It can take years to learn the inside tips and techniques for success in an independent consulting career. Certain industries may have insider secrets that can help you achieve success in a given field, and you should seek out a mentor who works in your industry that would be willing to help you learn the ropes. There are also some general best practices that can be applied across any consulting field to help you realize success.
1. Plan ahead. Develop procedures in advance, and write them down for future reference. You’ll be more consistent in your communication with your clients, and consistency is good in your clients’ minds, because they know what they can expect from you. Try to plan for different situations that could occur, and when the unexpected happens, you’ll be better prepared.
2. Develop a marketing plan and stick to it, even when business is booming. The number one trap new consultants fall into is the feast or famine syndrome. You should certainly make adjustments to your marketing strategy if something isn’t working, but you should dedicate a certain amount of time and energy to consistent marketing efforts on a daily or weekly basis, even when business is good. While it’s true that you will experience ebbs and flows in the amount of business you have coming in, you can take steps to ensure that your cash flow is more consistent than not. By following a marketing plan, you’ll be sure to continue your efforts even when you’ve got more business than you can handle. Don’t fall prey to the idea that you shouldn’t market your services because you can’t take on any more assignments. When your current pipeline of work dries up, you’ll wish you had spent that little bit of time on marketing your business a few months back!
3. Always continue your education. You’re an expert in your field, and you’ve got the experience and talent to follow through with what you promise your clients. But there is always something you could be learning, whether you’re studying new ways to make your business run more efficiently, new developments in your field, or new skills altogether. You’ll keep your mind sharp, and you’ll always be able to offer your clients the most current advances and knowledge available. Attending special conferences and seminars in your field can also be tremendously valuable networking to build your pipeline of future projects.You could also add to your repertoire by learning a new skill that complements your existing services, which can help differentiate you from your competition and may help protect your business during downswings in the economy.
4. Develop a niche. You should always work on building your skill set, but becoming a specialist in a niche area, or becoming known for a particular quality of service, can put you in high demand among the businesses that need your expertise. Being a specialist can enhance your brand identity, and can also help differentiate you from your competition. While you tailor your services into niche areas, be sure to keep your foundation strong, and keep an eye on the marketplace to make sure the niche you select won’t make you vulnerable to obsolescence.
5. Save yourself time and money by using a portable employer of record. Many successful independent consultants and freelancers utilize the services of a portable employer of record. These companies handle invoicing and collections, which can take up a significant chunk of a consultant’s time. Working with a portable employer of record also eliminates the need to set up a formal business entity, and simplifies the tax-management and record-keeping process. Think about what would make the most sense for your particular situation; would your time be better spent doing billable work for clients, or does it make more sense in your case to handle invoicing and collections on your own? When shopping for a firm to support your back office, be sure to ask a lot of questions and compare different options.
6. Always have a signed contract in place. Even if you’re doing work for an acquaintance, it’s very important to have a contract. Your contract should clearly explain the scope of your project to avoid any confusion and any potential disagreements down the line. Be sure to outline the limits of what your project includes, what your client is responsible for completing or providing, the timeframe, your fees, and payment terms. Don’t sign bad contracts, and don’t let anyone tie you up with non-competes clauses that would keep you from being able to accept future projects with another client.
7. Practice patience and understanding. You’re a consultant, an expert your client hired to help solve a problem. That doesn’t mean that they will always be willing to take and follow your advice without complaint. Chances are, at some point your solution for one of your clients is going to require a significant amount of work, change, or money on their part, and they may question your advice. It’s the nature of business — not every client or customer will be the most pleasant to deal with — but it’s part of your job to learn to eloquently handle difficult situations while leaving everyone satisfied. In addition, be prepared for the possibility that in your client’s office culture, consultants and freelancers may have a less than favorable reputation. Be as graceful as possible — this is the tradeoff for not having to put up with the office politics of a traditional work arrangement.
8. Ask for referrals. One of the easiest ways to get new clients is from a recommendation from other satisfied customers. Advertising and marketing has its place, but nothing beats a strong testimonial. In addition, plan to be able to showcase past successes to win new business. Get permission to mention clients, use them as references, or showcase your work for them in a portfolio or case study.
9. Learn effective time management. Building a successful consulting practice takes a great deal of energy and persistence. You will have to work long hours at times, and you may have to dedicate many more hours to a project than you originally planned in order to complete a job adequately. As you gain experience, you’ll learn to better estimate how long a project can take, but in the meantime, you’ll have to learn to prioritize, delegate when possible, and complete tasks as efficiently as possible. Use calendar or project management software so that you always have a grasp on what needs to happen, when.
10. Have fun! You went into business for yourself because you love what you do. Keep hold of that passion, and you’ll learn to overcome any obstacle that comes in your way. Your love of your career will show in your dealings with your clients, and in your finished work. That means satisfied clients, and greater success for you! Nothing can be sweeter than enjoying the benefits of waking up every day to a profitable career that you enjoy.