I used to serve everybody. In my private practice I was a “generalist.” I didn’t want to limit myself. Then one day, I was sitting down with a free SCORE consultant and he asked me, “Who do you help?”
“I help everyone. People with depression, anxiety, parenting, you know, everyone.”
“You don’t help specific people?” he asked.
“Actually, I guess I help angry kids, frustrated parents, and distant couples,” I said.
The consultant encouraged me to immediately put that tagline on my website. In private practice and in consulting, having a niche or specialty is the single most important decision an aspiring consultant makes. To learn how to become a consultant, you first have to define your specialty.
Three Ways to Determine a Specialty
For me it was easy to determine my specialty. I knew I loved starting and growing my private practice. It made sense to start there with consulting. The first way to drill into your niche is to look at what you’re already doing.
Let’s brainstorm, either in your head or on a sheet of paper: What have you done? Not just in your career, but throughout your life.
Don’t even think about monetizing yet. Think about what you have done and where you are experienced.
- What are all the bullet points of your career?
- What have you been reading?
- What podcasts do you listen to?
- What gets you fired up and so excited that you’ll stay up late thinking or learning about?
Build an Avatar
Maybe you have a wealth of interests. Another way to determine a specialty is to brainstorm clients that you enjoy. What is their typical profile? In the business consulting world, this is called an “avatar.”
An avatar is a sketch of your ideal client that has:
Once an avatar is established, it’s easy to write to that person. You can identify their interests, what they want out of consulting, and grow their specific area of need.
Becoming a consultant starts with deciding what you will consult. You may already have some ideas, but I want you to go through this process with me. Maybe you are sure that is your area, but we need to land on your exact demographic.
Find a Need
There are a few ways to discover needs for consulting. Using Google Adwords, I discovered that the search term, “How to become a consultant” is a term that is Googled several thousand times per month. Also, there is very low competition around that specific term.
So I sought out the path of finding out the basics of “how to become a consultant.” I realized that while I had become a consultant, I had not taught others to do it. My approach to learning how to meet that need was to start a podcast so I could interview a bunch of consultants about being consultants. All this started by finding a need through Adwords.
Finding a need can come in other forms:
- Addressing client or colleague frustrations
- Personally wishing for a specific service
- Noticing themes on LinkedIn Groups or Facebook Groups
- Interviewing business owners in the specialty that you are exploring
- Asking business owners what solutions they desire (and would pay for)
I think this might be easier to understand using an example. Imagine you have worked in a non-profit that helps individuals dealing with homelessness. You feel like you understand this population and want to start consulting. Some options might be: consult with other non-profit agencies, consult with cities and counties to reduce homelessness, or consult with businesses and Chambers of Commerce to reduce homelessness.
After deciding that you have a passion for this field and there is a need, you would next evaluate: where is the money?
In this situation, non-profits probably wouldn’t have the money to hire a consultant, but may be a fiduciary to partner with a county government or Chamber of Commerce.
Our avatar could be: County governments and officials working with businesses to reduce homelessness in a compassionate manner.
Learning a Consulting Specialty
After an aspiring consultant determines a basic direction for a consulting specialty, the next question is about skill set: Do you have it?
Taking the previous example, a consultant should know:
- What issues do county governments deal with regarding homelessness?
- What research is there regarding homelessness and business?
- How have communities effectively reduced homelessness in ways that help homeless individuals, while also having a positive effect on the rest of the community?
- How are tensions reduced when people disagree?
The aspiring consultant would want to start growing in these skills. As you, the consultant, can define the problem, the potential consulting clients will expect the solution to come through you.
Typically, creating useful content for the avatar (ie, the potential consulting client) is one of the quickest ways to learn a consulting field. Continuing with our example, you would want to create some useful blog posts or downloads for city officials.
Here are some ideas:
- A self assessment tool: maybe it could be called, “Do we have a problem?” and could analyze homelessness, business, and economic impact
- Question-based document: A document “10 questions every Chamber of Commerce should ask about homelessness”
- A checklist: 29 ethical ways to reduce homelessness and help grow business communities
Once an aspiring consultant starts to create content, it sets them up to be the authority on that topic. The more content that is generated, the easier it is to build a consulting base.
Get Trial Clients
The final way to grow a consulting specialty is to get trial clients. A speech to a first trial client might go something like this:
“I have 15 years of experience working with people that are homeless, under employed, and unemployed. I am currently growing my skills as a consultant to help county governments and local business owners. I would like to volunteer for three months to test out some consulting methods and tools to help county governments to reduce homelessness in a compassionate and ethical manner and improve business. My hope is that if you are satisfied with my work, you would provide a recommendation that I may use publicly.”
To have people speak publicly about your work as a consultant is more valuable than the minor money you could make. At the end of the “trial consulting,” ask for feedback and how much the services would have been worth economically to the region.
As you explore growing as a consultant determining your specialty, growing those skills and then testing them is essential to success as a consultant.
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Joseph R. Sanok, MA, LLP, LPC, NCC
Joe Sanok is an ambitious results expert. He is a consultant to consultants, private practice business consultant and counselor that helps consultants and counselors to increase income and influence! His new How to Become a Consultant podcast aims to interview the top consultants of the world. To link to Joe’s Google+ .