Around 60 million people are projected to be self-employed in the US by 2020. In other words, expect your freelance consultant competition to get steadily fiercer.
That means you need to develop the skills and acquire the tools necessary to succeed in the growing gig economy. For example, you need to be up to speed on remote work software and cloud applications.
If you’ve struggled to get your freelance consulting business off the ground, we’ve identified some of the key areas you need to focus on.
Let’s jump in and take a look.
Choose Your Niche
Your freelance consultant niche should be a small area of an industry that interests you, you know about, and commands a market. For many people, that interest and expertise stem from a day job.
If a senior information technology manager at a hospital likes her work, she’s well positioned to become an IT consultant for healthcare organizations. She’s got the expertise, the interest, and healthcare is a growing market.
On the other hand, you may be interested in and know a lot about craft beer brewing. There may not be a substantial enough market for a craft brew consultant to make it a full-time job. That makes craft brewing your hobby, not your niche.
Bear in mind that you don’t need a college education to specialize in a niche. It’s entirely possible to become an expert in, for example, small business marketing without picking up a degree.
What matters is that you can deliver on the promise of specialization. Delivering means you’re able to offer the deep insights that generalists can’t.
Hone Your Soft Skills
Most businesses bring in a freelance consultant when something needs to change. The trouble is that organizations resist change almost on reflex. That means you’ll need soft skills like adaptability, conflict resolution, and good communication.
Let’s say you’re a human resources consultant and you’ve pinpointed the HR software as the main problem. You’re probably going to see resistance at least two or three levels.
The HR staff isn’t going to want to deal with the learning curve on new software. The owner or executives may not understand the nuances well enough to see the need. Odds are that everyone will argue about the cost.
You’ll need to communicate the problem to everyone in such a way as to create buy-in for the idea of the change. That often means adapting the information and delivery method to meet the needs of different audiences. You’ll probably need to talk everyone off the ledge about the cost, which will draw on your conflict resolution skills.
You need to practice soft skills to hone them and may not want to do it on the job. A good stand-in for work is volunteering with a group that conducts teamwork-focused activities. These activities should give you a chance to practice most, if not all, of the soft skills you’ll use on the job.
Schedules and Organization
There’s this myth about freelancers working when they want to work, but in consulting it isn’t quite true. At best, freelancers have a little more flexibility.
If you intend to be a freelance consultant, you need to be available when your clients are at work to answer questions or be on-site. The best way to do that is to establish and stick to a schedule. This is where that flexibility comes into the picture.
You don’t need to be at your desk at 7:45 every morning. You can set your schedule from 10 am to 6 pm and tell clients that’s when you’re available. Most people will respect those hours.
The catch is that you must actually be ready to work at 10 am. If a client calls at 10:15 and it’s clear the call woke you up, you look unprofessional. That’ll make the client less likely to recommend you or rehire you later.
If you’re consistently available when you say you’ll be available, you look professional.
The other thing a freelance consultant can do to boost their credibility is getting organized. What did you think the last time you dealt with someone who wasn’t organized? You probably thought something like, “Man, they need to get it together.”
Clients will think the same thing about you if you show up frazzled or without the right materials. Develop a system for keeping track of scheduled calls, meetings and what you need for them.
Freelance Consultant Contract
Do you have a contract template? If not, it’s time to start developing one.
A contract protects you in numerous ways.
It defines the scope of work. Let’s say a business hires you to evaluate and make recommendations on their workflow. You hash out the specifics of what they want and how you’ll deliver.
Once you start, the business starts adding things to their wish list of what you’ll do. The temptation is to just do it to keep the work, but that kind of scope creep can add days of unpaid labor to a job. The contract gives you the leverage to say no because it’s outside the agreement.
The freelance consultant contract locks in your rates. Whether you charge a standard fee or negotiate on a per job basis, it should go into the contract. That way there can’t be any dispute after the fact about what you said you’d charge.
A contract lets you build in safeguards against cancellation. Say a client decides they don’t want your services halfway through the job. If you build in a cancellation fee, you haven’t wasted days or weeks of your life with no compensation.
Leverage Passive Income Methods
Not every business can afford to hire a freelance consultant, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need help. It’s possible to help those businesses and make some money with passive income methods.
Let’s say your approach to consulting has three main phases. Let’s call them Investigation, Recommendation, and Implementation. You can write an ebook about your approach or break it into shorter e-books about each phase.
You could also put together a video course and make it available on DVD or through on-demand streaming. Just be aware that both approaches have some hurdles.
You’ll probably need a fulfillment service for the DVDs. For on-demand video, you’ll need to make sure your website hosting plan includes enough bandwidth to support streaming.
The beauty of these passive income generators is that they serve multiple ends.
Cash-strapped businesses can still access some of your knowledge without paying full price. It helps to get and keep your name in circulation. You make some money without investing any additional time.
Make Smart Hires
When you first start out as a freelance consultant, expect to handle everything from marketing to finances yourself. As your consulting business grows, though, your available time to deal with all of those details will shrink.
You can automate some things. Most banks offer some level of bill payment and many services will auto-charge a credit card or checking account.
Other things require a human being and this is where you need to consider your own weaknesses.
If you aren’t a genius at finance, you should probably hire a bookkeeper as soon as the finances allow for it. They’ll keep the books in order and help you stay on top of invoicing. Best of all, many bookkeepers are willing to work part-time from their own office or yours.
You’ll also want to find an accountant with experience helping small businesses. An accountant deals with your taxes, which you always want to get right. They can also provide you with some big picture, strategic advice about capital management.
Consultants that need to travel a lot often find personal assistants invaluable. They can hold down the fort, field questions, assist with scheduling, and prioritize messages. If your current office won’t support another body, you can hire a virtual PA who works remotely.
The time you aren’t spending on finances, marketing, and fielding calls is time you can devote to clients.
Sooner or later, a consulting job will go sideways on you and end in failure. The problem is that the failure can have ongoing, negative effects on your confidence.
Surviving in business and especially after failure requires some resilience. You need to be able to brush yourself off and get back to work. Your next client will expect you to bring your A game.
If you’re struggling to get back on the horse after a failure, there are some things you can do.
Turn to a mentor and walk them through the entire scenario. Maybe they’ll confirm your fears that you screwed up. If so, do your best to avoid those mistakes later.
The likely result is a more complex analysis. They’ll probably point out things you mishandled and the things you couldn’t have avoided. The simpler assurance that it wasn’t all your fault can boost your confidence.
Get away from work for a day and be social. Socializing is good for your mental health. Getting away from the problem for a little while can allow for some perspective on it.
If you can pinpoint the failure to one of your weak spots, you can fix that by hiring someone who’s good in that area. You can even turn it into a selling point for future clients.
Killing it in the freelance consultant arena means juggling a lot of priorities. You need to pick a niche, refine your soft skills, get organized and even worry about contracts. That’s all before you even consider passive income, hiring help or how you’ll deal with a failure.
It sounds like a lot because it is a lot, but you can do it. The trick is to work on one or two areas until you have a solid handle on them, then move to the next.
If you have any questions or concerns about setting up your freelance consultant business, don’t hesitate to contact us today.