Challenges: realities to consider
Is it reasonable for you build up a business as an information professional? This chapter lists the subjects for consideration allowing you to face the challenges of the profession. Are you able to handle the often hectic load of working hours; would your family accept this? The special requirements of clients often mean a challenge. You also have to decide when and how to subcontract. Last but not least, assess your financial and educational background and personality.
Many consultants quickly admit they have no idea where their next assignment is coming from. They don’t panic because, looking back, something always came along and it’s reasonable for them to expect something always will. Moments of doubt and discouragement are a fact of life, and it may take a certain amount of faith and perseverance to get through such rough patches. Of course, doing the marketing and prospecting homework is a critical factor in lining up work for the future, and having a financial cushion is essential.
Setting up a consulting business can cause some stress in your private life. It is vital to discuss plans with everyone affected in great detail. Your changed work circumstances will have an impact, especially if in the first few years you need to work much longer hours than you previously did. Family members deserve to know in advance that you may not be as available as you were, that you might be harried at times and that you need their cooperation in very concrete ways.
The feast-and-famine feature of self-employment is well known. Periods of extremely heavy workloads alternate with periods of involuntary leisure – also known as ‘opportunities to do some networking and marketing’. Vacations may in fact ‘happen’ rather than being planned in advance. You may even have to cancel planned vacations or engagements when a report is due tomorrow.
Global business means sometimes working and interacting in projects within a 24-hour time schedule between continents. Phone calls and other forms of communication can take place at inconvenient hours. Customers may think that we are available all the time. Requests can be received from other countries by e-mail, fax and telephone. The latter is the easiest to handle, due to the interactive nature of a telephone conversation. Due to the time differences, however, it may also mean that the consultant stays up late at night or gets up early in the morning, so that the call is made during working hours of the client. These kinds of inconvenience may be less attractive.
Until work piles up again, use your free time to develop new skills; it’s a wise investment. Subcontracting to others when the work does accumulate can be an essential option. To prepare for that circumstance, you must build and maintain professional networks. Be prepared to offer specific contingency plans. In the case of illness or other situations rendering the consultant unavailable, what back-up personnel are available? Identify clearly at the outset who is performing project subtasks if the consultant has subcontractors or staff.
Avoid taking on too much work so that you compromise delivery. It is better to have a potential client going elsewhere than to risk your reputation by not keeping commitments. Reliability is a key professional asset and definitely one you must protect. Experience shows us that many clients are in fact more flexible with timelines than what they first indicate.
Most consultants can relate a number of anecdotes about assignments that, as they might put it, ‘taught them a great deal’. Sophisticated client relations skills develop with time. From the simple ‘Unless I hear to the contrary by close of business Friday I will proceed as outlined in the document dated 12 March’, to the bolder ‘Your request for a change has sufficient ramifications for a fee adjustment’, you will discover the techniques to keep assignments on track. ‘Scope creep’ happens frequently in any consulting context - it’s only natural for clients to begin asking for more once they discover what you are capable of doing. There is always room to be generous, but we owe it to ourselves to be judicious.
If in doubt when a challenge arises, sleep on it! You want to build a good, lasting client relationship if at all possible. Remember, your clients themselves may be under considerable pressure and worried about how their performance looks. Practise the fine art of delay. Don’t send that e-mail or leave that voicemail just yet. Instead, give yourself time to evaluate how you can tackle the situation and look like the consummate professional you are. ‘I have given your comments considerable thought and here are my suggestions’ not only puts you in a positive light, but also signals that you understand the client’s perception, which can only help the relationship.
Some consultants realise they need the structured environment an office provides in order to stay productive. The cat, the refrigerator, the TV or the household chores sometimes prove too distracting in the long run. Others find they miss the constant interaction with colleagues and the camaraderie around the office. Still others begin to feel out of touch with the profession. You should know up front that working solo takes discipline and requires a concerted effort to stay in touch with professional peers and to keep up with developments in the field.
Getting right to the point: are you financially stable? Anyone setting out in self-employment territory should have sufficient financial resources to meet obligations even if no money is made for a year or more. We know of colleagues who set out on a wing and a prayer and succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, but don’t bet the house that consulting will become lucrative quickly.
Even with a year’s income in the bank, and reducing your spending habits, you might reduce your spending sufficiently to offset a period of low income. In case of doubt, seek the advice of a professional financial planner. (Note: The financial planning forecast should allow ample room not only for office accoutrements and connectivity gadgets but also for the services of an accountant, a computer support person and possibly administrative support.)
Some beginning consultants ease the financial pressure by taking on part-time jobs. While a good strategy for some, it could dilute your focus. Another approach could be teaming up with an established consultant, offering services as a subcontractor.
If you hire others to perform certain components of a project, it is logical to have an agreement with them similar to the one you have with your client. Regardless of the subcontracting terms, be up front with the client about your intentions:
Discretionary. You indicate that you may subcontract certain work if the need arises, but assure the client that all subcontractors will operate under your direct supervision and that you will not engage subcontractors without client approval.
Identified after the fact. You purchase certain supplemental deliverables from others and incorporate them openly in yours. (Example: A strategic recommendations report has an appendix containing industry statistics you paid a researcher to put together. You indicate the source of the statistics.)
A common observation across the board is that formal information/knowledge science qualifications (the MLS degree and its European equivalent) equip their owners to tackle the technical aspects of assignments but do not equip them to succeed in managing client relationships. It is stressed that their success rests on additional skills and knowledge, such as communication, project management, insight into corporate culture and risk assessment, people skills, situa- tional sensitivity and, most important of all, finesse. In addition, they echo a sentiment that success depends on the ability to ‘change with changing times’, in other words, to adjust offerings and roles as time goes by and clients’ business requirements change.
Over and above pointing to ‘business savvy’ as a desirable skill to add to our information consultants’ repertoires, the success factors driving a good business relationship between a client and a consultant are very similar to those driving a good relationship between typical information specialists and their managers. Put another way, we feel every information specialist can benefit from building the ‘soft skills’ discussed here.
Many librarians report obtaining their business development and client relationship management skills by trial and error and ordinary common sense. It merits consideration whether some ‘how-to’ modules might constitute valuable offerings by professional information/knowledge-related associations for their members; for example:
The list goes on. Enhancing one’s overall professional qualifications with a good dose of interpersonal dexterity can make a very positive contribution to our careers. We shouldn’t need to gain such competencies the hard way.
2. Marketing and sales/business development: techniques for identifying high-potential clients; developing the ‘pitch’ based on highly specific value propositions; measuring and communicating ROI (return on investment); mastering the sales presentation; using professional networks; etc.
3. Client relations: project management and communication; quality assurance; reporting and articulating positive outcomes as well as challenges; dealing with people-related issues; building rapport and trust; etc.
Quite apart from the success factors of a good financial cushion, a supportive family and a hungry market, certain personal skills are valuable. Should you realise you have a certain number of those skills in smaller measure than others, remember that any skill can be developed over time. Table 3.1 highlights some of these skills.
|Concentration||Can you focus on a task (for example writing a document with a great deal of complex detail) for extended periods? If interrupted, can you quickly pick up where you left off?|
|Multi-tasking||Can you keep the particulars of multiple assignments straight? When a client calls, can you instantly switch gears and remember ‘where you are’?|
|Patience||Can you tolerate repeated delays? How do you react when asked for the same information many times over? Would you feel frustrated if your proposal wasn’t accepted as is, and quickly?|
|Equanimity||Suppose a client does the opposite of what you recommend - or client staff strongly criticise your proposed solution - how would you feel and react?|
|Quick study||Can you absorb masses of new information and ‘get the picture’ quickly?|
|Communication||Are you able to communicate your capabilities, ideas and recommendations clearly and compellingly? Can you respond with dignity to requests such as ‘Please provide proof your approach will save us money’? Can you smoothly convince someone that what he has asked for is not what he needs and that you have a better idea?|
|Relationship management||Do you easily form good relationships with others? Are you good at interpersonal dynamics? Do people tend to trust you and like you? Do you project authority and competence? Do you have a large personal and professional network?|
|Projecting credibility and gaining trust||Do you come across as competent and confident? Do people usually get the immediate impression you know what you are doing? Do you have the ability to gain support and cooperation from others?|
|Negotiating||Are you able to negotiate what you want and leave the clients feeling they got a good deal? Can you agree to a lower compensation without compromising the value message?|
|Tolerance and ambiguity||Can you deal easily with ‘fuzzy’ situations? Are you good at ‘making the call’ even though not all information is available?|
|Corporate culture savvy||Do you have a knack for understanding organisational culture and working with it? Are you familiar with common cultures in government, non-profit and the private sector?|
|Independence||Do you work well alone, or do you tend to seek the reassurance of bouncing ideas off others?|
|Coping with anxiety||The inherently unpredictable nature of self- employment is anxiety-producing enough. Add to that anxiety associated with making clients happy! Do you have inner resources to help you deal with the inevitable moments of worry?|
In reviewing strengths and weaknesses, remember these are often two sides of the same coin. For example, consultants who are very independent may be able to make rapid progress on an assignment, but if that same independence causes them to neglect asking important questions, they may have to do some work over again. ‘Quick studies’ may gather information and produce coherent output from a jumble of facts very rapidly, but such a talent may also lead them to procrastinate starting because they believe they can always pull it off – until the day the late start catches up with them. Similarly, having excellent skills in talking a client around to your point of view could lead you to stick with what has worked in the past and miss the opportunity for fresh approaches.
If your self-assessment gives the green light for making the career move to consulting, then a new set of tasks appears. In the next part of the book, we address the practicalities of setting up a practice.
Chapter 3 checklist
Be honest, lay out all your ideas and problems, and ask lots of questions; but be prepared to adjust your dreams to reality, budget and time, to prioritise and deliberate tradeoffs, and to stay engaged throughout ‘the project’.