This blog entry comes from a question we received on our Web site:
I work at a major distributor as an over the phone consultant. I like and dislike the job at the same time. I like helping people and I love designing systems, but we have to do the designing so fast, it becomes what Alan Alda said on MASH, “meatball surgery”. I would like to start a consulting service, but I just don’t know how to get started. Any advice you could give would be most helpful.
I think the best advice I could give you is even truer today than it was when I started my consulting firm: line up paying customers before you venture out on your own. It’s one thing to know the technology, understand the applications, and be able to document and specify solutions. It’s entirely another thing to get people to pay you for it.
Right now, you’re working at a distributor, and people are calling you up to have you design solutions. One of the reasons they are calling you is certainly your expertise, and another is the reputation of the distributor for whom you work. But, let’s not overlook another important factor — you are free. If you weren’t there tomorrow but your existing clients had your new number, would those people call you and pay you for your advice? Maybe some would, but many (if not most) would still call the same number they’ve been calling and talk to whoever answers.
So your current client list isn’t very portable, although you may get some referrals from the people you know now and that’s certainly a start. But you’ll have to start establishing a new client base, and that is extremely difficult. You are up against established firms that have been around for a while, have good reputations, and are already getting the referrals. They already have the infrastructure in place, have a library of documents to draw from, and can work faster than you can so they may prove to be more competitive, removing any pricing advantage you may feel you have.
I wish I could give you some pointers as to how to get new clients, but after almost 10 years as an independent consulting firm we still struggle with that. Almost all of our work comes from referrals, and we’ve tried numerous marketing tactics (trade shows, advertising, lead services, outsourced sales forces) with little success. I’ve talked to a number of other consultants, and the story seems to be the same; take good care of your clients and they will take care of you.
I don’t mean to paint a pessimistic picture, but the economy is still shaky and I think you should be forewarned. Perhaps if you like consulting, you can consider working for an established firm — good people are hard to find in any economy, and if you know what you’re doing you should do well. But, at the end of the day we all need to bring home a paycheck, and that’s where I’d place my emphasis starting out.