Do you have a well-developed network? Are you self-directed? Do you have an impressive portfolio filled with client success stories? You might be ready to become a consultant, but it can be difficult to know where to start.

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What is a consultant?

A consultant is a person who's an expert in a particular field who gives professional advice to individuals and businesses in their area of expertise.

Types of Consultants

Here are some of the most common types of consultants:

  • Business consultant - Advisor who helps identify improvements to an organization's operational efficiency and performance. "Business consulting" can apply to a wide variety of solutions.
  • Sales consultant - Sales professional who helps develop an organization's sales process, identifies ways to improve sales performance, and provides sales training to reps.
  • Marketing consultant - Marketing specialist who helps organizations create and implement marketing strategies to increase brand awareness and generate leads for the business.
  • Accounting consultant - Advisor who analyzes a business's financials and helps the leadership team make good financial decisions.
  • Technology consultant - Expert who helps organizations implement and/or utilize technology solutions in a way that improves the operations and performance of the business.
  • Legal consultant - Lawyer or legal professional who advises a business on legal matters.
  • Public relations consultant - Specialist who improves communications between a business and the public.

What are the qualifications to be a consultant?

Because a consultant provides expert-level advice, it's typical to have a bachelor's degree (often in addition to an advanced degree) as well as a great deal of experience in the niche they are working in. 

These specifications are subjective and flexible, taking into account that it really comes down to the buyer's perception of value.

Do you have an area of expertise to advise on? Follow these steps closely and you'll build a strong foundation for future work, repeat clients, and expanding your reach and reputation.

1. Identify your area of expertise.

Be honest about where your strengths and expertise lie -- and consider strengths outside your nine-to-five focus. Maybe you have a landscaping side hustle with enough client demand to take it full time. Or perhaps you're good at closing difficult deals in the medical sales industry -- so good that your colleagues are always asking for help.

Ask yourself three questions to identify your niche:

  1. "Do I have a unique point of view?"
  2. "Do I have the experience necessary to be authoritative in this field?"
  3. "Is there demand for this service?"

Being a consultant requires you to be organized, self-motivated, and good at boundary setting. Before launching your website and accepting your first client, consider your ability to meet these demands. You might identify the perfect niche, but if you can't meet independent deadlines or manage a billing cycle, you might not be ready to become a consultant.

To find your consulting specialty, consider areas you excel in at work, projects you've gotten high marks on in performance reviews, or hobbies you've mastered outside the office. You should also factor in what you enjoy -- if you're doing this full-time, it needs to be an activity you're passionate about.

2. Set goals.

Setting goals helps you know what you're working towards. Do you want this to stay a nights-and-weekends project? Do you hope to turn it into a full-time business? Do you want to hire employees someday? Answer these questions and plan accordingly.

Once you've identified broad goals for your business, narrow your focus to more immediate needs. To do this, make sure your goals are SMART:

  • Specific: Clearly define what you want to accomplish
  • Measurable: Identify targets and milestones to track progress
  • Attainable: Keep goals realistic and manageable
  • Relevant: Set goals that fit with your business model
  • Time-Based: Identify deadlines for your goals

Here's an example of SMART goals for a consultant who coaches sales teams to be better at cold outreach:

  • Specific: I will coach SMB sales teams on how to make better calls, send higher quality emails, and follow up in an effective manner. The result will be more qualified opportunities for reps resulting in more closed business and higher revenue for the organization.
  • Measurable: Success will be measured by increased client pipeline and percentage of client deals closed as well as referrals for my business.
  • Attainable: I have three clients already and bring in an average of one new referral every month. I know there is demand for my service, and this cadence is manageable for my workload and operating budget right now.
  • Relevant: This business model fits my skill set and allows me to benefit from my success with sales outreach as identified by myself, my coworkers, and my supervisors.
  • Time-Based:
    • November 15: Website goes live
    • December 1: Review previous month's work and ask for at least one referral
    • December 5: Send client bills for the previous month's work
    • December 15: Have all coaching sessions scheduled before this date in anticipation for holiday schedules

As your consultancy grows, so will your plans. Revisit your SMART goals on a monthly or quarterly basis and adjust them as needed.

Maria Marshall, an associate professor at Purdue University, researches small and family-owned businesses. She recommends including visionary goals for your business as well. Marshall outlines four main areas of focus for visionary goals:

  • Service: How can you improve customer satisfaction and retention?
  • Social: How can you give back to the community through philanthropy or volunteering?
  • Profit: How can you increase profits by X percent?
  • Growth: How can you expand your company (i.e., new employees, more clients, office space)?

3. Make a website.

Think you can get by without a website? Think again. A recent Local Search Association report finds that 63% of consumers use websites to find or engage with businesses, and 30% of those consumers won't consider a business without a website.

Also, if you have a site, Google gives your business more authority in local rankings. Creating a Google My Business profile isn't enough. A website that's optimized with backlinks, domain authority, and views will encourage Google to display your website in relevant searches.

Don't think website creation is in your wheelhouse? Services like WordPress and Squarespace make it easy to build a website, and GoDaddy allows you to lock down a domain name.

And if you want a tool that'll help you do everything from tracking incoming leads to booking meetings and will grow with your business, try HubSpot. Your website is the first impression of your business. Invest time here and see the returns for years to come.

4. Get certified.

Are there certifications that will give you an edge? For example, if you're a consultant for medical sales professionals, consider pursuing accreditation in one of HIDA's Medical Sales programs. If your specialty is coaching teams to be better at outreach, consider getting an Inbound Sales Certification from HubSpot.

Whether software, skills, or subject matter-specific certifications, find out what's important in your industry and invest in expanding your knowledge base. As a consultant, it's crucial to remain cutting edge and competitive in your niche, and certifications are a concrete way to demonstrate your drive.

5. Choose a target market.

Once you've identified your niche, be clear about who your target audience is. For example, if you help startup sales teams navigate early-stage scaleup, hone in on your target market by answering these five questions:

  1. "Where is my target audience located?" (Will you serve local clients only? Will you accept national or regional clients? Will you exclude international clients?)
  2. "What are their biggest pain points?" (What has driven them to search for your help? What are their daily roadblocks to suggest? What are their scaling challenges?)
  3. "Who is competing for their business?" (Who are your biggest competitors and how do your services measure up? What sets you apart?)
  4. "Am I targeting startups themselves the individual sales managers?" (Will you reach out to businesses or network to individuals through local meetups or LinkedIn outreach?)
  5. "What motivates my target audience?" (What is your audience's end goal by choosing your services? What do they hope to achieve for their team and for themselves?)

Getting specific about who your customer is and what's important to them allows you to provide superior service and reach clients who are the perfect match.

6. Decide where you'll work.

You probably won't need a designated workplace while getting your consultancy off the ground. But if you're becoming a full-time consultant, it might be helpful to have an office. Before you start booking office tours, ask yourself a few questions:

  1. "Can I afford office space, and if so, how much can I afford?"
  2. "Will a workplace enhance my business or help it grow?"
  3. "Why do I need this space?" (i.e., do I meet with clients? Am I hiring some part-time help?)

Once you've decided that office space will truly benefit your business, consider what kind of space is right for your needs. Coworking spaces like We Work and Galvanize are staples of many urban environments.

They give you access to shared or small workspaces, as well as meeting rooms and amenities, at a lower monthly rate than traditional office spaces. They also give you another way to network and benefit from those around you.

7. Create your offerings. 

How will you be providing your consulting services? What kind of delivery models will you use? Will you be traveling to them and providing your services on-site, or will you provide your services virtually? Will you be performing actual work for them, or will you simply be guiding them to do the work themselves?

Here are some popular consulting models:

  • Done For You
  • Done With You
  • Coaching (One-on-One)
  • Group Coaching (One-to-Many)
  • Online Program (On-Demand)

Even though it's the least scalable, it's often advisable to being with the "Done For You" type of model so that you have proven experience and success stories to better sell the other types of products.

8. Set your rates.

Deciding how much you'll charge clients can be the hardest part of starting a consultancy. It's tempting to charge less than you're worth because you haven't proven your results yet.

Research what comparative consultants are charging in your area (sites like Glassdoor.com are great for this). And decide which of these common types of consultant pricing would most fairly compensate you for the work you're doing.

How much should you charge as a consultant?

  1. Double/triple your current hourly wage
  2. Set a daily rate
  3. Set fees by project
  4. Set fees by performance
  5. Set fees using data from previous client work
  6. Set solution-based fees

Once you've decided what to charge, consider how you'll bill clients and accept payment. There are many free and fee-based platforms -- like Invoicely, Freshbooks, and Due -- that allow you to automate billing cycles, track and manage invoices and payments, and run reports on weekly, quarterly, or yearly earnings.

And don't forget to consult with an accountant during tax season. If you're not having taxes taken out of your payments, you'll need to budget for those when taxes are due. An accountant can offer guidance on how to make this less of a headache.

9. Network with people.

Speaking of networking … Referrals are a crucial way to grow your business, but they aren't the only way. Unlike at a large company, you probably don't have a marketing team whose whole job it is to promote your business. Instead, selling the value of your consultancy often falls to you and you alone.

Join LinkedIn and Facebook groups your audience frequents, write and share blog posts highlighting your expertise, and attend meetups or conferences in your area. Be everywhere and talk to everyone who's a good fit for your offering. No one's going to sell you as well as you, so brush off that elevator pitch and get ready to sell yourself anything but short.

10. Know when to say "no."

In the beginning, it's easy to say "yes" to every client and every request. Now more than ever, you want your work to be high quality, organized, and manageable. coming in at a manageable rate.

If saying yes to a new client means your current client work will suffer, say, "I'd love to serve your needs, but with my current workload, I don't think I can give you the attention you deserve. I should have more availability next quarter. Can I reach out to you then to see if this is still a need?"

Prospective customers will appreciate your honesty, and you'll be able to maintain high-quality work at a cadence that doesn't threaten your sanity or existing client satisfaction.

It's also difficult to turn down clients that aren't a good fit. Be honest when you can't meet a prospective client's needs, and be proactive about introducing them to someone who can. They'll benefit from a better match, and your business won't lose sight of what it does best.

11. Build a repeatable system for getting and selling clients. 

Once you have your business set up, you can't just hope for your clients to knock on your door saying, "I'm here and ready to pay!"

You'll need to analyze your niche and examine your existing network as you strategize how to find consulting clients. From there, you need to get into the business of marketing your consulting services and understanding exactly how to sell to prospects.

Here's where how you can start:

1. Identify your ideal customer. 

You won't be able to attract, engage, or close new customers if you don't know who they are. Being able to understand your audience is critical to crafting your marketing and sales strategy (as well as your messaging). 

Consider spending time making the buyer persona of your ideal client. Who are they? What industry are they in? What type of services are they looking for? Why?

2. Find out where they hang out online. 

Once you know who they are, do research to find out where they spend their time online. Chances are, the web will be a big acquisition channel for you, so you want to ensure that you can be found where your customers are. Which websites and social media are they active on?

It can also give you more insights into your persona that you can use to understand them. Let's say you find a big community of your target customers on Facebook. Seeing what they post can give you insight into what they think about and what they experience.

3. Learn what motivates them. 

People don't wake up one day and decide to buy something. Chances are, they experience a pain or a triggering event that causes them to be open to solutions, including your solution. 

4. Size up your competition.

What are your competitors offering and what are the price points? What makes them attractive to buyers?

5. Decide what sets you apart. 

What additional value does your work add that other consultancies don't? If you can provide more value, a differentiating experience, a more accessible price point, or unique offerings, you'll be able to stand out from your competition and position yourself as a leader in the space. 

This unique differentiators make up your value proposition, and your value proposition is going to help your buyers choose you over the competition.

6. Develop an outreach strategy. 

Now that you know where your prospects hang out online and what matters to them, you can decide how to attract them to you. What channels will you be focusing on? What will be your primary tools for communicating (e.g., email, phone calls, social media)? 

7. Be clear in communicating your unique value proposition.

As you communicate on whatever channel you decide and with whichever tool you choose, be sure that you're conveying your unique value proposition. In other words, you know you're good... let your prospects know too. And prove it. 

Your value be clear in all your messaging whether it's on your website, in your emails, on marketing materials, or in your pitches.

Becoming a consultant is an exciting way to grow your career. Be honest about your readiness and niche, organized in your approach, and clear in defining, meeting, and addressing your goals. The above steps are the perfect way to start. Good luck!

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Editor's note: This post was originally published in March 2019 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.

Originally published Sep 30, 2020 1:00:00 PM, updated September 30 2020

Topics:

Sales Career Growth