How to make it in consulting – ten tips for success

It seems to me that as the years roll by, the world becomes an ever tougher place in which to do business. We have a global recession which has hit everyone in the Western world hard and it has changed the way people buy. I believe, permanently.

Gone are the “golden” days of consulting where big corporates would spend thousands of dollars a day on “consultants” – nearly fresh out of university and certified, but with no experience and in many cases no real talent. That ship sailed and I believe the world is better for it. If you want to make it in consulting you have to be valuable to the people that you work for – and take that value from customer to customer, building along the way.

So with all this in mind, here are my top ten tips on how to make it in consulting.

1) Be single-minded in your success

It’s perhaps pretty obvious but this point comes first because it overarches the other nine points. Regardless of whether you are a contract resource or if you work for a huge consulting outfit like Deloitte, there is only one person who really looks after you: you.

Your consulting manager, customer, HR department, coach, mentor and all the other people around you are enablers to your success. They can be catalysts and value multipliers, but you are the only person responsible for it. You are responsible for everything that follows and no one else can make it happen for you.

2) Be prepared to work beyond 9-5

I’m not saying that you need to work 80 hour weeks or sell your soul to lucifer himself, but successful consultants don’t work 9-5 any more. If you’re a chargeable resource then you spend 9-5 working at a customer and whilst you may be learning, you are not broadening your horizons. You need to spend some time beyond 9-5 furthering your career in whatever way you choose best. Blogs, webinars, seminars, conferences, books. It’s your career, do it your way.

For example, I’m on vacation this week. This blog is part of my brand and I had the idea for this post in my head – and so I’m relaxing with a pretty vista, writing. I’m good with that and it will get the idea that has been bugging me out my head.

3) Be an expert in something saleable

As many of you know, I run a consulting practice and it is full of intelligent, driven individuals – as it should be. But there are some people who you can never book onto a project because they are always busy. Sticky, we call them. One of the key differentiating factors with those people is they are an expert in something. But don’t be “me-too” – find something niche that you are good at and learn everything there is to know.

Don’t be intimidated by people who have power-brands – you don’t need to start by emulating them. Just being great at something that customers want to buy is good enough.

4) Create a personal brand around it

Consulting is rather similar to prostitution – you are selling yourself for money. The better your brand value, the more saleable you are. And creating a personal brand couldn’t be easier. Take your area of expertise. Create social media accounts in places like LinkedIn and explain your expertise. Now write about it somewhere on the internet. A personal blog, a work blog, an industry website – whatever works for you.

If you’re worried about writing, then get over yourself. It’s tough and we all get writers block sometimes. Just tell what you know.

5) Share knowledge compulsively

There was a mantra in consulting for a long while that consultants need to build their IP and sell it onto the next customer. I believe this is nonsense – you will get much more pull if people perceive you to be an expert in an area than if you horde information.

Share compulsively – it is nearly impossible to go too far here. If your customers do the simple stuff themselves and bring you in for the value-add, that is a far better and more interesting situation to be in. In the meantime you will get respect from your peers in the market.

6) Build a network

Your network is one of your most important assets. Build it unashamedly! Make sure that you have a quick pitch on who you are and what you do – one or two sentences please – so that you can explain yourself to new potential stakeholders. Hand out business cards and get them back. Add those people on LinkedIn.

And remember when you build a network that you choose your peers – no one else does that to you. Treat those people you want to be your peers as peers and they will make that leap for you. Also, make sure you network with people more experienced and more intelligent than yourself. This is where the learning happens.

7) Learn to communicate to your stakeholders

This sounds so obvious but I see it so often, especially in the technology field in which I work. A consultant explains something to a customer and their eyes glass over as the consultant explains the wonderful workings of the amazing solution they just created. It’s good to be passionate but even better to explain it in their terms.

Learn your stakeholders, empathise with their perspective and talk to them in words they understand. And make sure you don’t patronise them in the process!

8) Challenge your customers

Great consultants challenge customers all the time. Be careful not to be overtly disruptive in the way you do this – but they are paying for your expertise, and this means not blindly gathering requirements and going off and delivering something back to your customer.

What it means is you listen to what they say they want. You use your past experience and theory to challenge their thinking. If you think they are getting it wrong – tell them and tell them why they are wrong, what you think the right answer is and explain your thinking and justification in detail.

I’ve used this approach on some very senior people and provided you have content and knowledge and you are not arrogant, they will respect you for it every time and come back for more advice.

9) Don’t be afraid to be pushy

The world is owned by pushy people. I’m not saying that this means you have to be loud, abrasive, arrogant pushy and you definitely need to weave this into your personality rather than to have a personality transplant! What I’m saying is that you have to be prepared to push for what you want to achieve.

And much of the time if you ask, you get.

10) Empathise: learn to be humble

This is perhaps the hardest thing of all. With your brand, network, depth of knowledge, you are supposed to challenge customers and be pushy. But if you do this and you’re not humble with it, you won’t gain the empathy of your customer and they won’t open up to you.

This is genuinely difficult and you have to be prepared to learn. Remember this: most of the time, the customer knows their business really well. You know your subject matter really well. A good consulting output is when you mix your experience and subject matter expertise, with their knowledge of their business and come up with something special. That’s where the magic is.

Final Words

This may sound like a daunting and difficult list of things to achieve, especially if you are new to consulting. If you feel that way then I have two things to say to you: first, knock these points off one by one. It will take time and that’s OK. Second, toughen up princess! Consulting is a potentially lucrative, but tough career.

I’ve you’re reading this and have something to add then please comment. I don’t pretend to have all the answers – I just hope that this reaches a few people and helps them bring success to their customers.

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5 Responses to How to make it in consulting – ten tips for success

  1. Johannes Lombard says:

    Fantastic article. If you’re mantra is hitting these daily the rest takes care of itself. So happy to see # 8 as well.

  2. Jay Riddle says:

    I love it. Especially agree with 4 through 6. Two career coaching posts in one day. The other from Dallas, but specific to building a solid resume for SAP BusinessObjects professionals:

    • John Appleby says:

      Glad you enjoy it and it’s obviously just my thoughts – though I do work with a lot of consultants and think there are some trends between the good and the great.

  3. Jon Reed says:

    John, agree 100 percent with your view that the economy has fundamentally changed consulting. Now it is about the pursuit of excellence because without that, you won’t make the cut in the long term. You have described the process of developing a marketable expertise and building a network out of it perfectly.

    I would add that I think there has to be a passion driving your efforts. I call it the “airport book” test sometime. If you’re willing to lug a 1,000 page book on your expertise on a plane because of your fierce commitment to the topic, that’s a good sign. Of course an ebook reader is fine also, the point is being willing to READ that book.

    The only thing I would add is to me the best consultants are not just subject matter experts, but client advisors. That means expanding the reach of your network beyond a vendor community and into the “blogosphere” where you want to understand your field as a whole. Knowing some of the experts who analyze the trends in CRM, for example, and following their work, can be an invaluable add to hands-on experts that you also forge alliances with.

    Good stuff. Of course if you’re an SAP or ERP person then there’s the whole techno-functional angle and knowing how to bridge the gaps between IT and business. I guess there is that piece where you go beyond being humble and client-focused to becoming highly skilled at pulling the business requirements out of users and matching those into the solution. Guy Couillard, who is an expert is soft skills development, has told me he thinks “eliciting business requirements” is THE underrated skill for ERP consultants.

  4. Emmanuel says:

    Hi John,
    I’m a new reader of your blog and really appreciate your posts.
    About your second point, I was wondering if there were some great blog(gers) in the IT enterprise sphere you would recommend reading?

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