How to Find Consulting Opportunities
Working a 9-to-5 isn’t for everyone, yet many who are ill suited to desk jobs are afraid to let them go for the riskier life of a consultant. “How will I get clients?” is a common concern, but not one that should prevent you from taking the plunge into freedom.
Establish an area of expertise. Working solo means freedom to craft a unique style of work rather than adapt to a standardized form or schedule in a company. You can be an individual instead of a worker bee and wear shorts and flip-flops to the “office,” a k a, the workspace you’ve set up in the den. “The essence of working for yourself is to distinguish yourself from the group,” said Michael Port, president, Michael Port & Associates. “You do this by basing your business on your unique talents, strengths and expertise.” Port’s company helps self-employed professionals build relentless demand for their business. “If you work solo, have developed specific areas of expertise, and you can find work for those areas of expertise, I think you’re actually a lot more secure than you are if you work for a large company. If you work for a large company, your supervisor can walk in any day of the week and hand you a pink slip, and you’re down to zero. If you’re working for yourself and you’re building your business or you’ve built your business and you lose a client or two, or three, you still have other clients. You’re a free agent who’s working with many different people at a time. You can also get those clients back a lot easier than finding another full-time job.” Port added that a lot of first-time consultants don’t specialize, because they want to appeal to everyone, which is a mistake because no one can appeal to everyone. “The number one reason people buy is on confidence. If they have utter confidence in the fact that you are an expert in a particular situation, if you’re known for a particular thing, they’re much more likely to buy from you,” he explained.
Clearly articulate what you do and how your services fulfill clients’ needs and desires. Port said that in order to stay booked, free agents must focus on the solutions their clients need, not sell them features or science. In order to appeal to potential clients, consultants should take the attention off themselves or their business and services. Instead, solve a problem that’s important to the customer. Identify what problems the client has and which are most important and urgent. That means more listening than telling. Recall the last salesperson who kept pushing those sale items at the back of the store that looked like they’d been through a meat grinder. Or that telemarketer who persists in rattling on about the unimpressive features of a Visa card you don’t need or want. Focus on your customer. Be able to clearly define the root of your prospect’s problems and needs and then let them know specifically how you can assist or solve their issues. “Solutions are interchangeable with investable opportunities,” said Port. “(Consultants) have to articulate what they do in a very, very specific and compelling way. Let’s say you’re a computer programmer. I meet you and I say, ‘What do you do?’ And you say, ‘Oh, I’m a computer programmer.’ It’s super-vague, and I may know someone who’s a computer programmer and have a preconceived notion of what you do. It’s going to be very hard for me to tell other people what you do or even to hire you because we’re not clear on the specific expertise that you bring or the specific solutions that you provide. That’s a big deal because when you work for yourself, most of your clients will come from loose connections. They’ll come from your current clients and from other people who you know only slightly. If you’re not able to really articulate what you do in a way that connects your branded and authentic self to these people, other people are going to have a hard time expressing what you do.”
Cultivate a network. Since some of your business will come from referrals, you’ll need to network to canvas for other clients. Unfortunately the need for networking is one reason a lot of would be IT consultants remain on the company payroll rather than venturing out on their own. Talk to strangers to assess their needs, then sell yourself/your service as the solution? Yikes! “Most people think networking is about getting clients,” said Port. “Fifty percent of your energy should be about putting you and your services in front of potential clients. The other 50 percent should be about creating strategic alliances with other professionals. As a free agent we rely on other free agents to get work. It’s a very important dynamic.” Networking with peers is a lot easier than with strangers, so join professional associations or entrepre-networks, like BNI (Business Network International). These organizations can help create a supportive environment for you to build your business, enabling you to partner with other people and create alliances with industry folk who are familiar with the type of work you do and will go out and recommend your services to others. “You need to be even more respected as a free agent,” said Port. “Working solo does not mean working alone. The free agent or solo professional who tries to work alone is going to wind up frustrated, isolated and overwhelmed, and those three things are the killers of every solo business dream.” Microsoft has an alumni association with a few thousand members who are ex-Microsoft employees. When they get a job and need to bring in other people, they dip into the Microsoft alumni pool to find talent. See? Easy!
The economy’s improving, and things are improving in the land of IT. If you’ve ever considered branching out on your own, now’s as good a time as any. Identify who your ideal clients are. Determine what kinds of individuals, small businesses and large corporations are ideal for you to work with based on your area of expertise. Concentrate your pitch on them, and every time you talk about how you help people or the solutions that you provide, include those ideal clients in your description. Establish yourself as an expert, be able to clearly articulate what you do and how your services provide solutions, and cultivate your network. Port cited a 1996 study that said full-time independent contractors earn an average of 15 percent more than their employed counterparts and are twice as likely to have an income above $75,000 a year. It’s something to think about…
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