Most people focus on the work that they would do when considering whether they should pursue consulting as a career. Am I a good enough engineer or project manager or designer to command an attractive wage and to stay busy?
While that is definitely the single most important question to ask and answer, it cannot be made in a vacuum.
If you are considering hanging out your shingle as a consultant, the mindset to take is that of a business owner or entrepreneur who is establishing a new company.
That is, in fact, exactly what you are doing. And you have to be prepared and willing to take on all of the functions of a business.
If you think about a typical corporate organization chart, that can be helpful in providing the framework or skeleton that presents everything you’ll need to do as a consultant.
In this article, you’ll find an overview of the marketing, promotion and sales hats you’ll wear as a consultant.
In So You Want to be a Consultant? Part 1, you’ll find an overview of the administrative hats you’ll wear as a consultant.
Let’s kick off this topic with a discussion of branding.
You might be thinking, branding? I’m just a [PROGRAMMER or PROJECT MANAGER or whatever]. Why do I need to be concerned about branding?
When you are a consultant, you are going to be known as the person who _____, whether you are consciously trying to be known that way or not.
Putting some effort into identifying what brand identity you want and then figuring out how you can achieve that is important. A brand identity isn’t just something you say about yourself. It’s something that you do—and that people then mention about you regularly.
As a consultant, you might evolve your brand identity over time. But failing to recognize that you even have one is just begging the world to make one up for you. And you probably won’t like what the world chooses.
Promotion and Marketing
After you have a concept of what brand identity you want to have, you need to create some basic promotional materials. That could be in the form of a Web site, a LinkedIn profile, a business card, a resume, a brochure.
Your options are limitless, and you should decide on what works best for you.
And finally you need a strategy for how you will get word about yourself out. That’s a marketing strategy. When you are first getting started as a consultant, that may be as simple as emailing everyone you know, telling them what you’re up to, and asking them to contact you if they need you.
Of course, you are your own sales person.
You need some way of tracking your prospects. It doesn’t need to be fancy to start. A spreadsheet with names of companies and your contacts there is perfectly adequate.
But as your consultancy grows, you need something a bit more robust. Logging each time you reach out to your contacts, what was discussed and when you should follow up is key.
For instance, if you talk with Mary at ACME on May 1st, and she says that she knows of an initiative coming up in September that might need a contractor like you, then you want to log what was discussed and set a reminder to talk with her again in August to see where things stand.
Many consultants have to write proposals for their work. If that is the case, you’ll want to create a template that has the content you need in all proposals.
Ideally, the template has placeholders where the information that is unique and specific to a project can easily be inserted.
The template should probably be reviewed by a lawyer so you are confident that you are protecting yourself legally. And, as mentioned earlier, when you are given non-disclosure agreements and contracts to sign, they should be given a once-over by an attorney so you’re not committing to something that isn’t in your best interest. While everyone is always in a rush to come to terms, in your role as the sales person, it’s your job to apply the brakes long enough for that legal review.
While the idea of “selling” may be scary, let me assure you that technical people sell best by discussing technical issues—demonstrating their competence by asking great questions and describing times they have solved similar problems. It’s more like a job interview and less like a sales pitch.
As an aside, the primary mistake technical people make when they are stepping through the sales process is telling their prospective customer how to solve a problem.
In their desire to assure a prospect that they are qualified to do the work, they give away the solution for free.
Being able to smoothly negotiate your rates requires some practice and experience, but in time, you will be able to truthfully say that if one customer doesn’t want to hire you at your desired rate, another one will.
Public Visibility and Community Outreach
Lead generation can be one of the most challenging aspects of consulting.
Let’s look at some of the ways in which leads are typically generated:
The common denominator of most lead generation is that it requires a public presence.
Attending technology meet-ups and events that match your area of expertise is a great place to start. Raising your hand to ask questions or add appropriate comments during a presentation is a simple way to demonstrate your expertise. Although it isn’t necessary for you to be a presenter, it certainly doesn’t hurt to do so from time to time. Talking with attendees before and after, asking them where they work and what they do, telling them that you’re a consultant, describing your area of expertise—this is all part of how you establish a solid reputation with people in your community. Then, when they need someone with your expertise, your name will come to mind.
You can achieve much the same result by answering questions on Stackoverflow, participating in hack-a-thons and charity coding events, contributing to open source software development projects—the list of options is endless.
You are showing your skills rather than bragging about yourself. This is often far easier for someone who is not inclined to blow their own trumpet.
If you are a good writer or speaker, you can create a written or video blog.
You have to carve out time to create the product and find placements for it. After a while, you will have a stable of places that you routinely upload to, which eliminates part of the time-consuming aspect of this.
While you certainly can maintain your own Web site, you are more likely to generate leads if you are engaged dynamically with the community that is most likely to need your services.
Coming at this from a different angle, you can spend time looking at job advertisements for contractors and responding to them. Even if you are not selected for a project today, your name and qualifications may be a great match for a project at some point down the road. Most job boards allow you to set up search agents so that interesting opportunities can be emailed to you in digest form on a daily basis.
I recognize that many technology professionals are introverts, and talking about developing a public presence might take you out of your comfort zone. There are many different approaches you can take to creating a presence. Finding one that is right for you is key. If you enjoy doing it—or at least if you don’t dislike doing it—you will be more willing to invest time in it on a weekly basis.
When it comes to closing a deal, being able to present a stack of testimonials from satisfied customers can be very influential.
The thought of asking for one may make you feel uncomfortable, but your customers won’t be surprised or put off by the request.
Ask customers to write a testimonial while the project is fresh. They can write it on letterhead and mail it to you. Or they can make a recommendation on LinkedIn. Whatever your customer is willing to do—accept it.
In the same vein, ask customers whether or not they will act as a reference—if needed. If a customer is satisfied, he or she will typically say yes.
Stay connected with customers on LinkedIn so that if they move on to a new company, you can still reach out to them if needed.
Stout Systems is the software consulting and staffing company Fueled by the Most Powerful Technology Available: Human Intelligence®. Stout was founded in 1993 and is based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Stout has clients across the U.S. in domains including engineering, scientific, manufacturing, education, marketing, entertainment, small business and, yes, robotics. Stout provides expert level software, Web and embedded systems development consulting and staffing services along with direct-hire technical recruiting and placements. If you're looking for a job in the tech industry, visit our job board to see if you qualify for some of our positions. Best of luck to you! If you're looking to hire technical talent for your company, please contact us. This is a career advice article catered to developers, technical project managers, and other technical staff looking to improve their skills.