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Industry Discussion

Why We Need Consultants

As with any contractor, freelancer or even micro / small business owner, consultants tend to have a specialty that they excel in, which is usually the provision of a particular service or skill. A consultant is sometimes defined as an expert in a specific field, but in fact all a consultant has to know about a specific field is "more than the client". Not to downplay the highest level of services that a client should expected from a consultant, but this does lead to the main thrust of why we people consult.

One of the analogies we can use is that a consultant is just another, albeit very special, piece of a much larger jig-saw. That piece, as small as it is, will certainly leave a "hole" in the big picture if it is not correctly identified and used in the right manner.

Typically clients will need specialists to consult on very specific needs that, for a variety of reasons, is not practical to be addressed by the client's own staff. These reasons could include:

  • The specialist skill is not part of the client's mainstream skill set;
  • The need is very short term, in which case it is not practical to hire permanent staff;
  • There may be a short term work overload situation where, even if the client has suitably skilled staff, there may be inadequate internal resources to meet schedule;
  • Even though the client may have suitably qualified staff, an external cold hard look will see things differently and could be invaluable in solving difficult problems, or assisting from a strategic viewpoint;
  • A consultant usually works with a number of clients, and so can bring broader industry viewpoints to the table, instead of just the "internalised" one that a client can harbour;
  • A consultant, especially on short term assignments, will not usually be influenced by the clients' internal political alliances and management posturing, and so should be able to return cold and unbiased results and recommendations.

Why Consult?

As a consultant, you are in a position to have some influence over an individual, a group, or an organization, but usually have no direct power to actually make the changes or implement programs. (In some cases you may also be hired to do the latter, in which case you become a "manager", albeit usually for a short term assignment as per our definition in the section above.)

For this reason, being able to consult has great attractions and rewards for some people, both in financial and personal achievement terms. The sense of "making a difference" can a great driver, but it is not without stress and risk. There is great leverage in tackling, addressing and solving specific and usually key issues which can result in substantial benefits for the client. Sometimes consultants can be change-agents, even if they don't actually implement the changes themselves. They will usually have access to higher and more authoritative levels of the client's management team, primarily because it was probably senior management that hired the consultants, and so the ability to "influence" can be significant.

The offset is the stress and the risk that, should the assignment not go well, there is an equally great leverage on the downside if things go wrong.

Skills Needed to Consult

As with running any venture, it is preferable if you are "not the shy type". Being a "geek", or having highly specialised skills, does not necessarily mean you can consult.

Yes, it is essential that you have high technical skills (technical in the sense as it relates to your particular area of expertise), but just as important are highly developed interpersonal and influencing skills, as is the ability to "run a business" (if you want to make money and stay around for a while), as are the analytical skills that allow you to fully define what the task at hand is, how it is to be tackled, how to determine the end goal and how will it be achieved, how to plan and implement the assignment, how to measure progress, how to manage perceptions, how to manage your client, how to get paid for your expertise, etc, etc.

Who Hires Consultants?

Businesses, governments, non-profit agencies, and even individuals may hire consultants for their specialist skills, and / or for short term need.

For example, accountants, tax attorneys and auditors may be needed at tax or financial reporting times. Marketing consultants can be hired to prepare campaigns and materials for tradeshows. A non-profit agency might hire a consultant to help roll out internal management processes, or an IT system. Government departments and individual politicians need speechwriters, editors and public affairs consultants, especially for those more delicate issues where public perception may need to be carefully managed. Career and / or organisational coaches help improve an individual's or a whole department's negotiation skills, organisational competencies, and even help implement a strategy for managing a difficult business transition.

Who Can Consult?

Although many consulting fields are not regulated, remember that if you set yourself up to consult, and provide advice in an area that you claim to have expert or superior knowledge in, there are many commercial and legal liabilities that need to be managed. In essence, when you arrange to provide these services in return for some (financial) gain, the client has a right to be able to rely on your services, and will likely have an equal right to sue for damages. Consultants are setting themselves up as a business in this situation, so insurances (including professional indemnity insurances in some cases), the Trades Practices Act, and all the other obligations that go with running a business need to be attended to (Refer to other articles in our blog).

For example, anyone can claim to be a marketing consultant, tech support consultant, business management consultant, public relations consultant, writer, editor or graphic designer, usually without formal credentials. If you are a client, then you will need to spend time, and be diligent, in reviewing the industry credentials of consultants in the more general fields.

For the professional areas, such as accounts, lawyers, engineers, and such like, there are association bodies that look after managing their credentials and which can be accessed to ensure the consultants have the necessary qualifications. However, as a client, you would still be well advised in doing some research with their past clients, to be able to judge the potential of their performance with you. Trusted referrals are still the best source of information.

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