Independent consultants play a large role in assisting NGOs, consulting firms and donor agencies in their activities, and many professionals with technical expertise are striking out on their own in favor of this flexible and often lucrative option.
Whether you’re just starting out as an independent consultant or have a long list of satisfied clients, knowing what’s expected of you as a consultant can be the most challenging part of any professional relationship. Good consultants must stay one step ahead of client expectations — even when clients don’t seem entirely sure what they want.
Here are five habits successful consultants use to build and maintain clear, long-lasting client relationships.
1. They shape a networking strategy
Beyond updating resumes and professional profiles, independent consultants must actively circulate themselves in the development community. Networking for consultants isn’t simply a way of meeting potential clients, it’s a means of understanding the industry and finding like-minded professionals from which to draw experience.
Gathered at Devex’s 7th Annual D.C. Career Forum, a panel of consultants and development professionals agreed that when you’re starting out, it’s important to network widely and aggressively.
“Basically, I just shopped myself around,” said Kathryn Erskine, director of recruitment at Chemonics International, who told the audience that it was through consulting that she got her start in business development.
“Anybody I met with a connection to international development, I would ask for an informational coffee meeting and would send them my resume.”
Anna Forbes, an independent consultant, told the audience she sent out ten resumes a week to potential clients to get her name out.
Both stressed the importance of casting a wide net in any networking strategy. Unlike other careers in development, Erskine said, opportunities for consultants don’t solely lie with recruiters.
“The people usually hiring consultants in the USAID networks are technical staff, project staff and obviously staff in the field,” she said.
And networking after wrapping up a project is just as important.
“Keep your prior connections and clients informed,” said Marjorie Macieira, principal at Macieira Consulting. “Regularly send [former] clients a little note to let them know what you’re working on and how it relates to their work.”
Upon starting out as a consultant, Macieira also immediately began getting together with fellow professionals to talk about the business of consulting.
The group has been meeting monthly for seven years, she said, to “generate information” and share advice about consulting. Groups like these help consultants get to know the industry on a career track that can often seem solitary.
2. They define their role (especially when the client can’t)
“If I feel a client isn’t spelling out to me clearly enough what she or he wants, I ask if I can submit a proposal or a terms of reference that outlines what I’m going to do,” Forbes said.
She added that it’s crucial to clarify all expectations and deliverables for each phase of the project at the beginning of the relationship, to “minimize bumps down the road.”
Panelists agreed that the more specific the terms, the better. These could include the number and timing of rewrites — a week or 10 days after the client submits comments, Forbes said — establishing a protocol for delays and the number of meetings the consultant will attend, among other things.
Confusion about these issues, Erskine added, “can really be destructive for a relationship,” and can make the client think the consultant is “slipping through the cracks.”
3. They know how (and when) to increase their rate
When it comes to rates, consultants often undersell themselves.
Forbes noted that unlike full-time employees, independent consultants have to build three things into their rate: the actual work, looking for future opportunities and maintaining skills.
“In my experience, it’s about one-third [for each] in terms of time commitment,” she said. “That helped me be a little braver in terms of asserting my rate.”
But even when you understand your worth, getting a client to pay your desired rate takes some savvy. For clients like the U.S. Agency for International Development, who establish a rate by dividing previous salaries by the number of annual work days, there are few alternatives.
“You really have to have a good excuse if you want to increase your rate [with USAID], like a change in your cost of living,” Macieira said. “I’ve also changed my sector in order to up my rate, moving from nonprofit to the private sector, because they’re a little more willing to work with you on rates.”
Even then, the client relationship is the foundation of raising your rate down the road, so advertising your services, even after you’re hired, will yield results.
“You’re here not just to do this job, but you’re bringing a vision for the longer term,” Macieira suggested. “And then you have more leverage to work on the fee.”
4. When they can’t do the work, they still put the client first
Nothing leaves a lasting impression on a client like recommending a competitor.
“It shows the client that you’re positive and not territorial,” Forbes said.
The consulting group that she and Macieira share serves as a pool of experts they draw from for recommendations.
“We’ve created our own network of consulting-specific opportunities,” Macieira said, “and that has generated work for me as well.”
Passing a contract onto a more qualified consultant demonstrates that you put the client’s needs before your own, and builds your brand with the client as a professional and productive consultant.
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