Online consulting is a steadily blooming industry. There are consultants on almost every topic imaginable, from life coaches to expert gamers sharing their tips.
This getting started guide will explain what kinds of jobs are available, what you need to be a consultant, how consulting works and how much you should charge.
What kind of work can you do?
There really is no end to the topics you can consult on (though certain topics will require legal accreditation — so do your research first).
Here are some possible topics, off the top of my head:
- Small business
- Web design
- Web development
- Pet training
- Work/life balance
The list could go on for many pages. Anything people need help with can be a topic for consultation.
What you need
The basic tools of the web-based consultant are email, chat or Skype. If you don’t like the idea of having to meet clients online at certain times (possibly with an unfavorable time difference), email consulting could be the choice for you.
Chat allows for more a more conversational exchange without having to talk at the computer screen.
Consulting via Skype is the most personal connection and you may be able to charge more for this than the other options.
The next step to undertake before you start sourcing-out clients is to build a profile in your consulting field.
There are a number of ways you can do this:
- Maintain a blog in your consulting field.
- Join related trade organizations and associations. You’ll seem a lot more formally qualified if you have certified memberships to official bodies.
- Join a forum on your topic and try to be as useful to other members as possible. You can link to your consulting services in your signature.
- Write an eBook or self-publish a book on your topic.
Your sales pitch
Potential clients will want to be assured that you’re an expert in your field. Your hire me page should essentially include every aspect of your involvement with the consulting topic, as long as it effectively communicates your expertise.
It should answer the question: why should people want to pay for your consultation? How are you going to make it worth their time and money?
You could also use one or two of the following offers to help tip the balance:
- If they’re not satisfied after the first hour clients can claim an instant refund (or even a 110% money-back guarantee).
- Get the first half-an-hour free.
- Give clients a percentage discount if they purchase hours in bulk.
You can list yourself on freelancing job sites, buy an AdWords campaign or put a hire me page on your blog or website. You could also purchase a banner ad on a website likely to be frequented by potential clients.
How consulting works
A consultation is a discussion on a particular topic, usually operating under an expert/questioner dynamic.
You’ll provide advice and answers and your client will ask questions, field ideas and plug you for suggestions.
You could also consult using a tutor model, in which you prepare topics or lessons for the day and ‘teach’ the client.
Another consultation model is the ‘coaching’ model, where you give the clients tips, tricks and plans to make them better at something.
The kind of model you choose will depend on your topic and the style of consultation which suits you best.
Tips on being a good consultant
Tip #1: Give the client your undivided attention.
Clients are paying for your undivided attention and that’s what you should give them. A client will quickly grow frustrated if they sense that you’re distracted or doing two things at once.
If you have difficulty staying focused, consulting via Skype is probably the best option for you. The immediacy of communication forces you to single-task.
Tip #2: Organize quick initial payment from new clients.
You should always require new clients to pay you within a week of the date you start consulting with them. This helps establish that they’re serious about your services and don’t intend to rip you off.
I’ve heard horror stories of clients promising to pay monthly, taking a month’s worth of free consulting and disappearing into the labyrinth that is the web.
Tip #3: Make each hour worth it.
If a client looks back on an hour they’ve paid for and thinks “I’m not sure what I got out of that” they may well start to feel that they’re not getting what they’ve paid for.
If you feel as if your discussion has meandered (and that may not be your fault), change the topic of conversation briefly and share a useful tip with the client. It may just help save the hour.
How much should you charge?
We can benefit from the commonly held perception that consultants don’t come dirt-cheap. How much you can charge will benefit on your profile, level of expertise, experience and whether or not you can make the price worth it.
Consultants who are helping their clients make money can always charge more than those who aren’t because paying for a consultation is seen as an investment in the future.
If you’re working for a client who stands to make money with the help of your advice, you could probably get away with a starting point of $30 an hour and move up in price as your confidence grows.
I’ve no doubt that some people reading this will argue that $30 an hour is too cheap, even as a starting rate, and it is indeed on the cheap side for a professional service.
However, when starting out as a consultant you’ve still got your training wheels on. You’ll make mistakes, you might have difficulty answering questions and phrasing your advice clearly.
Setting a high hourly rate will only serve to give you performance anxiety. My suggestion is to raise your rates in line with your confidence.
As a consultant dealing with businesses you should aim to eventually be charging more than $50 an hour.
Keep incrementally raising your rates until people start to turn you down. How high you can go will depend on how much your clients think your advice is worth.
Consultants on topics without the potential to make the client money can expect a more murky price-range.
Clients are likely to be individuals paying you out of a personal rather than a business budget. For that reason, I’d suggest a starting rate anywhere between $20 to $30.
If you get more expressions of interest than you can manage, it’s time to raise your rates.
If you’re working as a consultant (or thinking about it) I’d be interested to hear your story in the comments below.