The consultant’s dilemma

The major downside of consulting is that when you are working you aren’t finding new work, and vice versa. As a consultant, you are only making money when you’re working. That means that all your vacations are unpaid. You may also have difficulty getting extended health benefits or a pension plan, but there are more options available today. Keeping a balance of potential work and contracted projects takes some time to master. It also helps if you have some cash in the bank when you start, as there will likely be slow times. Keep your costs low and don’t overestimate how much you will make. Also remember that many clients pay 30 days or more after being billed. Make sure you get some money up front. Freelance consulting does have its advantages: You set your own schedule, you can take advantage of opportunities as they arise, and you personally reap the profit of your work.

That was the conclusion to my 2007 article: So you want to be an e-learning consultant?

I recently wrote about 5 considerations on becoming an independent consultant:

  1. Have a clearly defined product or service that is simple to explain.
  2. Sincerely love doing that work.
  3. Be willing to give your all for your work and promoting it [it’s not a hobby].
  4. Have clear long-term objectives and align your daily work to them.
  5. Enjoy doing sales and business development [because you will be doing a lot of it].

Here’s my personal experience after 7 years in the business

My services are definitely not easy to explain to the average business person, though I’ve done several re-writes of my  consulting services. The sweet spot is to offer services that few others do but for which there is still a demand or need. In my case, I’m one of the few Canadian independent, web-focused workplace learning specialists around. Still, that doesn’t mean I’m worked off my feet.

I love what I do, especially constantly pushing the edge of my professional expertise. I firmly believe that we need better models, systems and practices to integrate learning into our daily work, hence my focus on PKM and social learning in the enterprise.

I usually work seven days a week, either writing, researching or doing project work. I take time off for exercise and other personal activities but my work is not a hobby, it’s a vocation.

My long term objective is to be recognized as an expert in the field of collaborative work & networked learning and become less dependent on project work, with more long-term retainer type engagements as a trusted advisor. I am a very long way away from that objective at this time. Freelancing is a slow-growth strategy.

I like business development and getting to know new clients. However, I am not good at direct sales. This post is as close as it gets. That is my major weakness and is one thing that I would make sure anybody considers before embarking in the profession. Sales drive everything.

After +1,500 posts and +4,500 comments on this blog since early 2004, I know that there are people who like what I write. I would ask my readers and past clients  for recommendations on any of these 5 points and also ask that if you think I’m providing a good service, please pass it on. We independents don’t have large marketing budgets. Our network is our sales & marketing channel.



16 Responses to “The consultant’s dilemma”

  1. Michael Eury

    Ah, you have described my world so well!!
    Always tension between doing work and developing future work! Whilst I agree that sales drive things, I think I work best when my ‘sales technique’ looks very little like sales. Even when busy I try to make sure that I have a coffee with past clients and cultivate new networks, for me it’s the relationships that underpin ongoing & new work. We seem to be on the same page!
    Some excellent points in here for prospective consultants to think through when starting out (and to come back to when things look a bit hard, which is pretty likely at some stage!)
    Ideas on your 5 points, I’ll have a go at 1 & 2
    1. Branding is really important, I’ve got some value out of reading Marty Neumeier’s The Brand Gap and Zag
    2. As a consultant if you don’t love the work you won’t be happy doing it.
    Great post!

  2. Simon Bostock

    First thing to say – and I suspect the awkwardness I too feel at direct sales is related to the awkwardness I feel at saying stuff like this – is you are super cool. And you provide a great service as a role model and inspiration.

    One thing I’ve noticed is how unfamiliar clients are with the blog format of a website. If I point to a blog, only other bloggers take it seriously (or are even able to work out how to navigate it). I think it’s a bit like brochures and peacock feathers; everybody knows they’re useless but they like to feel the weight of the paper and see the lustre of the feathers because it denotes ‘fitness’. I think blogs are blogs and we should probably all have websites.

    Plus, the longer you’ve been ‘doing’ it on the web, the more it shows on your website. Again, clients like websites to look like they were made recently so they can email links to their boss.

    (It’s possibly stupid to make these kind of generalisations. But, let me add some background to show why I’m making them. My last ’employee’ role was as L & D Consultancy Business Development manager. Selling on a team to team basis means you often learn a lot more than selling one-to-one, usually by accident. Negotiations and pitching can take months so you get to know people pretty well and due to mild cases of sales-Stockholm Syndrome. Surprisingly often, I’d end up in a coffee shop with ‘my’ contact at a client who’d complain how I was their favourite but that some budget holder had wanted the shinier, ‘safer’ option. Often, we’re not selling ‘to’ people but helping our friends/contacts/kindred spirits sell ideas to their bosses.)

    I wonder how many of us write for our peers more than our customers and clients? I know when I started I fully intended to aim every post at clients. But I write most of my posts now for friends on Twitter. I mark down my blog time as sales/marketing but it’s not, it’s professional development. Should we all be more ruthless? Or, at least, get better at signposting people to the simple stuff?

    I was just thinking, I could give you loads of advice on sales and marketing. I’ve just been looking at your salesy pages and there’s a ton of low-hanging fruit to pick. Heck, it’s what I did for nearly a decade – we should definitely talk!

    Problem is, I take NONE of it myself. As I Tweeted, lots to think about here. You’re one of the most recognisable L & D people on the webs – if you’re not exactly rushed off your feet, what chance do the rest of us have?

  3. Clark Quinn

    Harold, I couldn’t sympathize more, particularly on the issue of ‘sales’.

    As we’ve discussed, those who are extremely successful consultants typically have one type of common problem they solve very well, and flog it. The problem we share is that we solve complex problems, those that are beyond complicated where an expert with a practiced approach can come in and solve it. Which means it’s hard to communicate a clear problem, and what the outcomes the customer will get.

    Still, it helps to have a clear message that says: here are the type of people I help, and here are the problems that they face, and I have approaches that help, e.g. I solve complex problems and help find creative solutions that yield happy companies. Do as I say, not as I do ;).

    You’re one of the finest thinkers I know, and you’ve delivered well for others, hopefully that pattern will manifest again soon.

  4. Jon Husband

    Surprisingly often, I’d end up in a coffee shop with ‘my’ contact at a client who’d complain how I was their favourite but that some budget holder had wanted the shinier, ’safer’ option. Often, we’re not selling ‘to’ people but helping our friends/contacts/kindred spirits sell ideas to their bosses

    Such an important, and often insidious, point.

    Harold, I think you are one of the best thinkers and pragmatic boundary-pushers I know.

  5. Cathy Moore

    I feel like it’s not my place at all to be giving Harold Jarche advice(!) but as a former marketing-type person, I agree with Clark that your niche is especially challenging to describe, and it might be helpful if you could find a vivid, concrete way to describe the types of problems you solve.

    Currently your copy describes the solutions you offer, which assumes that the visitor can make the connection between what you do and a problem they have. Instead, you might start the page by more concretely describing the performance problems you solve.

    This could be as simple as presenting a list of “symptoms” a company has when it needs you, such as “Your distributed teams are working in the dark, constantly reinventing the wheel” and “Your formal training can’t keep up with the fast rate of change.” The idea is that the reader says at some point, “Hey, that’s me! Harold understands me!” Then they want to read on to see how you can help.

    You might also post concise snippets of case studies that show that Company X came to you with Pain Y and your solution brought them to Happy Ending Z.

    This is the classic “identify the pain” approach to crafting your main pitch. Here’s one description of the process (start at step 3):

    It’s typical to start your marketing page with the pains, and then promise salvation and describe the process you use to solve the pain.

    Finally, structure makes prospects feel safe. So you might describe steps 1, 2, and 3 (or whatever) that you usually take with a client, even if they’re “Learn more about your problems,” “Work with you to identify the likely causes,” and “Propose a short list of solutions.” If you have a particular system that works for you, such as a set of 5 probing questions that always yield good information, you could mention that–anything that could make the process easier to visualize.

    The goal is to get the prospect to think, “Harold understands my pain. He has the expertise and experience to identify the causes and find the best solutions, and he has a system that I can picture in my head and sell to the person in my organization who’s actually going to write the check.”

    Best of luck!

  6. Simon Bostock

    Agree with Michael Stickylearning Eury on branding and on those books. Oddly enough, I find branding books (marketing approx. equal to behaviour change) useful for practice too.

    My 2c on the books: Selling the Invisible by Harry Beckwith. Seriously good for consultants on service marketing. I think I’ve bought this book a dozen times now for gifts. Seems almost patronisingly basic but every page has something meaty (if you can stand having McDonalds being touted as the ultimate in service marketing…)

  7. Virginia Yonkers

    I left consulting (I was an international trade consultant) because of the amount of time it took me to do the “administration” (including R&D) of consulting.

    One thing you did not include is the organization that it takes to be a consultant. The fact is that often you have long periods of time when you don’t have a job and then you will get 4 or 5 prospects at once. You need to be able to handle the down times and the busy times. To do this you need to be very organized, have time to do business developement while you might be finishing up a project (i.e. taking an hour a day for business development for example), have templates in place that describe your services and you can use for job bids, and have billing, contracting, and AP/AR services set up.

    My question Harold, is where do you see your client base located? Just in your town or province, in NE Canada? In the NE US? In other parts of Canada? It seems to me from reading your blog that you do a good job of networking and making contacts both face to face locally and at international conferences. I am assuming that you follow up those contacts. However, you might want to expand to conferences and events where potential clients are (i.e. if you work predominately in one industry, go to their professional conferences; take part in Human Resources conferences, whether they are concerned with elearning, training, or communication or not). This will serve two purposes, networking to get your services known. But also it would serve for you to see what problems potential clients might have, which you could then use as a basis for what Cathy recommended in beefing up your web advertizing.

  8. Holly MacDonald

    Harold – I feel your pain – I too am an independent consultant in a similar space (in BC) and would agree with most of your points. I applaud you for reaching out to your community for perspective. I’m not sure if you will get value out of my points, but offer them in the spirit of community.

    The feast v. famine world can be hard to live with. I had a famine last year and am now in feast mode, but all my clients are looking to spend on the small side (5 – 10K) for strategy/advisory work, not necessarily big scale implementation. Maybe you are noticing this, too? Also, everyone here wants “social media”, so I have to admit, I kind of just go with that – call it whatever you want.

    Definitely agree with Virginia on the admin side – you have to also be accountant, receptionist, IT support, and all the other things you mentioned with the sales stuff.

    My blog is not for marketing – its more for sharing within the learning community – although my prospective clients do read it, I think it is only for style-matching. I tend to market more through LinkedIn, and my local HR association, and asking for referrals.

    I would wholeheartedly agree with Cathy Moore (but, who wouldn’t really). You need to know what problems you are solving, articulate those pain points, and even better if you can attach a cost to them. Remember clients only really want something that will save them money or make them money.

    The other thing that I’ve done, who knows if it is right or wrong, but I still introduce myself as a specialist in “training”, with a focus on web 2.0 with my clients. It’s their comfort zone (and their bosses, more importantly), so we start there and then together we talk about how web functionality could enhance their ability to train people. We go on the journey together. I’ve found that in our field we use terms and jargon that is hard for people to understand, so I try to make it easy for them, and connect it to their business (“this can help you launch your product in 4 weeks rather than 20 weeks, let’s calculate what that would save you in training costs and get your salesforce selling quickly – what do you think an additional 16 weeks of productive selling time might also in terms of top-line revenue?”).

    PS – I live in the middle of nowhere (west) on an island off the BC coast, so also don’t just pop in for coffee, but I do service the Vancouver market and make trips there once a month – I line up a string of coffee/lunch/drink meetings and check in – I’m not sure that getting to Toronto or Montreal or some other centre where many of your clients might be is as easy for you as getting to Vancouver is for me, but as much as I love the online world, nothing beats face-to-face for relationship building. That is the essence of what we do.

    For whatever it’s worth – I hope you have found this helpful (and not pedantic). Even if the specific points aren’t new to you, at least know that somewhere on the other side of our big country there is someone else who is experiencing the same thing!


    • Harold Jarche

      Interesting point about using traditional or new terms to describe our work, Holly. I have worked in the training business and from time to time actually design training, but only when it’s warranted. That’s usually for large military systems projects (which is what I used to do for the Air Force). Sometimes I’ve described my consulting as ABC Learning (Anything But Courses). Maybe that’s simpler than “collaborative work & networked learning”. Sometimes I feel like a yo-yo 😉

  9. Mark Berthelemy

    Hi Harold,

    I know exactly where you’re coming from. I’ve spent years trying to define what I do in ways that potential clients will understand. As Clark says, we’re selling complex solutions that will be different for everyone.

    If at all possible, I would suggest that you try to “productise” at least some parts of what you’re offering. That’s advice that I’m still trying to work through myself.

    As an example, looking at the Enterprise Collaborative site – even though I’m totally bought in to the concepts behind your thinking, I’m still not sure what it is you and Frédéric are selling?



    • Harold Jarche

      My understanding is that France is quite far behind in enterprise social learning but several firms see the opportunity and are moving quickly.


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