So You Want To Go Solo?

Consulting takes knowledge, daring, persistence and willingness to listen

by Joe Conklin

Ever dream of branching out on your own? Ever wonder what it takes to consult effectively in the quality field? You might be interested in the stories of John, Andrew and Jim, who recently shared their experiences with me.

They all work in the Midwest but pursued different paths to consulting. John consults part-time while working full-time as a quality practitioner for a major metals producer. He has 33 years of experience in the quality field.

Andrew started consulting full-time in midcareer after leaving full-time employment in the automotive supply industry. Jim began to consult after taking early retirement in 1995 following a 30-year career spanning production, safety and quality management.

So how did they all get started? John was always intrigued by the idea of consulting. When a quality assurance (QA) manager and close friend invited him to participate in a part-time consulting venture, John thought it was a golden opportunity to test the waters.

After 21 years in the organizational bureaucracy of a large corporation, Andrew was ready to cut the ties. He wanted to use his extensive knowledge of manufacturing to assist small businesses--a segment he believed was frequently overlooked by many consulting firms.

Jim's interest was ignited after his late career promotion to total quality management manager of his plant. He found he enjoyed helping organizations improve their performance. Waiting until retirement allowed him to adjust to a new lifestyle and experiment as a consultant for both a large consulting firm and for his own concern.

What does it take?

What does it take to be an effective consultant? All three men offer similar advice. John suggests an extensive, hands-on knowledge of quality techniques, a strong sense of urgency to use the techniques right the first time and a willingness to talk to clients in their own language.

Andrew recommends a strong educational grounding in practices your clients can see are reasonable and effective. Good consultants must be flexible in their approaches--clients' needs have a way of being different from what they first articulate. Besides being excellent listeners, consultants also must diligently promote their services to all levels of company management. Jim agrees with the importance of in-depth knowledge and experience. Equally important is a real desire to serve clients.

How do these quality professionals find customers for their services? John fills his part-time hours through referrals from satisfied clients. Andrew takes a big picture view of the trends unfolding in the automotive industry, trying to anticipate his customers' future needs. Offering new variations of tools and techniques helps to attract business from both old and new clients.

Jim finds most of his work through referrals. He also does some free presentations and workshops for member firms of the local chamber of commerce. These provide good promotional opportunities.

Preparing for new business

What should a consultant think about before accepting new business? John likes to study the client's business and people very closely. He asks a lot of questions and sometimes seeks the perspective of other consultants who have served a particular company.

Andrew asks himself whether he feels comfortable working with a possible client. This applies not only to the executive point of contact but to all the people he might work with on a daily basis during a project. Whether expectations can be defined clearly at the start is also a factor to weigh.

Besides making sure his services match the client's needs, Jim also makes sure he can devote the proper time to a potential project. He interviews the client at the same time the client interviews him--to judge whether the company is committed to making the changes it is asking for.

How do John, Andrew and Jim see their future in the QA consulting business? John thinks he will continue to consult past retirement age--even though he has no plans to actually retire. Andrew might scale back some in retirement but has no intention of leaving the scene completely. There are too many possibilities to leverage his 40 plus years of experience. Jim is not retiring either. The rewards, flexibility and travel possibilities remain a great draw.

One thing seems clear: Consulting is not for those desiring routine and low risk. For those with the knowledge, daring, persistence and willingness to listen, however, the rewards more than make up for the surprises.

JOSEPH D. CONKLIN is a statistician with the U.S. Census Bureau, designing sampling plans for assessing the quality of Census 2000 operations. He coordinated development of the information system to track the quality of printed census forms. Conklin earned a master's degree in statistics from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and holds the following ASQ certifications: quality engineer, reliability engineer, quality auditor, quality manager and software quality engineer.

If you would like to comment on this article, please post your remarks on the Quality Progress Discussion Board, or e-mail them to editor@asq.org.

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