Making the Jump
Should you quit your day job and become a consultant?
by Jack B. ReVelle
Most kids dream about becoming a famous athlete, a movie or rock star, or perhaps even an astronaut. In my case, I considered becoming a professional cartoonist. Like many dreams, that one came and went. I eventually earned three degrees in engineering. After obtaining sufficient education, experience and confidence, I went out on my own as a management consultant specializing in statistical data analysis, customer satisfaction and continuous quality improvement.
- At some point in your career, you may aspire to become a full-time management consultant, just as I did. Avoid making a hasty decision, and ask yourself:
- Do I have the right credentials to make the move?
- When and how should I make the move?
- Should I start part-time?
- What should my specialty be?
- Who are my potential clients?
- How do I attract clients?
- How will potential clients find me?
- Who are my competitors?
- What do my competitors charge for their services?
- Am I willing and able to travel?
- How and where should I market my services?
- Should I focus on one or more particular industries?
- Should I obtain relevant certifications?
- Should I join an existing consulting firm or create my own?
Now, I’ll offer my thoughts on some of the top concerns for aspiring consultants based on my experience.
Credentials are what potential clients look at first. Your experience should include industries and functions that assure potential clients you have a full understanding of their situations. Your certifications should indicate your skills and knowledge. Your education should first reflect your highest degree, followed by lesser degrees. Potential clients also will want assurance that there will be good chemistry between you and their organization.
Timing is critically important when making the move to full-time management consultant. The status of the economy, especially in your specialty businesses and industries, must be considered, particularly if you’re starting with minimum capital and a short list of potential clients.
Part time vs. full time
If you prefer to operate solo, the probability for long-term success increases if you begin consulting on a part-time basis while you’re still employed full time. This is how I began my consulting career and built a client base without sacrificing my income. In fact, this modus operandi helped me acquire sufficient savings to protect my family’s lifestyle when I became a full-time consultant. When you’re just starting, one or more of your potential clients will ask you if you’ve done similar work for other organizations. Anticipating this, I provided pro bono assistance to nonprofits such as Goodwill Industries. The only request I made of these organizations was that they agree to become a reference.
The number of consulting specialties seems endless. What you know best and are known for is probably the best place to start, whether it’s auditing, healthcare, customer service or lean Six Sigma. You can expand your range of services after starting, just as I did.
At the outset of your management consulting career, the number and type of your potential clients are theoretically unlimited. Being realistic, however, there will be some important restrictions—some self-imposed. Restrictions include factors such as your areas of specialization, tolerance for travel, your reputation, your preferences regarding types of clients (size: large, medium or small; ownership: public vs. private; age: old vs. new; and others).
Whether you’re starting solo or working with others, you must let your world of potential clients know that your consulting services are available for hire. There are many ways to attract potential clients. The following are just a few ideas that have worked for me:
- Write articles for publication in professional magazines and journals relevant to your target client base.
- Write and publish professional books and have them reviewed in the same professional journals.
- Deliver presentations to chapter and national meetings of professional societies such as ASQ, the Institute of Industrial Engineers or the American Society of Safety Engineers.
- Deliver webinars and webcasts under the auspices of the same professional societies.
- Network by attending chapter and national meetings of the same professional societies.
The reasoning behind these ideas is repetition: The more your name is seen and heard by your potential clients, the more likely it will be recognized, remembered and recalled when a person with your skills, experience and education is needed. It’s not much different than marketing products and services.
You must have a professional website that details previous projects and what you can do for potential clients. I’m sure mine isn’t perfect, but visit www.revellesolutions.com for some ideas to include. Many management consultants promote their availability in classified ads in journals. I’ve never used this tactic, but I assume some consultants find them worthwhile based on the continued appearance of some ads.
When you’re having your business cards designed, make good use of the back side to let potential clients know about your skills, education and experience. Using social media sites such as LinkedIn is another way to establish lines of communication and spread the word regarding your management consultancy.
When you’re running a race, it’s clear who the competition is. When you’re competing for a consultant job, it’s not always clear. Only twice in all my years of consulting have I learned who my competitors were, by accident. Your competition could be working solo or might be part of a consulting organization. Whichever the case, don’t depend on knowing who your competition is to give you a competitive advantage.
When you’re a consultant, discovering what your competitors charge for their services is not like comparison shopping for groceries. Consultants don’t openly advertise so everyone can compare prices. This is one of the most difficult, if not impossible, challenges you’ll face. Gaining this information is unlikely, unless you have a knowledgeable friend on the inside of a competitor or clients willing to divulge this information.
Are you willing or able to be away from home much of the time? Are you willing to drive or fly from your home territory to serve clients hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away? Are you willing to put up with the security restrictions and inconveniences associated with travel? As a long-time management consultant, I quickly determined that my tolerance for travel was limited.
After contact is made between you and a potential client, it’s time for you to become the right person for whatever jobs the client’s contact person describes. You must be alert and engaging. Listen for key words or phrases that clarify the client’s major concerns. Demonstrate your ability to get along with individuals at a variety of organizational levels. Indicate how you’ve successfully resolved similar problems in the past. If it’s necessary to demonstrate concepts using graphics on a flipchart or white board, be sure to obtain prior permission from the client’s contact person.
You may believe you have the capability to identify all of your client’s problems and quickly solve them. I recommend, however, that you focus efforts on whatever problem the potential client believes is most important. There’s nothing more irritating to clients than summarily dismissing their assessments of their processes. If you believe clients are off base in their understanding of what must be done, present your best explanation of the situation and what you believe should be done to rectify it without stepping on toes.
Clients want their management consultants to have appropriate credentials. If your educational achievements are limited to a bachelor’s or master’s degree, acquiring certifications is a good idea. If you hold a doctorate, certification can still be an attractive feature on your résumé. As a management consultant, consider obtaining a certified management consultant designation through the Institute of Management Consultants.
Solo vs. team
Decide whether to work alone, form a consultancy with others or join an existing consulting organization. There are advantages and disadvantages to each option.
Ask for advice
I hope this food for thought helps you start thinking about whether you want to make your dream of management consulting a reality. You’ll be the final decision maker, but it might be a good idea to discuss your thoughts with someone who has been down this path before. They will no doubt help you cut through the clutter and find the best solution for your future.
Jack B. ReVelle is a consulting statistician at ReVelle Solutions LLC in Santa Ana, CA. He earned a doctorate in industrial engineering and management from Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. ReVelle is the author of several books, including Home Builder’s Guide to Continuous Improvement (CRC Press, 2010). ReVelle is an ASQ fellow and a 2012 recipient of the ASQ Shainin Medal.