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.
Continue reading, or jump ahead to learn more about how to become a consultant.
- What is a consultant?
- Consultant Qualifications
- What does a consultant do?
- Consultant Skills
- Types of Consultants
- Business Consultant Job Outlook
- How to Become a Consultant
- How much should you charge as a consultant?
- How to Find Consulting Clients
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, usually on a temporary or contract basis until a particular need has been met.
Companies hire consultants to:
- Get an objective, outsider opinion on processes or systems
- Solve for internal blindspots
- Receive expert guidance on solving a problem or implementing a solution
- Fill a temporary staffing gap in a scalable way
- Get access to expertise that is difficult to source and hire for (such as for a niche technology or other use case)
Because consultants work on a contract basis, there are no set qualifications to be a consultant. It comes down to what the organization needs and how well you can sell your offer.
However, businesses expect consultants to give expert-level advice, and consulting jobs are competitive. This means that the more you can do to excel, the more likely you are to reach your goals.
Consultant education requirements are subjective and flexible. The importance of your education really comes down to the buyer's perception of value.
Most consultants have a bachelor's degree. If you're not sure which degree is best, consider a business degree. This field of study is broad enough to cover many topics.
Other popular degrees for consultants include:
- Public relations
Some consultants add a minor or double major to specialize in a specific industry. Whether you choose healthcare, education, or engineering this can help improve your job prospects.
It's important to choose a degree that helps you learn core concepts in consulting like:
- Data analysis
- Project management
- Public speaking
Advanced education is also not required. But an MBA (Master of Business Administration) is helpful for many consulting careers.
MBA programs can help consultants improve their skills in leadership, management, and economics. This can speed up career advancement in consulting.
Like education, you don't need certifications to become a consultant. At the same time, certification programs can cover hard and soft skills that degree programs may not cover. They also make it easy for potential employers to see your dedication, professional knowledge, and commitment.
If you're thinking about completing a certification, these two are good places to start your research:
There are also many types of industry-specific certifications. Continued education is a growing trend in consulting. So, even if you're already an experienced consultant, you may want to consider adding a certification.
Whether you're looking for a job in consulting or starting to offer services on your own, you'll want to start building relationships.
Your network is more than a source of prospective clients. Many consulting firms start the hiring process by asking for referrals from their networks. People in your network might also become mentors, partners, and friends.
Start by building a networking funnel. Attend events and join relevant organizations and build an organized list of contacts. Prepare for unplanned meetings and interviews. And don't forget to use resources like LinkedIn to build your network.
A consultant is an expert, so it's typical to have a great deal of experience in the niche you want to work in.
Work experience makes it easy to point to concrete results and client outcomes. If you have a proven track record that potential clients can trust, you'll be better able to close consulting contracts.
The most common way to get this practical experience is through employment. While many aspiring consultants aim for a job at the "Big Four," that's not the only way to get the experience you need.
If you're not able to start a consulting job right away, jobs in accounting, management, and business are also great choices.
What does a consultant do?
Consultants offer expert research, solutions, and experience to improve business performance. They are problem-solvers who go into a business to offer objective insights and help put suggested strategies into place.
In other words, depending on what the client needs, the consultant may simply be there to share knowledge, information, and advice as the organization makes changes as a result of the consultant's guidance.
For other arrangements, a consultant may take on some or all of the implementation themselves. This may even include building/revamping processes and training team members. Ultimately, it comes down to what the organization needs.
Regardless of the niche the consultant works in or the specific arrangement they've made with the client, there are a few things a consultant must do well:
- Work with stakeholders to set goals for the relationship.
- Learn the existing processes and systems in an organization.
- Perform analysis and diagnose issues.
- Translate data into concrete action items.
- Communicate effectively to multiple stakeholders.
- Oversee and track results.
- Be able to convey impact.
Featured Resource: Free Templates for Consultants
Serious about becoming a consultant? These eight consulting templates will help you pitch your services to potential clients. The kit includes a management consulting plan template, a new client onboarding checklist, a consulting plan presentation template, and more.
There are many skills to develop as you learn how to become a consultant. You want to solve problems for businesses. That means a varied skill set including change management, creative thinking, or ability with numbers. These are some of the most important consultant skills.
Verbal and Written Communication
No matter how impressive your analytical skills are, they won't be much help to your clients unless you can communicate. Writing and speaking may seem like basic skills. But working on your communication skills is the best way for you to develop trust and authority.
Direct, succinct, and simple writing means regular practice writing reports and analyses. Practice speaking and active listening with regular presentations, client conversations, and follow-ups.
Consultants play a complex role as team leaders, mentors, and peers, often all at the same time. This requires you to constantly practice your leadership skills.
You may need to introduce transparency and team building to a tough client. Sensitive information may come up when dealing with a routine problem.
Whatever comes up, you need to show that you can handle tough situations in a trustworthy and thoughtful way.
Check out these resources for more:
Critical and Analytical Thinking
Critical thinking is often the first thing that comes to mind with consulting. Consultants analyze businesses, note what they see, and offer useful feedback.
Analytical thinking skills allow you to offer a unique perspective to clients. It doesn't matter whether you're reviewing processes, asking questions, or offering guidance. Your ability to solve problems is crucial to being a consultant.
Whether you're freelance or full-time, if you want to be a consultant, you need to get organized.
Time management, structure, and planning are not only crucial to your consulting reputation. They're often the skills that you will offer to your clients.
Organization skills will help you manage a wide variety of tasks at a hectic pace. They can help with preparation, setting boundaries, and meeting high expectations.
Consultants are often a lifeline for the businesses they serve. Because of this, you need to be ready for and welcome change.
When you're a consultant, your clients may need to change plans quickly. They may forget to share information that can impact your work or plans. This means that you need to be ready to flex with the teams you'll be working with.
You'll also need to stay aware of changes you can't control. Market shifts, trends, and technology don't stand still. Clients will expect you to offer expert opinions on what's new in your industry with awareness and authority.
Flexibility also means a willingness to listen. While the value of a consultant is often in their opinion, it's important to stay open to new approaches and ways of thinking.
Becoming a consultant is often a solo journey. This means that you may need to find ways to motivate yourself over time.
Some consultants come by this skill naturally, with personal drive, optimism, and resilience. But others may need to develop their ability to:
- Set realistic goals
- Commit to long-term plans
- Develop routines
Asking for help from friends and taking risks can be powerful motivators.
But procrastination can affect your drive without good habits. While time management can help, you may want to look for other ways to engage as you become a consultant.
Being a consultant can be like being the new student in class. You're in a new place, surrounded by new people. And you need that new team to trust you to get your job done.
As a consultant, you'll work with powerful people who aren't used to people telling them what to do. You might work with wary teams who have a hard time trusting outsiders or siloed departments. So you'll need to become an expert at building strong relationships quickly.
Soft skills help you have more positive interactions with people. They're your ability to read social cues, communicate, and engage people.
Using soft skills to balance your knowledge and work ethic makes people more likely to accept, respect, and trust your ideas.
Types of Consultants
Here are some of the most common types of consultants:
A sales professional who helps develop an organization's sales process, identifies ways to improve sales performance, and gives sales training to reps.
Sales Consultant Job Description
The ideal candidate for the sales consultant role is a data-driven individual who can deliver results that impact the bottom line. In this role, the sales consultant develops well-researched strategies to increase sales and generate more revenue.
A management consultant works with leaders and teams to find and address large business problems.
Management Consultant Job Description
A management consultant often works for a consulting firm. In this role, they find large business problems, collect information, and offer solutions. Their tasks might include strategy development, process updates, or growth advice. They offer ideas and solve problems with data gathering and analysis. This role often includes making PowerPoint presentations, pitching client solutions, and frequent travel.
An advisor who helps identify improvements to an organization's operational efficiency and performance. "Business consulting" can apply to a wide variety of solutions.
Business Consultant Job Description
Qualified business consultants will have demonstrated business acumen and experience optimizing company strategy. This role generates new business, pitches strategies to clients, oversees the implementation of client strategies, and works with executive clients to develop sound business plans.
A marketing specialist who helps organizations create and carry out marketing strategies to increase brand awareness and generate leads for the business.
Marketing Consultant Job Description
A marketing consultant works alongside a client’s marketing organization to develop and integrate effective marketing tactics and strategies into the client’s operating rhythm. In this role, the marketing consultant will be responsible for conducting in-depth research and competitive analysis, using their findings to craft an effective marketing plan, and find tactics to market the product to its intended audience.
An advisor who analyzes a business's financials and helps the leadership team make good financial decisions.
Accounting Consultant Job Description
The right candidate for the accounting consultant role has extensive experience working in high-performing accounting and finance organizations. This individual will work alongside the client’s accounting team to oversee and advise on necessary changes to the company’s accounting procedures. They will work with their clients to locate areas of improvement in their business processes and will oversee the implementation of practical, compliant solutions.
An expert who helps organizations install or use technology solutions in a way that improves the operations and performance of the business.
Technology Consultant Job Description
A technology consultant (also known as an IT consultant), will analyze the client’s technology systems to make sure the company is on track to meet its goals and objectives. After analyzing the client’s technology systems and company infrastructure, the technology consultant will propose any necessary changes to support information security and business operations and will help with creating and onboarding necessary changes.
A lawyer or legal professional who advises a business on legal matters.
Legal Consultant Job Description
In this role, a qualified legal consultant will use their legal expertise to support the client’s legal compliance, profitability, and risk mitigation. Besides conducting the necessary research, this individual will also be responsible for drafting contracts, reviewing briefs, and conducting negotiations on the client’s behalf.
Public Relations Consultant
A specialist who improves communications between a business and the public.
Public Relations Consultant Job Description
The PR consultant who fulfills this role will manage the relationship between their clients and the general public. The ideal candidate is an experienced communications professional who can proficiently draft press releases on behalf of the client, manage the client’s media relationships and contacts, and write and edit communications collateral to promote the business and offerings of the client.
Business Consultant Job Outlook
Consulting is experiencing impressive growth. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs in this area will grow 14% between 2020 and 2030. This is much higher than the national average for most careers.
While many new positions will open because of workers who will shift to other jobs or retire, there are also new areas of job growth. For example, some accounting firms are also consulting on digital transformation. These consulting positions help businesses adjust as technology advances.
Consulting is also a lucrative career, with an average base salary of $79,000 per year. Depending on your niche, you can make $120,000 or more per year as a consultant.
Experts expect job growth for consultants to stay strong. This is because businesses will always need help with the complexities of running a modern business including:
- Disruptive trends
- Industry-specific shifts
- Improving efficiency
- Social responsibility
- Community engagement
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 expand your reach and reputation.
How to Become a Consultant
- Identify your area of expertise.
- Set goals.
- Make a website.
- Get certified.
- Choose a target market.
- Decide where you'll work.
- Create your offerings.
- Set your rates
- Network with people.
- Know when to say "no."
- Build a repeatable system for attracting and closing clients.
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 find your niche:
- "Do I have a unique point of view?"
- "Do I have the experience necessary to be authoritative in this field?"
- "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 find 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 developed 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 toward. 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: Choose targets and milestones to track progress
- Attainable: Keep goals realistic and manageable
- Relevant: Set goals that fit with your business model
- Time-Based: Set 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.
- 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 (as in, new employees, more clients, office space)?
3. Make a website.
Think you can get by without a website? Think again. A recent Statista report finds that 21% of consumers use websites to find local businesses on a daily basis, and only 1% of those consumers don’t search for local businesses online.
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.
As a consultant, it's crucial to stay cutting edge and competitive in your niche, and certifications are a concrete way to show your drive.
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 qualifications are important in your industry and invest in expanding your knowledge base.
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:
- "Where is my target audience located?" (Will you serve local clients only? Will you accept national or regional clients? Will you exclude international clients?)
- "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?)
- "Who is competing for their business?" (Who are your biggest competitors and how do your services measure up? What sets you apart?)
- "Am I targeting startups themselves or the individual sales managers?" (Will you contact businesses or network with prospects through local meetups or LinkedIn outreach?)
- "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 offer 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:
- "Can I afford office space, and if so, how much can I afford?"
- "Will a workplace enhance my business or help it grow?"
- "Why do I need this space?" (as in, do I meet with clients? Am I hiring some part-time help?)
Once you've decided that office space will truly improve 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 offer 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 begin 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.
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 who promotes 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 contact 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 figure out 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.
How much should you charge as a consultant?
- Double/triple your current hourly wage
- Set a daily rate
- Set fees by project
- Set fees by performance
- Set fees using data from previous client work
- 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.
Need help attracting the right clients? Here's how you can start:
How to Find Consulting Clients
- Identify your ideal customer.
- Find out where they hang out online.
- Learn what motivates them.
- Size up your competition.
- Decide what sets you apart.
- Develop an outreach strategy.
- Be clear in communicating your unique value proposition.
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 some 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 offer 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.
These 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 (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 must be clear in all your messaging whether it's on your website, in your emails, on marketing materials, or in your pitches.
Is consulting right for you?
Becoming a consultant is an exciting way to grow your career. By focusing on key skills, and building relationships with the right clients, you can create a rewarding career in the field. 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!
Editor's note: This post was originally published in March 2019 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.