Should You Really Call Yourself a Consultant?

Should You Really Call Yourself a Consultant?

These days, it’s cool to be a consultant. Everyone’s becoming one. Hey, it’s the easy path to fast cash, right?

You write a sales page, you promote your new service, and you become an expert. Simple.

And most likely, you rock. Your fans and friends tell you that all the time, so it must be true. And they’re great too, and you tell the world all the time about your fantastic consulting clients. It’s a nice way to market your services and get other people wanting to sign up, but it’s true! You love them!

Why wouldn’t you? Fast cash, remember?

People fall for fake consultants constantly. They have no way of knowing who’s good and who’s just playing around.

I worked years to build my skills and round out my experience online before even attempting consulting. I had decades more business experience from my offline careers as well. I didn’t offer consulting until I was sure I wouldn’t screw things up for my clients.

Other people? Meh. They don’t give a damn. I see bad advice flying around. There are some good ideas, and that’s great if you feel like experimenting with them, and there’s lots of support and encouragement, and that’s wonderful.

But ideas, experiments and encouragement do not a consultant make.

A peer of mine recently asked me to listen to the recording of a consult she’d received. So I did… and it had been bad advice. Wrong, all wrong. Just plain faulty with a lack of perspective, not much business sense, and way too many warm, fluffy fuzzies.

I wrote her a blunt email that went something like this:

“Just listened to that audio file and I wanted to let you know I HIGHLY counsel you ignore everything that consultant said. She’s suggesting a marketing message and strategy that’s totally wrong for the target market you’re aiming for. That is NOT your target market. Forget everything you heard on that call.”

Like I said: Wrong. All wrong.

I got a reply back from my peer that made me heave a sigh of relief: “Don’t worry. I know the market she was talking about, and I know they can’t afford me.”

And then she wrote something that stopped me in my tracks: “I also think she was talking about herself. She’s building something similar to what I’m aiming for, and it sounded like she was giving herself advice as she talked it through on the call.”

Wow. A consultant subconsciously self-consulting? Doesn’t surprise me a bit.

But it does scare me.

How many consultants are out there being paid to talk about themselves? They don’t ask about your target market – they assume it’s the same as theirs. They don’t ask about your concerns and fears – they assume they’re the same as the ones they feel. They don’t ask many questions about what type of business you have, how you run it or what your problems are – they figure they know most of that already.

They sound smart, these consultants – to people who don’t know any different, of course. Get on a call with one of them and they sound wise and sage as they say things like, “I know; I’ve been there! You should…”

Authoritative statements carry authority. They’re powerful. People listen and follow. (And if they don’t, in most cases they still nod and agree the “expert” must be right.) But just because you know how to sound like an expert doesn’t mean you should be offering your expertise.

Any idiot can grab a Skype line and tell people what to do. And that, my dears, is when sh** becomes dangerous.

If you don’t know how to carry out a proper consultations, which questions to ask, and which potential solutions are best, then you’re just pretending – and you can cause other peoples’ business some serious damage.

If you’re talking through your own issues and masking it as advice to someone else, you need to stop. Stop your consulting and fix your damned problems. Don’t use other people’s businesses as test grounds to see if your ideas might work.

And for the love of Pete, don’t do self-help on a consultation call.

Consulting is hard – very hard. Don’t think it’s easy. You might get lucky, sure. You might work with a few people who admire you, want to be just like you and ask to learn to do what you do. In that case, your advice might help. You might get customers that are in such desperate need that any help is good help.

Even when it’s bad advice.

But be honest with yourself. When you get a customer about whose business you know nothing, say nothing. Tell them you can’t take this consult on. Admit that you don’t know enough about their business or understand enough about what they do. Fess up that you don’t know their target market. Or what goals they seek. Or which tactics and strategies might help them reach it.

Too many people are out there playing consultant when they really have no right to be doing so. They have good ideas, that’s all. And sometimes those ideas might actually be worthy of trying out.

But if you’re not a true consultant and if people actually act on the advice you just tossed off without thinking, they’ll struggle. They’ll pick up the wrong clients, reach the wrong rewards and end up in a business quite far from their original plans.

They may even fail.

All because you thought you were a consultant.

Sorry, you’re not. You’re just someone with a buy-now button.

Post by James Chartrand

James Chartrand is an expert copywriter and the owner of Men with Pens and Damn Fine Words, the game-changing writing course for business owners. She loves the color blue, her kids, Nike sneakers and ice skating.

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  1. “They don’t ask about your target market…”

    Bingo.

    This makes me insane.

    I’ve met one too many alleged marketing experts who think marketing is all the same, whether you’re selling overstuffed vinyl recliners or one-of-a-kind raku pottery.

    It’s not the bloody same. What’s being sold is different, the customer is different, therefore the marketing must be different.

    If you don’t get that, you have no business offering advice.

    Buy-now button, indeed.

    Nicely done, James.

    • Yep, I hear you. Canned advice can do some good to the beginners who have no clue. But even then, each business is different and what works for one won’t necessarily work for another.

      Sadly, way, WAY too many ‘consultants’ are canning and selling advice at large. Sad.

  2. So true! Two other groups that annoy me — and who probably do harm to their clients: people who call themselves writers who aren’t and people who call themselves SEO experts who have no more than rudimentary knowledge.

    • …and designers who’ve been playing with Photoshop for a year or two…
      …and marketers who just bought Frank Kern’s program…
      …and life coaches who can’t fix their own home problems…

      The list goes on and on. I think there are charletans in every field. Sigh.

  3. James, for those of us who have built our bona fides as consultants, what you’ve presented here reinforces that pretend consultants make it that much harder for the real ones. Because how do people in business seeking outside expertise know whom to trust?

    As you pointed out, it takes a major commitment to consult. Not only do you need to be an expert in your field, you need to know how to work with clients, delight them, all the while running your business and delighting yourself, and managing your life.

    Many folks who call themselves consultants are in fact between jobs. For the few who are serious and have left employers to be out on their own as solo practitioners, I highly recommend joining the Institute of Management Consultants (IMC USA). I’ve been a member for 10 years. It’s an excellent organization for learning and honing consulting skills (yes, there are skills consultants need to have!), building a successful practice, and networking with peers. IMC USA has a code of ethics that any consultant worth their salt will gladly embrace. It also offers certification.

    • I like that you mention you continue to learn and hone your skills – that’s perfect! Thanks for the heads up on that organization, too – it’d be great if something similar was offered in Canada.

      Have to agree with what you say about many consultants being people out of jobs who are looking for new income streams. That’s pretty cool when you’re 55 and carrying out the new form of retirement (which is often consulting), but it’s less cool when you have zero experience beyond reading a few blogs and hanging out online.

      • Guess what James, IMC is in Canada. It’s the Canadian Association of Management Consultants, and they also offer the CMC/Certified Management Consultant designation. They’re at http://bit.ly/n8t3TM

        No-one should consult, or call themselves a consultant, if they’re not an expert in their field. That’s requirement number one and should be obvious. Another top requirement: a burning desire to make a difference, to change peoples’ condition.

        Management/business consultants come to the field with years of experience. Their reasons for consulting vary…here are a couple: some feel they’ll be more effective on the outside; others want the independence, and because they have an entrepreneurial spirit. And yes, some become consultants after taking early retirement.

        For consultants who like to read, I highly recommend all books by Alan Weiss. His book, “Million Dollar Consulting,” is to many the bible of consulting. His extensive body of work (books, articles, videos, workshops, etc.,) is available at http://www.summitconsulting.com (I don’t receive any remuneration for promoting him).

        • Oh, excellent! I saw the U.S. and automatically assumed that was it, but I’ve been proven wrong – and I’m keen to see what they have to offer. Thanks for the tip off!

  4. I’m another version – the consultant that does contracting for corporations/government through IT Companies. Technically, a Contractor, sometimes a W2 worker and sometimes a 1099er.

    We get even less respect – the tone used by pseudo consultants is dismissive of “contractors” as a whole.

    • Really? That’s too bad – contractor seems a fairly okay word, but it’s true that labels carry a lot of associations, and not all of them positive ones, depending on their use and context.

      (Kind of like how ‘freelancer’ typically means running around in PJs and playing alternative music versus professional, skilled worker!)

  5. After I quit my job, a friend sent me a t-shirt, “I’m not unemployed, I’m a consultant.”

    She thought the tshirt was hysterical and would make me lighten up, I got her message, but I thought the message was too depressing. It’s not like there are lines of people wanting my advice. Plus, though I know a lot of stuff and have worked for free with hundreds of parents, I just don’t think I can charge money. So…consultant and unemployed are the same thing in my book.

    • Well, even though this post is about how some people shouldn’t charge money, I know for a personal fact that you have a wealth of knowledge about certain areas that could be beneficial to others.

      So the operative words in your comment would be… “I just don’t think I can.”

      One day, when you’re the featured speaker at a medical seminar about remembering humanism, I shall proudly take a seat in the first row. And maybe even throw popcorn just to see if I can shake you ;)

      • This is why I love you. Just hoping the others don’t throw anything other than popcorn.

      • Hey I just liked to read this expression from you : I just don’t think I can as an advice. This sound to me that it comes from a honest character!!!

        Just keep it up because you are not going to create any jam around….

        Ntarugera François

        +250 788500199- Rwanda

  6. A friend called to ask for help for a friend who was unemployed and wanted to know what the rate might be for “pick-up” consulting. There is no barrier to entry for management and other consultants. There are lots of smart people who are experts in a field but do not understand that there are established consulting comeptencies necessary to conduct an engagement.

    I am a Certified Management Consultant and a member of the National Board of the Institute of Management Consultants USA (imcusa.org and for James- in Canada – Canadian Association of Management Consultants). The process for cerification is rigorous. I have been consulting for 27 years, always learning and keeping up with trends. I am a trusted advisor based on expertise, wisdom, knowledge and the IMC Code of Ethics.

    Mangement Consulting is a noble profession – we influence the few who influence and lead the many. It requires competencies including emotional intelligence, engagement management, client relations and so on. And it is well worth charging clients for value delivered!

  7. Nail, meet head.

    Been thinking about this for a while, and I’ve had many similar thoughts about it. The BS consulting I get…people are trying to make a buck. It’s the unicorns and rainbows that surround it all that confound me.

  8. Such a perfect posting… I loved every word of it. Consulting seemed like the prefect thing for my husband to do but he isn’t a people person nor or a business owner type of guy. I had a feeling that the whole field was filled with people and it might not work. Being paid to offer advice would be wonderful but I think it is more than just a simple sales page. There are books on starting consulting companies.. Maybe in the future it will be for me.. or my husband.. right now I am happy doing what I am doing right now. Thank you for the great posting..

    Chimica

  9. Jed Bailey says:

    We all recognise charlatan consultants and wonder how they get their assignments, but my experience as a consultant is that work is hard to come by, my reputation is too important for future contracts to over egg my expertise and the economic turn down has changed consulting.
    The current landscape is of clients wanting more advice for nothing, more offers of delayed payment and commission and a downward pressure on fees. That said there are many CEO’s who employ consultants as an “independent” source of their own ideas and as way of avoiding the overheads of hiring permanent staff. This undermines one of the strengths of consultancy advice-the ability to look at organisation or problem from outside and through a separate eye. My own solution is to try and work on a few assignments with organisations I feel value my expertise of 35 years. It will never make me particularly rich, but it is much more satisfying.

  10. People fall for fake consultants constantly. They have no way of knowing who’s good and who’s just playing around.

    More people should only hire those with demonstrated expertise. I hired Men with Pens as consultants, for example, after they’d already proved their value through several web design projects.

    It’s an easy mistake to make as a new online business owner, though. When I first started my service offerings were way too generic, as there was a case of “well people might want this, or that”. But that’s a symptom of lack of market research.

    Also fake market research is another problem. In my field there are few web content writers and a lot of nebulous legal ‘marketing strategy’ consultants, that, among other things, provide advice on do it yourself copywriting. That must mean I should offer consulting right? No. It just means I should tell clients how much money they’ll lose if they hire these over getting actual services that actually do something.

  11. I love this post, and I think it applies to a lot of things besides consulting.

    I’m a copywriter with a fairly intense questionnaire. I’m amazed how many clients tell me no one has ever asked them about their target market, or how they want people to feel when they read their content. I feel like those questions are the beginning of the process.

    I also don’t shy away from telling potential clients I’m not the person for them. There are certain markets I have no experience with, and some I just plain don’t like working with. I’m always polite (and have a list of qualified people to send them to), but I like to stay in my expertise wheelhouse.

    Great post.

    • Staying in your expertise wheelhouse shows how honest you are with what you are able to do.
      I love that !!! Once you know that there are certain markets you have no experience with,there you are to look someone who is able to do it better for you if your business has a wide assignment.

      Just stay in touch

      Ntarugera François
      +250 788500199

  12. Hey !!! Why not can’t you call yourself a consultant!!! But, before doing so you have to make sure of what you are doing is right before screwing things up for you clients.

    Ntarugera Franços
    +250 788500199

  13. Enjoyed your article, and the comments are equally interesting!

    I am not a consulant, and am frankly not interesting in being one – however for nearly a decade I coached hundreds of new entrepreneurs and I’m still approached at least a few times a month by either a former client or a friend of a friend asking me to consult. Rather than do anything half heartedly, I make it a policy to try in earnest to refer them to someone qualified, or if I don’t know of anyone who has the experience then I’m just honest about not being able to help.

  14. Thank you for this post!

    It kills me that I am so hard on myself when I AM qualified to consult on a lot of areas of business (I am a former Madison Avenue copywriter and creative director who has worked on brands like IBM and Hanes, and who has been freelancing successfully online and off for 10 years, and I’m also a certified coach) — while people without a fraction of my brains and experience blithely hang up a shingle and hand out erroneous or superficial advice without a qualm.

    What this post taught me is that there are people out there who are a lot worse than me making a living at this…and I doing neither myself nor their hapless sucker clients any favors by insisting that I be perfect or know “everything” before being comfortable offering my services.

    Lisa

  15. Honestly, I find the word “consultant” really heavy. I honestly don’t see it as something that can easily done, — that is consulting, I mean. It’s a stupid that some would think that consulting is easy, I think it’s absolutely the other way around. Because it’s definitely not easy — a lot and I mean A LOT of knowledge should be stored in ones brain. lol That sounded awful. Sorry. hehe

    But don’t you think bloggers (having their own niche) is also considered as a consultant? At certain degree, maybe?

  16. Vince Vaughan says:

    What I took away from this writing is that “Just because you say you are something, doesn’t mean you are.”

    First of all, I don’t know anyone who is duped by bad consultants. The hiring executive is looking for a certain kind of help and typically finds it. The person they pick, fundamentally to do business with, is someone they trust.

    Even in the case of your example . . . you don’t really have the context of why that other consultant made advice that is contrary to what you might recommend. There is never just one obvious answer to solve for what a business is out to produce. If there were easy obvious answers, we would have figured them all out by now.

    And you wouldn’t have a need for a “consultant.”

  17. I am not sure I understand the whole issue.
    Consulting is a big market : there can be “good” and “bad” consultants, and that’s all.

    Should people stop owning a shop because they don’t know how to serve the right product to their customers?
    I don’t think so. That’s their own problem. If they are that bad, they will loose customers.

    Everybody has the right to make a living with whatever he wants if he can reach his customers without lying them about his abilities.
    The problem is [ on the customer’s side ] who evaluates the expert’s value on his bio and not on the results that he should be able to deliver.

    Nowadays clients can use social networks to spread the word about how bad their experience with Consultant X was. They should do it.
    The problem is not on the consultant’s side.

    I’ve been very happy to see a lot of bad consultants coming to my field : it gave me a lot of referrals because my clients spread the word about “how I was different and able to deliver results”.
    My opinion is that a market is good if a lot of different people (different skills) are there.

    It’s strange to read that some people are angry against all those new consultants : they are not targeting your own clients (who already value the quality of the results that you can deliver) and push good clients in your direction (they are trying to escape from the bad consultants).

    It even gave me the opportunity to raise my rates. I like it.

    Do you really consider that these consultants can be of bad influence on your own business? If so, then the problem is on your side.
    Life is good like this, focus on selling the results that you can deliver. The bad ones can’t do it.
    You just got a competitive advantage! :)

  18. Consultant, expert, isn’t it just semantics? The proof is in the pudding, or at least it should be. I rarely peddle myself as anything more than a hardworking writer; I could call myself The Second Coming, but if I don’t deliver, it’s fairly meaningless.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Should You Really Call Yourself a Consultant? from Men with Pens by James […]

  2. […] “Should You Really Call Yourself a Consultant?” James Chartrand, Men With Pens: I include this blunt assessment because I know many of my readers are writing and creativity consultants, and I just gave my freelance consulting business a reboot this week. One word of advice “James” (a pen name) offers? Keep your mouth shut when you don’t know something. […]

  3. […] recent post by @menwithpens rightly points out that this is hurting consulting as well. Many are forced into […]

  4. […] encountered consultants who obviously aren’t qualified. Certain fields seem to be magnets for unqualified practitioners (social media, anyone?), while […]

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