.
In fact, as you build successful relationships with clients, don't be afraid to ask for referrals for new leads.
Once a month or so, sit down and analyze your consulting business. Look at your client list, software tools, and other business practices; analyze what’s working and what’s not.
Understand where you can cut extra effort and resources to ultimately save money. Lastly, subscribe to industry trends so you can keep your business relevant to the challenges and trends your clients are facing.
How to Grow Your Consulting Business
- Conduct a competitive analysis.
- Start a blog.
- Share thought leadership content.
- Explore new consulting verticals.
- Network and make new connections.
Starting a consulting business is a remarkable feat, but that's not where the work stops. These six activities will help you grow your consulting business, too.
1. Conduct a competitive analysis.
Examining your competition can be intimidating, but with the right mindset, you can learn a lot from them about how to grow and improve your consulting business. Moreover, you can identify gaps in the market and find new ways to improve upon their strategies.
If you haven't done so already, conduct a competitive analysis of any other consultants or consulting firms in your niche and area.
How do they market their business? What consulting services do they offer, and how do they describe and bundle them? What are their prices and fees?
When you study what's working for your competitors, you learn more about your clients' customer journeys and how you can improve your chances of being hired over your competition.
2. Start a blog.
Blogging is a uniquely effective way to market your business, establish authority in your niche, and help your business organically rank online. Many people — professionals, too — hesitate to start a blog because they don't know how to manage a blog or what to write about. Well, we've compiled a helpful guide to help you past that roadblock.
Another source of great blog content is your client base. Pay attention to what issues or questions your clients face and gather feedback about what information would be helpful to write and share. In the same vein, blog content can also serve as sales enablement content — sharing a popular blog post or two with potential clients can help them understand why to hire you and what they may learn from working with you.
3. Share thought leadership content.
Similar to starting a blog, the process of publishing thought leadership content can help you establish your authority and attract new clientele. Consider platforms like Medium that already have an audience; publish your most authoritative, data-driven, opinion-based content on there to potentially boost your brand awareness.
You can also use tools like HARO to connect with journalists and bloggers looking for expert quotes, anecdotes, and stories for their content. Respond to queries to get your voice featured as a thought leader in your consulting niche.
4. Explore new consulting verticals.
Take a peek at your competitive analysis (if you've run one): Did your findings yield any verticals or specializations that your competitors are offering and you aren't? Consider adding new verticals to your services to further differentiate yourself and grow your business.
For example, if you're a content marketing consultant, you could consider introducing consulting services for email marketing and social media marketing. If you expand, just be sure that you have relevant experience and expertise — don't add new services for the sake of new business.
5. Network and make new connections.
Networking in person is pretty straightforward. But networking online ... well, that's a different story. Thankfully, with today's technology, there are countless ways to network and make new connections.
Between social media, dedicated Slack channels, and online masterminds, the only thing standing in your way of making new connections and friends online is you. One of my favorite spots to network is on Twitter — it's the easiest platform on which to engage with folks and start interesting conversations, and it's been a good reminder of old connections that I can revive with a short Tweet or email.
Test a few platforms and programs and see which one helps you get connected, attract clients, and build a community.
Start Consulting Today
Consulting may be a fascinating, lucrative career, but it’s also a mindset. Successful consulting businesses begin with an individual or team of knowledgeable experts who are passionate about helping others.
Regardless of how big your firm becomes or how long your client list gets, keep your passion and expertise centered and you’ll always find success — for yourself and your clients.
Top consultants are great at planning, presenting, and marketing their services. Get started with your consulting business plan by downloading our free consulting templates below.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in December 2019 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.