I love my job. Still I sometimes miss being on the inside, what we agencies call the "client" side.
The "Real" Job
In my idealistic memory, the client of public relations held many wonders. I had a lot of control over the strategic direction of the public relations department and certainly over my projects. I usually called the shots with my bosses when it came to making the hard decisions. I was a true counselor. I was trusted and valued.
Did you notice that I said it came from my "idealistic" memory.
Truth is that on the client side there are as many horrors as triumphs. For starters, there is budgets and they are always shrinking. Plus, there is the internal clients: the executives, the boards, bosses, co-workers, and general internal pressure to keep topping what you did the year before.
In a word…pressure.
On My Own
When I first started consulting in 2002, I had just moved to San Antonio and had a built-in client from my old home in Washington D.C. that was willing to pay me for about half my time. Since my husband was carrying pretty good health insurance, I decided to make the move to consulting…something I had dreamed about. When we built our first house, I had this office set up in the house.
The first year really stunk.
I had a great client, but my work went from being creative and strategic to almost entirely tactical. I wasn't sure if I had done the right thing. But I have one character trait that kept me at it…I am stubborn, really stubborn. You can ask my Mom, or my former bosses.
So I kept at it.
And slowly I started to pick up clients, a few here, a few there. I started to get work I enjoyed and as my clients continued to trust me more, I started getting to show them my strategic stuff.
I started to have fun.
There were a few things that turned the tide for me. And I will present them for tips to those of you thinking of joining the consulting side and also for those of you that are already consulting. And if you are someone looking for great consultants, you might get a few hints on where to look for them.
Five Things to Consider
Give Your Time Away: Serve on a committee or board of a local club or charity like PRSA, IABC, Chamber of Commerce, etc. and make a difference there. Get noticed for your expertise. This is not a quick way to conduct business development, but it sometimes brings the best clients.
Join with Other Consultants/Independents: Many local areas have clubs for the independent service provider, or for marketing and PR people. There is a PRSA Independent's section at the national level, the DC Independents Alliance is a local group and there are other similar organizations. This also helps when you want to win some bigger business and need subcontractors. Ask around. If you know of other similar groups, leave them in the comments.
Sound Professional: Get a professional phone service. One that is pretty affordable and doesn't require that you get a second line is RingCentral. You can have an 800 or local number with voicemail that follows you everywhere. It also includes fax and you can even assign a line to a subcontractor. It will inspire confidence in your clients. I also have a GrandCentral account (owned by Google) which is free and does the same thing, but it is very unreliable and is still in Beta.
Get a Tax Advisor: Don't try to do this yourself, it is worth every penny, 'nuff said. Ask for recommendations from friends in your area.
Have An Online Presence: A simple WordPress blog set up like a Website is easy to set up, cheap and puts you in the driver's seat for changing content. You don't have to use the blog function, but if helps give you a little lift in Google searches, and you can meet a lot of great people along the way as you refine your thoughts. Also, most online hosting packages throw in e-mail support, so you can get a firstname.lastname@example.org and have it forwarded to your mail client (forward it to GoogleMail if you travel for access to your e-mail anywhere).
The Bad and the Ugly
So I promised you the bad and the ugly too. And there is plenty of that. Consulting is not for you if you are not self directed. You can work in or out of your home (long live the co-working movement) but you do have to work…a lot.
If you have a client that accounts for half of your time or more, when they move on (as they always eventually will regardless of how good you) you can lose half your income. It's better that your heavy hitting clients take no more than a quarter of your time.
And while we are on the subject of clients, you will have to learn to be seen as a commodity (consultant) rather than an asset (employee). It is just a fact of life. Some clients are better than others at making you feel a part of the team, but in the end, their loyalty is not to you.
It is hard to take a decent vacation without worrying about a million details. You can take them, but it nags at the back of our mind. Of course, you could choose to hire people and get a real company going so that you can get away occasionally, but that brings a whole new set of headaches.
Also, the work is not steady. Or at least not all of it is. You might get a few great clients, but you will always be working to fill the rest of your time without getting overloaded.
And it is really easy to get overloaded. You hate to say no to good work. So you work some more and worry about your work-life balance.
Still, you have freedom, and that is pretty liberating. It would be pretty hard to go back.
Would love to hear any more tips, horror stories, or from the client side, what you look for in a consultant.