Craig Dearden-Phillips: For those losing jobs in the sector - here's how to survive as a consultant

As an independent consultant you will need to specialise, says our columnist

Craig Dearden-Phillips
Craig Dearden-Phillips

Last year, about 70,000 people in the third sector lost their jobs - pushing on enough to fill Wembley Stadium. While some are happily now in new jobs, many will be making a go of it as independent consultants. Some of these folks will, no doubt, be loving it - and telling anyone who will listen that losing their job was the best thing that ever happened to them. Others, however, will be sat, quietly desperate, in the spare bedroom opening another pack of custard creams and waiting in vain for the phone to ring.

So how do you make that transition to running a successful independent consultancy? Having attempted the journey myself, I would offer three pointers. First, understand that as an independent you will need to specialise. Whether you realise it or not, there will be something - a single stand-out skill or attribute - for which you're best known. It's this 'something' we need to understand - because this is the one thing that people will pick up the phone specifically to ask us to do. Your specialism is the essence of your usefulness to others.

Second, realise that in consultancy everything matters. To win work from clients, it is not only your encyclopaedic knowledge or contacts that will bring in the business. You need to look and sound the part. Your website should look fresh and the voice on your answering machine needs to sound like it is pleased to hear from people. Hair, teeth and clothes all matter too. Nobody hires a consultant who looks crap.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you need to deliver. This sounds obvious, but it's the main fear in the mind of every client: "What if this hired gun lets me down?" You deliver by listening carefully to what the client needs. You deliver by carefully agreeing the scope of the project, charging a fair price and taking on only work you can complete to an exceptional standard.

Note my use of the word 'exceptional'. As a consultant, it's rarely enough just to put in a decent performance, as you might do week-in, week-out at work. This seldom leads to a long relationship with a client. You'll always get paid for a decent job, but the client will move on if you don't totally wow them. Should you manage to do this, however, your client will get you back time and again.

Of course, your decision to step into the world of consulting depends, in large part, on whether you're personally suited to do it. Resilience is key - particularly in year one when you're still finding your feet. Self-doubt, if it is your companion, will tap you on the shoulder and suggest you apply for that supervisor job you've seen down at Tesco (regular hours, paid holidays, people to talk to).

So should you be one of this year's Wembley-sized crowd of third sector leavers, think carefully before you make your move into consulting. It's not for fainthearts.

Contact Craig, who writes in a personal capacity, at www.stepping-out.biz

Craig Dearden-Phillips is managing director of Stepping Out and a Liberal Democrat councillor in Suffolk.

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