Becoming a Consultant

It could be argued that anyone can become a consultant.  As long as someone has knowledge, there may be someone willing to hire them as a freelancer or contractor.  But what does it take to set up a thriving consulting business in today's economic environment?

In this article, we're going to talk about the challenges of starting a consulting business.  As part of that discussion, we'll talk about the size of this industry, future trends, and working conditions.  We'll also talk about the economic environment that allows this industry to thrive.  Finally, we'll discuss what it takes to be successful.

Consulting and Freelancing

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the consulting industry is expected to grow 83 percent over the decade from 2008 through 2018.  Salaries are a function of experience as well as education.  The most common services are in the business, managerial, financial, and "professional" areas.

Generally, consulting practices are divided into two broad categories:

  • Management Consultants:  includes marketing, finance, strategy development, organizational effectiveness, manufacturing process efficiency, information processing, e-commerce, employee benefits, and compensation.
  • Technical / Scientific Consultants:  includes workplace safety, environmental compliance, information technology, as well as the traditional sciences of physics, biology, and chemistry.

Working Conditions

Research conducted in 2008 indicates that non-supervisory consultants worked an average of 35.0 hours each week.  This is slightly higher than the national average of 33.6 hours.  Consultants are frequently expected to meet tight deadlines, so the job often involves working under stressful conditions.  In addition, being asked to work over a weekend is something that happens often.

Travel can be extensive, with many consultants spending time away from home four days each week (Monday through Thursday).  Working from home on a Friday or over the weekend allows these professionals to balance work with their family lives.  Technology such as laptops and smart phones keep them connected to their clients when not on the job site.

Consultants are also expected to remain current with industry trends.  Continuing education and / or post secondary education learning activities not only maintain professional certifications, but also add to someone's value.

Industry Outsourcing

The rapid growth in the consulting industry is a direct result of economic conditions in the United States.  Pressure on corporations to meet or exceed earnings expectations has companies looking for innovative ways to lower costs.  Workload for some staff positions may have distinct peaks and valleys.

Companies can lower cost by hiring consultants to provide services during those peaks.  Existing staff can be augmented with experienced professionals, rather than staffing for the peak workload, and underutilizing employees when workload decreases.  This provides companies with a just-in-time approach to staffing certain positions in their organizations.

Successful Business Practices

So what exactly does it take to build and maintain a successful practice?  First, it takes a good understanding of the demands of the position.  As pointed out earlier, working as a consultant can be stressful, and clients are often insensitive to the fact they have a "life after work."  These positions often command premium salaries, and clients will demand premium service; not everyone is up for that challenge.

Ultimately, success will be a function of the marketplace's demand for the skills possessed as well as the business practices employed.  Listed below are some important points to remember when starting or maintaining a consulting practice.

  • Business Planning:  building a successful business means adopting a long-term view of the practice.  Skipping steps such as creating a viable business plan because the job is seen as "temporary," is a plan to fail.  The U.S. Small Business Association is a fantastic resource when it comes to building a business plan.
  • Home Office:  it's important to keep distractions to a minimum when working from home.  No one wants to hear a dog barking, television playing, or child crying when they're trying to make an important business decision.  Find a quiet location, and set up a well-equipped home office.  Essentials include a laptop, fax machine, printer / scanner, and a high speed internet connection.
  • Networking:  working independently doesn't have to be a lonely proposition.  In fact, building a network or participating in a network of consultants is a great way to gain referrals and keep abreast of industry trends.  Online social networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn are a good place to start building contacts.
  • Skills:  maintaining affiliations, professional certifications, attending workshops, training courses, as well as diversified assignments allow consultants to continue to improve their skills.  Depth of experience almost always translates into higher demand, and therefore higher salaries.  Smaller organizations, such as boutique consultancies, often concentrate skills to a single industry or practice for this reason.

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