The Accomplished Solopreneur

Issue 23.28

Saturday, July 15, 2023

Photo by Amy Hirschi on Unsplash

Before signing the contract: 3 things every consultant needs to know

Consulting is a great way to earn a living. You do what you’re good at, you’re (mostly) not sucked into organizational politics, and you don’t have to worry about goal setting and performance reviews (at least not as an employee).

But every consultant runs into the following situation multiple times:

You get hired for your expertise, but end up just being another cog in the wheel.

To some extent, this is just consulting life. I can’t remember any engagement where I didn’t end up doing at least some things I wasn’t originally hired to do. But there are two big pitfalls you have to watch out for:

  • Losing your perceived value as an expert (in the client organization).
  • Getting stuck for too long.

Getting sidetracked into doing things that are not particularly “expert” is fine as long as it doesn’t represent the majority of the work you do. But you will progressively lose your perceived value as an expert, which leads to being just another cog in the wheel.

And before you know it, you realize you’ve been stuck in that one gig for way too long. The money is as regular as clockwork, work is predictable, you’re building good relationships with your colleagues - until they end the engagement.

To avoid these situations, and ensure they value you for the expert you are, there are three things you need to know before you sign the contract.

Before signing the contract: 3 things every consultant needs to know

Here are the top 3 things you need to make sure of before you sign the contract. Ideally, these will be part of your contract.

1. Be very clear about why they’re hiring you

A client will hire you for one of two fundamental reasons:

  • They don’t have the expertise to solve the problem.
  • They have the expertise, but don’t have the time.

The best kind of consulting engagement is where you represent the expertise they don’t have. With some care, you will be able to maintain your perceived value as an expert, and it will be easier to lead and steer your client in the right direction.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with being hired to fill in a gap in their resources. Many organizations will hire consultants as project managers - in principle at least, a project has a start and an end, and you know exactly what needs to be delivered, and when you will be done.

But be aware that your value as an “expert” is going to be more difficult to maintain. Over time, you will find yourself doing more work you were not originally hired for - again, this is OK, but be very aware of where this is leading.

2. Be very clear about resources

It’s very rare to work on a consulting engagement completely on your own. In anything sizeable, there are going to be other consultants and/or client personnel involved.

Make sure these resources are aware they will be working with you, and they have time set aside to do the work. If you will be leading the work, make sure they understand what authority you will have.

There’s nothing worse than showing up for a meeting and finding half your resources are too busy to participate. The quality of your work will suffer, and ultimately your client will pay the price because the work won’t get done (or take longer and cost more).

Make sure you pay attention to other kinds of resources as well. If you need materials, systems or equipment, make sure these will be available.

And of course there needs to be financial resources. Your cost as consultant will be agreed in your contract - but this is rarely the only cost the client will incur.

3. Put numbers to success

There’s nothing worse than working on a consulting engagement where success is not clearly defined. Not only will you be unable to make good decisions, but your client is more likely to move the goal posts half way through the project.

Before I start any consulting engagement, I ask the client “what does success look like?”.

Your client’s answers will be very revealing:

  • “We have a better website” is not measurable. Success is going to based on someone’s opinion.
  • “Our website gets more visitors” is slightly better but still not measurable.
  • “Our website traffic grows by 10% per month” is measurable and something you can aim for.

Here’s the key:

Success should be quantifiable and measurable. If you can put numbers to it, you can point to the numbers to demonstrate that you’ve delivered.

Sometimes you can’t put hard numbers to success. For example, it can be difficult to measure how much you improved employee engagement. But you can (in this example) list “before” and “after” behaviours. Just be careful of anecdotal evidence - one example of how things worked or didn’t work does not constitute success or failure.

Consulting is about delivering desirable outcomes

There’s more than the above 3 things that go into a successful consulting engagement. But fundamentally, every consulting engagement should deliver desirable outcomes for your client.

To deliver desirable outcomes, you need to know:

  • Where they are now (the problem)
  • Where they want to be (what success looks like)
  • How they will know they got there (how we will measure it)
  • What you will need along the way (resources et al).

Include at least the 3 things above in your conversations with your client. The more detailed you get, and the better you define success, the better your chances of succeeding and delivering the desired outcomes.