Independent Consulting Do's and Don'ts

January 12, 2016

I saw a former colleague recently who knows that I'm greatly enjoying working as an independent consultant. He's thinking of doing the same, so he asked if there was anything I wish I had known before I began. It was a great question and gave me the chance to reflect over the last several years.

As I did, my ideas fell into do's and don'ts. Or more realistically, what to try to do and what to try and not do, whenever possible.

Drawing on my experiences, I've combined guidance that others had shared with me before I began along with ideas about what I wish I had known. I hope the following overview will help individuals thinking about working as an independent consultant or who may already be doing so.

DO

1. Take the time to assess if you want to be on your own or partner (formally or informally) with others.

This is a foundational point. Being solo means having primary responsibility for business development and related matters.

2. Decide the "back office" model with which you're comfortable.

There are options if you want to handle all the business related activities (e.g., invoices and billings; expenses; tax withholdings) or if you want to engage an individual or company to do so.

3. Reach out to others in and outside the field in which you hope to consult.

This may be obvious but it's also a good litmus test to gauge your comfort level at making the kinds of overtures needed for successful business development.

4. Err on the side of setting expectations early and clearly with a potential client.

Prepare a checklist of issues that can be used for your initial meeting. Such a list could cover such core questions as anticipated length of the project, specifics about your role, fees and payment terms, and expenses that will or won't be reimbursed.

5. Be alert to the possibility that a client wants your participation only for the benefit your credibility and expertise add to their project or response to a solicitation.

Colleagues of mine have been listed as experts on successful submissions and then their services have not been used.

6. Establish time and fee terms upfront when a client is preparing a proposal.

The client may want your active participation throughout the entire process. Award decisions can take weeks or even months. Decide how much time you can devote either for free or at a reduced rate and get this established with the client before agreeing to participate.Trying to raise this issue later on can mean a less than satisfactory answer from the client.

DON'T

1. Undervalue your expertise when setting fees.

This can feel difficult and uncomfortable especially when first starting. It is also an individual decision based on many variables. Fees are often set at lower levels in order to build a practice or based on the nature of the client (e.g., non-profit).

2. Hesitate to request contract status updates from the client.

Every client will have unique contract processes. However, it can be a red flag if too much time elapses before you receive your engagement document. Vague, or no, communications can provide insights about the manner in which a potential client operates.

3. Assume a client will always know with whom you need to meet or work.

Let the client know when you need to meet or work with others. You want to be productive and efficient as that will help you advance the client's goals and project.

4. Feel uncomfortable raising your hourly or project fee for future clients.

This is important to remember especially if you set lower fees when starting out.

Finally, is there anything else I wish I had known before starting out? Yes -- expect and embrace the unanticipated situations you will encounter. Those situations are learning experiences that add to making independent consulting a challenging and exhilarating professional adventure.

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