By Kenneth W. Davis, Komei, Inc. and Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, and Dan Dieterich , Business Writing Consultant, and University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point
Do you have what it takes to be a consultant?
Consulting requires a willingness to accommodate to a client’s needs. It also requires the temperament, time, and energy to promote yourself. Decide whether you have these qualities.
Have you decided what kind of consulting to do?
Communication consultants conduct training programs in a wide variety of areas, including listening, speaking, reading, writing, and nonverbal communication. Some also provide other services, such as delivering keynote speeches, editing technical publications, or writing computer manuals. Choose your offerings carefully, to match your own skills and the market’s needs and rewards.
Have you decided how you will provide your services?
Some consultants work independently; others work with a partner or as an employee of a consulting firm. Still others provide their services through their college or university outreach program. Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages.
Rules & Regulations
Have you become familiar with local licensing requirements?
In some communities, for example, you have to register your business name if it is not your own. Call your local Small Business Administration, or similar, office for information on following local business regulations.
Have you become familiar with the tax rules for small businesses?
Tax law is changing rapidly; the rules for home offices, for example, have changed much in the last couple of years. Consult an accountant for advice.
Have you begun to keep good financial records?
To get the tax benefit of your business expenses, and to make better decisions as your business grows, you’ll need complete, accurate records of the money you spend and make. Again, consult an accountant to advise you on how to get started.
If you are affiliated with a college or university, have you checked into its rules (if any) on outside income?
Many academic institutions limit, by time or income or both, faculty money-making activity outside the institution. But consider whether income limits might legitimately apply to net, not gross, income from your consulting business.
Have you acquired the most professional-looking business cards and stationery you can afford?
Your cards and stationery don’t just give information; they give an important impression of your professionalism. Consider buying professional design help.
Have you prepared a brochure or one-page description of your services?
While brochures usually don’t directly generate business, they can establish your credibility and professionalism. Again, consider professional design help.
Have you prepared, or had prepared for you, professional-looking handouts and visuals?
Your leading competitors have top-quality published handout material and slides (usually overhead transparencies). You need to look as professional as they do. Fortunately, laser printers and good word-processing or desktop-publishing software make professional results relatively inexpensive. But unless you have design skills, again consider buying some professional design work.
Have you found a way to have your phone answered professionally during business hours?
If you can justify a separate business line, get one, and have it answered by a service, a machine, or voice mail when you’re not there. If you need to share a family line, put a machine with an all purpose greeting on it and ask your kids not to answer it between 8 and 5.
Have you begun to wear the uniform?
In general, dress like the people you’re approaching. Dress like the immediate superiors of the people you’re training.
Have you identified and studied your competition, local and national?
Individual consultants, training companies large and small, and “in-house” trainers all offer corporate and governmental writing training, sometimes using “off-the-shelf” (published) course materials. To enter the market, you need to learn about as many of these competitors as possible, so that you can offer what they are offering, and more.
Have you begun to conduct informational interviews?
Visit local corporate training directors as a researcher, to get a feel for the field. Later, when you call as a consultant, you’ll have a foot in the door.
Have you begun to network, letting everyone know what you do?
Most consultants get most of their business by word-of-mouth referrals. Talk with fellow consultants, friends who work for potential clients, and people at your college outreach office. Learn how area organizations are meeting their needs for training and other services in your field.
Have you prepared and memorized several statements about what you can offer: a ten-second version, a thirty-second version, a sixty-second version?
When you meet a potential client or referral source (and everyone you meet is one or the other), you need to be able to state clearly and succinctly what you do. Prepare descriptions and revise them frequently.
Have you begun to capture all names, addresses, and phone numbers you can: potential clients, participants in public workshops, attendees at free talks, etc.?
Invest in a mailing list program for your computer, and begin entering, and coding, all the names you come across. In time, your mailing list will become your most valuable business possession.
Have you explored offering seminars for local college and university noncredit training programs?
Many colleges and universities offer noncredit training programs for business, both in the form of public seminars and “in-house,” contract seminars. Teaching such seminars is an excellent way to refine your craft and gain exposure-but be sure to negotiate appropriate compensation.
Have you explored ways to provide free, or token, luncheon talks, as well as other pro bono work?
Many nonprofit organizations in your community need speakers. By giving away your time to worthy groups, you practice good citizenship, increase your exposure, and refine your craft. You may even develop skills you can use to expand your consulting practice beyond training to professional platform speaking.
Have you explored ways to advance your reputation through newspapers, magazines, radio, and television?
Many specialized local business periodicals, or business sections of general local newspapers and magazines, will consider how-to articles or columns on business writing. Some news media will accept press releases, announcing your new business or reporting on an upcoming workshop. Local talk show hosts may be glad to know of your availability as a guest expert.
Have you begun to find a niche?
Narrowing one’s services is difficult at first; most new consultants are reluctant to turn away any business. But in the long run, you should work toward being the best in your community—or in the world—at one thing, rather than the hundredth-best, or even second-best, at everything.
Have you begun to determine your competitive edge?
Reflect on your unique experiences and training, then consider how those assets can benefit a client. Know clearly why a client should hire you, instead of buying an off-the-shelf program from a vendor.
Have you decided how much to charge?
If you undercharge, you do a disservice to the consulting profession, as well as to yourself. Look at the fees charged by other professionals.
Have you begun to develop structured, visual models of your subject matter, to build your seminars and workshops around?
Most training seminars are far shorter than college classes, so participants must grasp concepts much more quickly. Simple but sound models convey your approach instantly and distinguish you from your competition.
Have you begun to design your training in “modules”?
As you begin to design training programs and their accompanying materials, build them from small units which you can put together in various combinations for various clients and various time frames.
Have you considered providing more than training?
Some consultants find that by offering writing and editing services as well, they can stay credible as writing trainers.
Have you read How to Succeed as an Independent Consultant, by Herman Holtz?
This perennial best-seller (Wiley, various editions) is perhaps the best practical overview of consulting, with chapters on founding a practice, marketing, proposal writing, fee-setting, ethics, and other topics.
Have you read The Consultant’s Calling, by Geoffrey Bellman?
This book (Jossey-Bass, 1990), subtitled Bringing who you are to what you do, is perhaps the best introduction to the human side of the consulting business, to seeing consulting as an extension or component of one’s larger life.
Have you read Working from Home, by Paul and Sarah Edwards?
Paul and Sarah Edwards are the leading gurus of home business, with several excellent books, a monthly column in Home Office Computing, a forum on CompuServe, and a syndicated radio show. Their book Working from Home (rev. ed., Tarcher, 1990) is an excellent introduction to home-based business.
Are you actively involved in the Association of Professional Communication Consultants?
APCC is the international organization for communication consultants, providing helpful publications, conference programs, and networking opportunities. For information, contact:
APCC Association Manager
Are you actively involved in the Association for Business Communication and its Consultants Special Interest Group?
ABC is the major international organization on the subject matter of your consulting. Its conferences and publications will keep you fed with new research findings and fresh teaching and training ideas. For information on membership, write to: Robert J. Myers
Executive Director, Department of Speech
Baruch College, CUNY
New York, NY 10010
Are you actively involved in the national American Society for Training and Development, your local ASTD chapter, or both?
ASTD is the major national organization of your potential clients: corporate and governmental training managers. In your local ASTD chapter, you will meet local trainers and training managers and develop your training skills. Through national membership, you can develop opportunities to work nationally and internationally. For information, call 703-683-8100.
Have you considered becoming active in your local chamber of commerce?
Local chambers of commerce are often excellent sources for business information. Many also sponsor informal get-togethers where you can meet prospective clients and referral sources.