The Complete Guide to Consulting


This guide is designed to explain what a consultant actually does, how you can become one, what a consultant is actually paid, and what you need to know before you set out on this career path.

What is a consultant?                 

In the strictest sense, a consultant is an expert who gives advice or specialist support professionally. Now, what do we mean by ‘advice or support’? That is intentionally vague. A consultant might offer the use of expertise that their client lacks, specific services, or oversight of some process.

A consultant will almost always have a fairly narrow specialty, such as a field of science (organic chemistry, hydrological engineering, etc) or business (marketing, mergers and acquisitions, data governance, etc). They may work for businesses, other organisations or private individuals, but usually on a ‘contractor’ basis. You cannot really be a ‘contractor’ if you work in a salaried position for your ‘client’. You would instead be an ‘employee’.

Now, most people would consider consultants to be ‘professionals’, but in the strictest sense, they need not be. There is no organising body that certifies ‘consultants’ in the broad sense, and there is nothing to stop anyone in the world from simply calling themselves ‘a consultant’ and attempting to act as one. A ‘true’ professional, like a lawyer, a doctor, and even most accountants, literally have to belong to one or more professional bodies to act in that role. For example, a doctor in the UK has to be licensed by the General medical Council to practice, and even calling yourself a medical doctor without that license can be a crime. The same is not true for consultants.

That having been said, to be taken seriously as a consultant, you had better have some high-level certification in your specialty, or at least a very long, high level work history backing your reputation.

What does a consultant do? Why do clients hire them?

Generally speaking, consultants do three main things:

1)   They maintain a professional, ethical standard of behaviour. This includes having sufficient educational qualifications and real-world experience to give meaningful advice and support within their narrow specialty, or in areas very closely adjacent to it.

2)   They maintain business separation from their clients. They are not a part of the client’s organisation, and their duties to the client are clearly spelled out in the contract or agreement for their services. Conflicts of interest are also avoided.

3)   Finally, they provide a meaningful level of expertise beyond what they client can muster internally, or they provide business, intellectual, scientific or other support that the client cannot fulfil internally.

Clients hire consultants for a number of different reasons. Some consultants are hired specifically for their ‘outsider’ status, which allows them to provide an objective, independent opinion on the client’s challenges, problems or opportunities.

Other consultants are retained to handle sensitive issues without any appearance of bias. Again, their status as an independent, disinterested expert is crucial.

Still other consultants are hired because their expertise will only be needed for the duration of a specific project or process. In a case like that, it is often cheaper, easier or both to hire an external expert than to develop the expertise within the company.

Similarly, consultants may be hired because it is impossible for the company to recruit the expertise that they require. Often times, one of a consultant’s duties is therefore to train a permanent member of the company’s staff to take over their position in time.

Finally, may consultants come in as ‘hatchet men’. These are external, independent and theoretically unbiased decision-makers brought in to make unpopular decisions, such as who to fire, who to blame for a disaster, etc. When the dirty work is done, the consultant leaves, and in theory, they take any ill-will generated by their actions with them.

How does one become a consultant?

There are many paths to a successful career as a consultant. However, most of them will involve the following steps at one time or another:

  •  Get a degree in or very close to the field in which you wish to consult. A Baccalaureate level degree in a business field is a good start, but a Master’s level degree in a more specific field will often be better.
  • Get experience working in or very near your chosen field. A degree alone won’t generally be enough, but if you tie that in with at least an internship or some work experience, you might be able to get entry level consultancy work.
  • Consider joining a professional body for your specialty or field, if one exists. Seek out academic or professional certifications as well.
  • Begin offering consulting services, and start building a professional network.

 What types of consultant roles exist?

There are many thousands of consultants working today, and it is unlikely that more than a handful of them have the exact same skills and qualifications. However, you can divide the types of consultancies into a few broad types. These include:

  •  Accounting consultants, who perform financial analysis and offer advice on increasing profitability or cutting costs.
  •  Business consultants, who can contribute to the effectiveness of the client’s operations in many different ways.
  • Legal consultants, who can help with regulatory compliance issues, specific legal challenges or similar issues. Legal consultants are often, but not always, practicing lawyers.
  •  Marketing consultants, who help to develop and implement marketing strategies or projects
  • PR consultants, who help improve or manipulate the company’s communication with the public in various ways.
  • Sales consultants, who help train sales people or to drive sales directly.
  • Tech consultants, who recommend new technologies, areas of development, or particular implementations.

Pros and Cons of a consulting career

Every career has advantages and disadvantages. The advantages of becoming a consultant may include:

  • (Potentially) high pay – The best consultants find the career to be very lucrative indeed.
  • A golden exit strategy – Many consultants eventually take an offer for very well-paid full-time employment for a former client.
  •  Rapid career advancement – You won’t have to wait for advancement within an organisation, and can be hired directly into a ‘higher’ role as you switch between clients.
  •  Wide-open choices – You have a lot of control over which contracts you take, and therefore what kind of work you take on. Of course, that presupposes you have more than one offer on the table.

 However, commonly faced disadvantages include:

  •  Commute, travel time and travel costs – You may be working with clients who operate a long way from where you live. You may also be paying for your own hotel stays while doing so.
  •  High co-worker turnover – You may struggle to form meaningful professional relationships or to network with co-workers, as you’ll be shuffled around both within clients’ organisations and between clients.
  •  High pressure – The client will often be paying a lot for your services. They will be very vociferous in their expectations that you return a high ROI.
  •  Lack of benefits – As a contractor, you are paid an agreed rate – but that rarely includes health insurance, a pension, holiday pay or any of the other benefits of traditional employment.
  •  Lack of job security. A contract can end very abruptly, and you generally have no expectation of continued employment. Long ‘dry spells’ between clients are not uncommon.
  • Long hours – you won’t generally be paid by the hour, so expect to be worked ‘like a rented mule’, especially early in your career.

Characteristics of a successful consultant

Again, you will need to develop a certain n level of real expertise within your chosen field to be taken seriously as a consultant. Beyond that, though, you’ll need to build up skills like:

  •  Adaptability – the work you do for one company may be nothing at all like what you do for the next. You’ll need to be able to hit the ground running in widely different situations.
  •  Communication – you will often be called upon to bridge the gap between management and employees, different organisational stakeholders, or opposing viewpoints.
  •  Creative and critical thinking – if you can provide both deductive and inductive solutions to the challenges and opportunities your clients face, you will have more success.
  •  Discipline – you have to be able to set realistic goals, then work steadily towards them even in the face of adversity, or even an uncooperative client.Organisation – you will often be called upon to handle many separate or interrelated tasks at once, and will be responsible for organising your own approach. You’ll need to be able to prioritise tasks, and to meet all of the demands placed upon you.

What does a consultant’s salary look like?

The average salary for a young but experienced consultant in the UK (according to GlassDoor), is £45,735 per year. That rises to an average of £55,307 for senior consultants, and lead consultants make, on average, £64,419 per year.

Key Points

There are nearly as many kinds of consultants operating around the world today as there are individual consultants. Each one is valuable for their unique expertise and approach to problems and opportunities. However, if you can develop the skills you’ll need as a consultant, as well as the certifications and experience your chosen specialty demands, you could succeed in this very lucrative career path.

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