What Does a Consultant Do?

If you want to see what it means to be a consultant — and enjoy a little entertainment while you’re at it — turn on Netflix and find a 1970s tv show called The Rockford Files. I recommend starting with the second or third episode of the first season.

If you watch the show, you’ll see that Jim Rockford is a Private Investigator, something like Sherlock Holmes, but with a very different style. For the purposes of this book, the point is that he sells his services, just like an accountant, lawyer, car repair person, architect, gardener, or computer programmer sells their services.

How consulting projects work

In almost every episode you’ll see the same things:

  • Someone comes to him with a problem.
  • They learned about him from (a) someone else who had used his services before, or (b) his quarter-page ad in the Yellow Pages.
  • They tell him about their problem.
  • Very early on in the initial discussion he makes it clear that he charges “$200 a day, plus expenses.” (There’s no use in talking to people for too long if they can’t afford you, right?)
  • During the episode he uses his professional skills and experience to solve their problem.

The phases of a consulting project

The show covers almost all phases of being a consultant, including:

  • The marketing of his business, which works by word of mouth and his Yellow Pages ad.
  • The sales process, which includes the initial “meet and greet” between a prospect and the consultant. The prospect explains their problem, and Mr. Rockford explains what he does (and what he doesn’t do), and states his price.
  • It’s important to note that he doesn’t vary on his price. It’s always “$200 a day, plus expenses.”
  • The services part of his business, which is how he uses his unique skillset to solve his client’s problem.

As the tv show demonstrates, the “meet and greet” portion of the job usually doesn’t take much time, and 75-90% of your time will involve working to solve the current problem.

The big mistake he always makes

Almost the entire show is about being a consultant, and the biggest mistake he makes (over and over again) is not getting a retainer up front. This adds to the comedy of the show — that his clients often fail to pay him — but you don’t want your work to be a comedy, do you? (Get a retainer for your services, with 10-50% of the money up front.)

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