The start of something new is critical. Get things right and you will set yourself up for success. Start on the wrong foot and you will waste precious time putting out fires that shouldn’t have been started in the first place.
I made mistakes starting out as a consultant, and I have watched many others make all kinds of blunders. But, in my experience helping new consultants build their businesses (and doing the same myself), there are 5 big things that stand out.
Here is my list of the 5 most common mistakes made when becoming an independent consultant, and what you can do to avoid these pitfalls and succeed.
1. Bringing the wrong attitude to networking
You’ll be hard pressed to find a more essential skill than networking when starting your own consulting firm. Independent consultants survive, thrive or fail on the strength of their network. If you want to thrive, you need to have the right attitude and approach when it comes to networking.
Networking is your opportunity to meet key decision makers and start to sow the seeds of mutually beneficial business relationships. It’s a chance to help them start to perceive value in you and your brand. In short, it’s your opportunity to make a favourable and lasting impression.
Many extremely talented professionals have gone on to cut short promising consulting careers because they have gone about networking the wrong way. It is absolutely not an opportunity for a hard sales pitch.
Never go into a networking situation without first doing your homework on the client. Find out about their business. Try and identify their vulnerabilities and keep some potential ways in which you can help them at the back of your mind. Feel free to give away a few little tips for free. This can be a great way to build value by showing your skills, rather than just talking about them. But be wary of giving too much away for free.
Prospective clients respond well to people they already know, which is why referrals are the bread and butter of so many consulting firms and why starting out with a strong network is so important. Be sure to meet regularly with people whom you already know. These can set up the introductions that will lead to your next lucrative client.
Getting networking right involves keeping a lot of plates spinning and keeping one eye on the short game while keeping another eye on the long game. But master this fine art and your calendar will never be empty!
Master networking and win clients
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2. Not sticking to a schedule
Effective time management is vitally important for an independent consultant. Consultants have a great many demands on their time and attention. Without an orderly schedule, it’s extremely difficult to deliver operational excellence.
Again, an EA can be extremely valuable to time-poor consultants for whom there are never enough hours in the day. Not only can they handle all the administrative duties that come with running a consulting firm, they can help to keep you well organised and on schedule so that you can build as much value as possible into your client interactions.
Your schedule will depend on the specifics of your operation. Nonetheless, an effective schedule should include:
a. Informal meetings
Ideally, you should be meeting 3-6 new people every week, even if it’s just for an informal chat over a coffee. These informal meetings are often where seeds are sown that develop into strong and mutually beneficial relationships.
b. Making connections online
LinkedIn is a fantastic resource for growing and cultivating your network. Reach out to new people; comment on what other people are saying; spend at least an hour a week making yourself part of the conversation. This will keep you at the forefront of prospects’ minds. Ideally, you should also make 5 new connections on LinkedIn every week. Add everyone you meet in person to your online network, and look at turn relationships started digitally into face-to-face meetings.
c. Thought leadership
Speaking of LinkedIn, the platform’s blogging feature can provide great opportunities for thought leadership. Try and write one long piece every month. It’s a great way to establish your knowledge, expertise and capability to new prospects. Like with face-to-face networking, make sure it is ‘value’ focused — no one wants to read on exposition about ‘you great you are’.
We’ve already talked about why research is vitally important. Be sure to dedicate a minimum of 30 minutes to research before every meeting with a client.
3. Thinking everything can be done online — or ignoring the internet entirely
Face-to-face and online interactions are two sides of the same coin. No consultant can expect to grow or maintain their network if they eschew one or the other.
In-person interactions are inherently more persuasive and longer lasting. They’re where the most important deals get made and where the strength of your relationship with your network is cemented. On the other hand, your online interactions give you a much further reach and enable you to communicate with more contacts in a shorter space of time.
With this in mind, it’s essential that you utilise both. How you do this is up to you. You can build and cement relationships in person and then use online platforms to maintain visibility. Alternatively, you can initiate contact with a new prospect online and then capitalise on this with in-person interactions.
Both ways can help you to grow your reach and visibility while getting quality time with the key decision makers who will be the source of lucrative opportunities.
4. Jumping in too fast
It’s not uncommon to feel great trepidation when making the transition to life as a full-time independent consultant. This fear can lead to a lapse in self-confidence which could prevent you from putting your best foot forward and potentially hobble your nascent operation.
The truth is that you don’t have to quit your day job to get the ball rolling. In fact, as long as you’re not using company time and resources to do it, your last few weeks, months or years of salaried work are the perfect time to start growing your network.
Use this time to start reaching out to prospects that could be (or put you in touch with) tomorrow’s clients. Be open and honest with your network and see what they think of you becoming an independent consultant — but remember, don’t bombard them with a sales pitch.
Research and reach out to consulting partnerships and start learning new skills that will enable you to hit the ground running when you’re ready to make the jump. As keen as you may be to leave your current job, don’t underestimate the importance of lining up your crucial first moves as an independent consultant.
5. Thinking you have to do everything yourself
Being an independent consultant offers just that… Independence. But don’t make the mistake of assuming that just because you’re autonomous, you’re alone. Independent consulting means working for yourself, not by yourself.
There’s a wealth of resources available to you to make your operations run more smoothly. For example, hiring an Executive Assistant (EA) can be an extremely effective way of easing the burden of administration and leave you free to do the things that matter most to an independent consultant. It leaves you with more billable hours available to clients and more time for networking and learning new skills.
Independent consultants also have access to training, mentoring, networking opportunities and even access to a pre-existing network through franchised consulting partnerships and associate programmes.
An associate programme can give you access to an existing network of clients so that you don’t have to hustle for your own. However, this invariably comes at a cost. An associate programme will typically take in excess of 50% of your fee and set your day-rates. This option also has opportunity costs when it comes to building your own network. Clients you meet this way won’t be your own, they will remain loyal to the associate programme.
A franchise partnership on the other hand will give you the support that you need to nurture your own network and build an outstanding consulting firm. They can provide you with training and mentorships so that you can grow in both skills and confidence, and you will keep in excess of 80% of day-rates that you set yourself. You have direct access to specialists in a wide array of fields whose advice and insight can help you to round out your skills.
There’s opportunity beyond the pitfalls
Avoiding these commonly made mistakes is vital if you’re to find opportunities within your network and build a personal brand that resonates with your prospective clients.
If you feel unsure about your ability to do this, a good relationship with consulting partnership can help you to steer clear of the pitfalls while capitalising on the opportunities that lie beyond them. Stay positive, grow momentum and start consulting!