Some Key Points I Wish I'd Known Earlier...

November 08, 2016

Some Key Points I Wish I'd Known Earlier...

Like any job, being a consultant gets easier the more you do it. I’ve been consulting for twenty-five years, and I’m still learning. That’s part of the fascination. Yet there are a few points I would have liked to learn right at the start. I expect you know them already but just in case...

Cash Is King

I’m sure you’ve heard this before. It’s true for any business and particularly for consulting. Let’s face it; you’re consulting to earn a living, and you’d like to be paid for the work you put in. Given that, and the fact that you should have a professional relationship with your client, don’t be coy about raising the subject when there is a money (or lack of it) problem. Generally the situation is that you’ve done the work, invoiced, and not received payment. Excuses I’ve heard to avoid bringing the subject up include “I don’t like to talk about money; it sours the relationship” and “Well, it’s kind of tacky to bring it up.”

I couldn’t disagree more. It’s a business relationship. If your client takes offense (unlikely), he or she shouldn’t be hiring consultants. Try ignoring the plumber or garage mechanic’s bill, and see what happens!

Clients Buy Perceived Value

When I started as a consultant in a consulting company many years ago, they assigned me an hourly fee rate. I was supposed to work 80 percent of my billable hours at that rate. I remember being shocked at the time that anyone would ever consider me to be worth so much. (I’m more confident now.) It took me a long time to learn that whatever value I think I’m worth is irrelevant; it’s the value that the client perceives he is getting that counts. And when you work as a consultant for a company, the client isn’t just hiring you; he’s hiring the company with all its reputation, body of expertise, track record, and so on.

The fact that perceived value is critical is never more appropriate than when selling consulting projects as anyone who has been in that situation is well aware of.

Clients Who Insist on Hourly Rates Are Generally to Be Avoided

If a client wants a defined piece of work done, it’s none of the client’s business how many hours I put in. Let’s say the client accepts a proposal of $10,000. As long as it’s completed to standard and within the timescale, why should the client care if I do it in ten hours or one hundred? Do I care how many hours my decorator took to paint my house? No, I just wanted him to do a good job, and I paid what we agreed.

Quoting hourly rates opens up all sorts of issues, such as the following (all of which I’ve had thrown at me):

  • You’ll need more hours than that!
  • How can you justify charging so high?
  • I was expecting a much lower rate than this.

And the worst:

  • I wish I earned that much an hour (conveniently forgetting that they aren’t paying for health insurance, sales time, vacation time, etc.).

So my advice is to avoid quoting hourly rates if you can.

I used to work for a large consulting company that specialized in getting big companies out of environmental disasters. The client’s lawyers would call them up and say things like, “We’ve had a leak and polluted the river. Help!” In cases like these, in which the client wants a get-out-of-jail-free card (literally), you can charge what you want. The consulting company charged very high hourly rates, and the jobs lasted as long as it lasted, sometimes years. Nice work if you can get it.

And one more thing:

Client communication is critical.

Consider two scenarios:

  • A client sends you an e-mail with a complicated request. You know it will take at least a week to collect the data and compile it, so you e-mail him back ten days later and wonder why he seems annoyed.
  • You’ve just started a project, and the final report is due in a month. You work hard for more than three weeks, and all is well. You’re confident that you’ll have the report to your client on time. But she calls you and sounds irritated until you assure her that everything is on track.

Both of these scenarios show a lack of attention to communication. In the first, the client doesn’t even know that you received his request, let alone that you’re working on it. In the second, she’s left to assume that you’re working on it, that everything is going okay, and that you’ll deliver on time.

In each case, all that’s needed is some thoughtful communication. In the first, respond to his e-mail and tell him it will take a few days and that you think you can get him what he needs by a certain date. If he’s not happy with that, he’ll let you know, and you can discuss it. In the second, all that’s needed is a weekly update e-mail or call, something along the lines of “Just a quick update. We have everything we need, and the work is going as planned. We should have the final report with you by the agreed upon date. If you’d like any more information at this stage, please get in touch.”

Easy, huh? But those little things make a world of difference.

If you have any key points you wish you'd known earlier in your consulting career, I'd love to hear them.


As a highly experienced consultant and author of “Consulting Made Easy”, Adrian assists consultants, or would be consultants, to achieve success on their terms in their own consulting businesses.  Adrian helps consultants increase their fee rates, find more clients, have more free time and have more fun.
Contact Adrian at to learn more.

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