September 2010 Web Extra: So You Want To Be a Consultant

Departments - Web Extras

You may have the institutional wisdom, but do you have what it takes to add “consultant” to your resume.

September 17, 2010
Web Extra

The draw to become an industry consultant – trading accumulated knowledge and expertise for money – is often overwhelming to an industry veteran. And this attraction is powered by the fact that, if you’re good at what you do, if you’ve enjoyed some degree of success and if you’re a proven expert in your field, there will always be people who need that insight and advice.

And this move seems natural to many veteran outdoor power equipment professionals. After 20 to 25 years in the industry, it just makes sense to impart their accumulated wisdom to the next generation of power equipment dealers. In fact, according to a recent Commercial Dealer online poll, 70 percent of dealers are considering making the transition to a professional consultant.

Heck, many dealership owners have more than likely been giving this information away for free to industry colleagues for years. So why not charge for the service?
This willingness to engage people about the industry is an important criteria for whether an individual will make a good consultant, says Christine Lambden and Casey Conner, who teach consulting skills to future consultants and are based out of Austin, Texas.

“The guy who’s a natural-born consultant is already doing it,” Lambden says. “What’s different is asking for the cash. And that’s tricky part, transferring that into a revenue stream from just being a drain on your free time.”

Toxic Subjects
In their book “Everyday Practices of Extraordinary Consultants,” Christine Lambden and Casey Conner compiled a list of toxic topics, or conversations every good consultant avoids with the people they’ll be working closely with on a project. The following topics, according to Lambden and Conner, rarely make people like a consultant; rather they are more likely to make them challenge/question the consultant’s beliefs and their knowledge and the consultant can only lose respect in these conversations.

  • Politics
  • Religion
  • Money
  • Sex
  • Capital punishment
  • Other races, religions or cultures (the most innocent statements can sound critical)
  • How previous projects were better
  • How previous clients were smarter
  • How many mistakes were made before you arrived
  • How dumb the decisions were that got your client to this point
  • How much you don’t like the city you’re working in
  • How much you hate to travel
  • Bill rates
  • Pay rates
  • Contract terms

Some of the challenges would-be consultants face – issues they don’t often consider at the onset of the decision to move from full-time dealer to professional consultant – include how they’ll generate clients, who is their target market or what niche can they fill, what role they want to play in the greater industry, and how they’ll market themselves and their services.

“A friend of mine spent nearly 20 years as a buyer for companies that use rice in their products,” Conner says. “He decided to turn that into an advisory business so that he essentially does price forecasting for farmers and co-ops and people involved in the industry. He started out trying to promote himself over the Web, but soon learned it’s a much more personal business. So he went out and began meeting people one-on-one and grew his business exponentially over about five years. It was about presenting himself in the right way for the industry he was targeting.”

One of the difficult transition points a veteran outdoor power equipment dealer faces in transition to consulting work is that former colleagues don’t see a consultant standing in front of them, Lambden and Conner says, especially if they were receiving the expert advice for free.

“The people who already know you don’t see you as a consultant,” Conner says. “So when you meet new people you have to be the consultant. Don’t be the outdoor power equipment guy anymore, instead be the consultant.”

To bridge that gap, Lambden and Conner recommend would-be consultants print up special business cards that spell out the array of advisory services and the rate for those services. “When you meet someone who wants to pick your brain pull out that card,” Lambden says. “Hand it to them and say, ‘Call me some time.’ That way you don’t have to say it and they get it.”

Successful consultants are comfortable with promoting themselves, and it’s a vital part to growing the business. However, this one of the most overlooked facts by perspective consultants, Lambden and Conner warn. Business, unlike friendly conversation, requires a different mindset.

“It’s like a person who loves to bake who opens a bakery and then learns that they don’t like to bake anymore,” Lambden says.

“Running any business based on you is promotion and self promotion and being able to out there and get your name out,” Conner says. “People make the mistake that all they need to do is hang up a shingle and put up a Web site and people will beat a path down to their door.”

One of the sure signs, though, that a dealer is not cut out to be an industry consultant is managing expectations poorly, Lambden and Conner say.

“If you’ve left a lot of disappointed people in your wake, then you’re not going to make it,” Conner says. “You have to exceed expectations and you must manage them every day. It’s a key factor and it’s something that doesn’t always come naturally to people.”

But every consultant will have situations where their client doesn’t go on to prosper, Lambden says. And there are many reasons for client failure, including the fact that the business relationship just wasn’t a good fit from the start.

“One of the hardest things for a consultant to learn is that they’ve given a client all of this great advice, they told them what to do and the client decided to go a different way,” she says. “If their business fails, is it the consultants fault for not presenting the advice in a compelling format, or the client’s fault for not listening?”