How to get into consulting (+advice from a consulting expert)

Have you ever wondered how to get into consulting or what you could do as a consultant? 

Here, you will learn everything you need to know about what consultants do, how to become a consultant, and how to gain some insight into the job through an interview with Pamela Slim, an award-winning author and writer for Escape from Cubicle Nation

By the end of the article, you will be ready to take the next step in your professional career by making an informed decision about getting into consulting.

What do consultants actually do?

Before you take the time to learn how to start a career in consulting, it is important to understand exactly what a consultant is and what they actually do. It can often seem like quite a vague job title since it can apply to many different industries and niches. 

A company often hires a consultant who needs an expert in something specific for a short-term project. Sometimes a consultant can work as a freelancer for hire, while at other times, they might work full-time as an analyst or fixer for a company. They work by providing recommendations and expert opinions to their clients.

If you work as a consultant for individuals, you will likely work with them one-on-one. You might be helping them solve more personal problems or teaching them how to set up their own businesses successfully. Within a larger company, you will more likely be working as a team of mixed professionals to help the company solve specific business challenges. The kind of consultant you are will change what your job will look like each day.

What qualification, education, or experience do you need to become a consultant?

Learning how to get into consulting can seem a bit overwhelming at the beginning. Whatever you want to do, it will take time and sometimes investment to get there. But, of course, in a perfect world, it will all be quite easy. You will have just the right qualifications already lined up. You will have a well-developed network and a portfolio full of previous client success stories before leaping consultancy.

However, life isn’t always perfect, and it might take some time before you get to where you want to be.  

To start, educational experience has become quite important in today’s day and age. You are no longer marketable with work experience alone. To be competitive in your field of work, you need to have a bachelor’s degree at least. Since functioning as a consultant often means being an expert in your area, it is best to have earned your master’s degree.

Having a master’s degree will often gain you spots working with high-end companies and bump up your pay grade.

Although education is important, organizations, individuals, and businesses are still looking for a strong combination in their ideal consultant. You will find it difficult to step off the graduation stage and right into a position as a consultant since much of the advice and expertise will come from experience dealing with similar situations. 

Once you have work experience for at least 2 years and your degree, you can look into jobs. Some will require work experience for more than 5 and even 10 years, but these are less common.

How to become a consultant

Now that you have a degree and work experience, it is time to figure out what type of consultant you should be and learn how to find consulting work. Knowing how to start a career in consulting is useful on the surface, but always remember that perseverance and resilience will be the best tools to have as you move into this field. 

Other than that, follow these next steps and take our advice when originally defining yourself as a consultant.

Define your niche

A niche is defined as “a specialized segment of the market for a particular kind of product or service” by Oxford Languages. Your niche will be your focus as a consultant and one of the most important decisions you will make. From the moment you set yourself up in your niche, it will dictate the rest of the path you will take in your career. That includes the kinds of clients you will have, the work you will do, and even how much you will charge.

Niching down might seem like a poor business decision at first. Aren’t you limiting yourself and what you can do and who you will work for if you choose only one niche? Yes, but that is often better in the business world. You are likely to find more clients and charge them more since you will suit specific needs. Although this is not always important in a career, being a generalist isn’t typically helpful when you want to be a consultant.

Some fields you could consider include:

  • Sales funnels
  • Email
  • Human resources
  • IT
  • Social media
  • Copywriting
  • Management

Knowing you want to work in one field isn’t even enough in most situations. You need to be able to offer someone a specific answer to their problem. Take a look at your target market and exactly what you can do for them. Perhaps you don’t just do social media. Instead, you specialize in social media for five-star restaurants. Spend some time researching what people in your niche are looking for and considering your passions and experience before ever starting to market yourself.

Choose what type of firm you want to work for (or work for yourself)

The next decision you need to make is what kind of job you want to have. Yes, you are a consultant. However, depending on where you work, your daily ins and outs will look dramatically different. You can work for a large business, or you can work for yourself. There are all kinds of options in between that as well, from big to small. Each one of them offers its own advantages and disadvantages. Pamela Slim helped us to define each one of these more accurately.

Large consulting firms

There are large consulting firms that are generally considered Fortune 500 companies. These companies are significant, global, and incredibly complex. You can fill a position in many ways as a consultant in one of these firms. 

Advantages: Large companies utilize thoroughly developed and defined consulting methodologies. Their training programs tend to be clear, and they will always provide you with ample work. They often open the door for long-term career paths.

Drawbacks: Large companies come with a lot of red tape sometimes made worse by poor management policies. You could easily end up having to work your dues for years by doing insane hours in less-than-ideal conditions to make your way up the proverbial ladder.

Boutique consulting firms

These companies will be much smaller and often have a personal feel than the large Fortune 500 companies. They are often made up of specialized experts that excel with specific business problems or in particular industries. Although they might be small, they typically have interesting work and offer a more realistic work-life balance.

Advantages: You will be more likely to have direct access to these firms’ senior consultants and partners. They can provide you with excellent mentoring opportunities and increase your client contact in your early days. In addition, they often come with much less bureaucracy since there aren’t so many layers and chains to get to the top.

Drawbacks: You are less likely to get broad exposure at a boutique firm than with a large company since they specialize in their areas. There is also less infrastructure. Fewer stairs to climb to get to know those at the top also means less opportunity to get to the top of the business.

Consulting divisions of product or service companies

These are the companies that hawk their parent company’s products, supplementing their status quo but involved with more broad-based consulting projects. Two examples of these kinds of companies include IBM and Oracle.

Advantages: The advantages are very similar to those of their Fortune 500 counterparts. These agencies tend to have well-developed methodologies and training programs and offer vetted career paths. 

Drawbacks: As you might imagine, the drawbacks for these companies are very similar to those for the Fortune 500 companies. The difference tends to be that these companies sell their services as if they were products instead of tailor-made solutions. As a consultant, you might not feel comfortable force-fitting those to a consulting solution when they don’t seem right for the customer, even if that’s what you have been instructed to do.

Freelance consultants

Finally, there are freelance consultants. This option often holds the most shine for people, especially those that have any interest in breaking off the “shackles” of a typical employee-employer relationship and setting off on your own. Again, you can specialize in specific things that you have training in or that catch your interest.

Advantages: You have total creative control of your business from the ground up. You get to choose how you work with clients, which clients you take on, which learning opportunities to capitalize on, and the best part? You get to keep all of the profits for yourself.

Drawbacks: Almost every advantage of the freelance lifestyle can also be a disadvantage depending on your workplace preferences. Coming up with everything yourself can be quite overwhelming. You have to market yourself, find the clients, and then convince them that you are worth hiring. For some, it can be difficult to work on marketing, selling, and delivering your work simultaneously.

Here’s a hint: If you want to work for yourself, only one option will match your preferences.

Set your rates

After looking through the list of options for your career path, it is time to make a decision. Which way do you want to go? If you choose one of the first three options, your career and pay grade are pretty well set out for you already. However, at IWT, we are all about going freelance and how to get yourself started from the bootstraps up.

So, in our scenario, you have chosen to be a consultant, figured out exactly where you shine, and decided that the only way it will be the most fulfilling is if you do it all for yourself. Now you need to get set up. Of course, one of the first questions any client is going to ask is your price-point. There is always a range of freelance consultants available, from base rates all the way up to the incredibly sought-after experts that charge hundreds of dollars per hour.

Where do you land on this scale? It can be hard to know for sure, but some of your work experience in the past will likely have shown you what you should be worth comparatively. Luckily, we also have a few good rules-of-thumb beginning freelancers can use to make the decision.

1. Double your “resentment number”

Even if you love your work, it often doesn’t feel as good if you think you aren’t getting paid enough to do it. Ask yourself: What is the lowest rate you would work for that would end up making you feel resentful of the job? That might be $15/hour, the rate you would work for at the very least. Double the number, and now you earn $30/hour.

2. Drop three zeros

Close your eyes and imagine your ideal (albeit realistic) annual salary. Now divide it by two and drop three zeros. In other words, if your ideal salary is $80,000 per year, using our equation, you will make $40/hour.

3. Research the next guy

One of the best ways to make sure you are competitive in your niche is to ensure you aren’t too low or too high compared to the next guy. Research what others charge in your area and find a happy medium but the two above numbers and the rate of the next guy.

Land your first client

Once you have made a salary decision, it is time to break into the consulting scene. You can find clients using one of the six proven systems we advocate for at IWT to get freelancers off the ground.

1. Get on Craigslist

It might sound too simplistic, but there is a reason that Craiglist has maintained its reputation for so many years. It is always worth checking to see who might be looking for freelance consultants in your area.

2. Network

As a freelancer, making connections is one of the best things you can do for your business. Keep a lookout for networking events where you might be able to find people who can connect you to job leads. It can also be a great way to build relationships with clients.

3. Figure out where your potential clients frequent

This doesn’t mean low-level stalking. Instead, we mean to go to places where the clients might frequent to get the kind of help and advice you offer professionally. These could be Facebook groups, meetups, or even subreddits.

4. Gain referrals

This is eventually where networking and doing an excellent job for future clients comes to help. Getting referrals from higher-paying clients, friends, and even family can eventually help the client role run a little smoother from job to job.

5. Don’t be afraid of the cold pitch

Craft an enticing and informative email, and you are sure to find some people who engage with you. Even if it doesn’t reap anything right away, starting a conversation now can greatly affect later down the road.

5. Make yourself known on industry-specific job boards

Keep an eye out for local, regional, and international job boards marketing to the industry you want to work in to find available job postings.

Continue your education 

This can be through certifications or further higher education, depending on the level of degree you have now. It is always good to be as competitive as possible. Have you noticed that other consultants within your niche have certain qualifications? They might be worth pursuing.

You can also continue your education in a seemingly less direct way. Try to take on different clients from time to time to stretch your comfort zone. Learn from each project, staying aware of what it might be teaching you as you go along.

Qualities of a good consultant

The qualities of a good consultant can vary within a niche. However, some overarching themes apply to just about any industry. Pamela backed this point up by saying that “Some people assume that you have to have many years of work experience to qualify as a consultant. However, if you have either solid natural consulting skills or very specialized expertise, you can still act in a consulting role even if you can count the number of years you have been in the workforce on the one hand.”

Here are some of the qualities that set a consultant apart when it comes to the real-world application of their skills instead of their on-paper certifications and work experience:

  1. They can see the “big picture” of the organization and see each part fitting together, thus pinpoint what needs work within the “machine” as a whole.
  2. They have excellent interpersonal skills and can relate to people throughout the organization no matter their level.
  3. A good consultant can admit when they are wrong, as is wont to happen when your job is based on your advice and opinions.
  4. They can synthesize significant amounts of data and present it effectively in short order.
  5. They understand change management, particularly in large-scale projects.

Some of these skills are much easier to groom if they come naturally to you. However, being aware of them is your first step. Now you can work on becoming better at each one of these.

Common mistakes new consultants make (and how to avoid them)

Pamela helped us identify the mistakes that many new consultants make. However, don’t get too held up on the word “new” since even very experienced consultants can find themselves falling into these traps.

1. Acting like an arrogant colonist

Coming in as a consultant doesn’t mean that everything existing employees have done is stupid or backward. Instead, treat everyone with dignity and respect, remembering that they are all humans too.

2. Overproducing in the face of the simplification of business communication

Many consultants create 400-slide PowerPoint presentations giving word-for-word of everything they have found while at the company. Unfortunately, most see this as their culminating effort when really, that misses the point. Instead, your key responsibility should be to offer clear, timely advice to help the organization implement results as efficiently as possible.

3. Thinking that you know everything

Since your job is based on your advice, it can sometimes feel like your word is gold. However, you should always remember there is more to learn, and even the most knowledgeable consultants still make mistakes. 

4. Becoming a company clone

When you work for a big organization with strict procedural policies, it can be easy to become a company clone without any personality or unique skill. Instead, aim to mix with people and learn from them to cultivate your skills, even when it might be a smaller cog on a big wheel.

5. Getting too reliant on one client

This mistake is particularly prevalent for freelance consultants. You don’t want to be seen as only one person’s consultant but instead serviceable to other executives and key managers in your niche area. The best strategy is to get to know as many people as possible and build relationships with those that hold the purse strings, even if you have one reliable client helping you meet your budget right now.

Getting into consultancy

Learning how to get into consultancy might seem cut and dry on paper, but you need to be willing to make some pretty clear-cut decisions. 

Like we always say at IWT, there is a limit to how much you can save, but no limit to how much you can earn. We can help you no matter what you want to do with your business, from scaling your consulting business to making more money with your day jobs. 

Start with our best strategies when you use our Ultimate Guide to Making Money to increase your income, start your own business or create more income streams. In addition, we hope that this primer helps you as you consider consulting in your career path.

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