What is a consultant?

No matter your industry or the size of your business, consultants can be a source of motivational and practical guidance

In almost any segment of business, receiving advice is a central component to achieving success—whether that’s in building a business, running a team, undertaking creative pursuits, or speaking publicly. Expert advice from friends, colleagues, and paid consultants can fast track your progress and become the difference between where you are now and where you wish to be. 

No matter your industry or the size of your business, professional consultants can be a source of motivational and practical guidance to help conceptualize and execute strategy, hire talent, and scale operations. In fact, some of the most successful companies in the world can attribute their success (in part) to the consultants who helped them grow from startups to established companies. 

In this article we explain what a consultant is, how they help companies, and the steps you need to take if you’re looking to become a consultant yourself. 

What is a consultant? 

A consultant is an expert in a specific field who is paid to advise teams or individuals. This could be in the form of strategy, recommendations, analysis, or troubleshooting. Consultants are hired either as a resource for outsourcing work (typically consultants can make their own schedules) or because they have in-depth expertise in a certain area. Though consulting spans many industries and services, common areas for consulting include business coaching, management guidance, accountancy, compliance, law, and marketing. 

(Find more information on how to start a consulting business and the questions to ask yourself beforehand.)

The best consultants are experts in their field

The most sought-after consultants are typically people who’ve proven themselves in the industry and gone onto establish themselves independently and share their knowledge with others. A consultant might be a self-made professional, successful entrepreneur, someone with a background working with well-known companies or clients, or a person widely reputed as a leader in their field. 

For example, former professional basketball player Isiah Thomas went on to become a consultant to the New York Knicks, which is a natural step for someone with his professional credibility. Alternatively, legal clerk and activist Erin Brockovich, who was instrumental in building a case against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, started with no legal background and became an expert through passion and persistence. She is now the president of an eponymous consulting firm and is also employed as a consultant by other law firms in Los Angeles.

For Zaki Hussain, CEO and founder of WeWork member company Clutchgrowth, which curates and runs marketing campaigns for clients, the push to become a consultant came when a consulting agency taught him what not to do. And like many great consultants before him, Hussain left his full-time job on a mission to share his learnings with others.

“I was head of marketing at a company in Silicon Valley when I employed an outside consultancy to help with building our new website,” he says. “My team was impressed by what this agency said they could do. They had strong thought leaders, wrote compelling content, and presented a track record of generating leads. Very quickly, however, the process of working with them became a problem. I wondered: How many other companies have had similar disappointing experiences?”

Why do companies use a consultant? 

In most cases, consultants offer expertise that typical employees might not possess. This credibility can come from a lengthy career honing a certain skill, or from working with a variety of clients to improve results in a certain area. 

“Rather than just delivering ads, landing pages, or campaigns, we consult with clients on how to best generate revenue, including how to hire exceptional talent, budget and scale their teams, and strategize for sustainable growth,” says Hussain. “What’s the use of an experienced SaaS consultant if all you’re using them for is to launch ads and report on clicks?”

In addition, using consultants can be a flexible alternative to hiring talent. They’re typically employed on an ad hoc basis and paid by the hour for a limited period of time. Though the hourly rate for a consultant might be higher than the rate for a regular, full-time employee, companies pay only for the time they need and there’s no need for the hiring company to contribute to health-care benefits or retirement funds. 

Eight industries that frequently hire consultants 

While consulting can happen in almost every industry, there are certain fields in which consultants typically find work. Here are those industries: 

1. Finance

Finance consultants can be called upon to provide financial guidance, accounting services, or auditing and compliance training. Clients can range from growing startups looking for advice around investment to Fortune 500 firms looking to expand a portfolio or remain compliant. 

2. Human resources

Companies navigating a transition—whether that’s hiring rapidly, going through an acquisition, or bringing on new leadership—can often hire human resources consultants to assist with employee documentation and, in some cases, employee well-being. These consultants can field questions around benefits, retirement funds, and visas, and can support in streamlining internal messaging and gathering the required documentation. 

3. Business strategy

Whether it’s helping a new business trying to gain traction or an established company pivoting from its original mission, business strategy consultants can help identify the steps required to succeed. These could include writing an effective business plan, bringing the right people on board, creating a product that differentiates you from your competition, or understanding the wider market. 

4. Business management

As businesses grow in size and profitability, management consulting is a valuable way to drive organizational change, coach managers, introduce new technologies and processes, or orient the team to support the larger business strategy. Management consultants evaluate the way the business is operating, and come in to optimize everything from leadership tactics to internal processes. 

5. Branding 

Building a business is one thing; building a brand is something else entirely. Brand consultants are typically creatives who are called upon to help conceptualize (and sometimes execute) all elements involved in branding. Responsibilities can cover brand messaging, design specifications, color palettes, voice and tone guidelines, and ensuring consistency in the look and feel of physical and digital assets. 

6. Health Care

Health-care consultants are hired by medical or health-related facilities to help reduce costs and, when applicable, introduce new procedures and technologies. These consultants typically offer practical training as well as insights into streamlining processes and improving profit margins. 

7. Tech

The field of tech consulting continues to grow as software systems, connectivity, internet marketing, and cybersecurity become more technical—and important for success. A tech consultant can help write code, build websites, fortify your hardware against viruses, and install software to improve efficiencies. 

8. Marketing 

When it’s marketing in the traditional sense, consultants can assist with creating budgets, timelines, marketing materials, and a large-scope strategy. There are digital marketing consultants, too, who work with websites and online content to improve a business’s chances of gaining traffic and revenue through Google.

What services do consultants offer?

There are a handful of different ways a consultant can support a company, including providing strategic advice, onetime training, execution, and coaching. 

WeWork Tokyo Square Garden in Tokyo.
WeWork Tokyo Square Garden in Tokyo.

Strategic advice 

This can be a recurring meeting or a one-off task, but strategic advice is a common ask of consultants. This typically involves solving a problem for the client: This problem could be related to a certain time in that company’s growth or life cycle, or it might be bigger-picture and related to planning for the future. In either instance, a consultant will arm the company or individual with the tools, perspective, and actions they need to move in the direction they wish to progress. 

Onetime training 

Companies rely on people to succeed, but it’s all too common for staff to experience roadblocks when driving the business forward. Whether it’s a leadership team struggling to align employees, a sales team finding it difficult to make sales, or a middle-management team failing to engage their direct reports, consultants can give people the tools and motivation they need to improve operations. 

In some cases, a consultant will be called in to identify and then solve the problem. In other cases, the problem is already clear, and a consultant will be hired because they have the time and strategies that other people in the company do not possess. 

Execution 

In some cases, consultants are hired to do the grunt work—the work that must be outsourced in order to free up operations and innovations within the company itself. Because consultants are typically in charge of their own schedules (and paid by the hour), they are able to help in getting sprint projects over the line, or assisting with seasonal needs like filing tax returns or reviewing employee benefits. 

Coaching

Not everything can be solved with a single session, or even several, and ongoing coaching is a popular way for individuals or companies to upskill gradually and execute upon a well-thought-out, expert-driven plan. Consultants can provide ongoing coaching to help guide a business, or an individual leader, to success. 

How to become a consultant 

Here are the main things to consider when taking the leap to becoming a consultant. 

Identifying what services you can offer

It’s important to be as specific as possible when starting out as a consultant. Expertise is an essential part of your value proposition as a consultant, and homing in on your skills and the advice you have to give is essential for success. 

Understanding what’s expected from that role

In bringing on new clients, it’s important to establish expectations around results. If you’re consulting on strategy, be specific about the plans you can help define and the results you hope to achieve. In coaching, training, and execution, ensure that you understand what the client wants to get from (or wants their team to get from) your training sessions. Be as specific as possible. 

Pitching your services

Word-of-mouth and networking are huge drivers when it comes to finding business as a consultant. So much of your success is related to the experience you give your clients, and the success they have as businesses, too. In addition to this, consider building a website, starting an advice blog, advertising on social media, or displaying or distributing physical assets at relevant conferences or industry events. 

Setting up a business

There are other considerations when starting out as a consultant, including defining your business structure, registering for the appropriate licenses, and growing your network. To learn more, read our comprehensive guide to starting a business

Supercharge your consulting business with a community of creators  

Whether you’re looking to hire a consultant, or to become a consultant yourself, WeWork offers connections and support to help you succeed. Beautifully designed lounges and conference rooms are available for both coworking spaces and private offices, and they aren’t just an effective backdrop to meeting potential partners—they’re primed for productivity, too. Plus, with a global network of professionals and creatives, it’s easy to find the right person to help guide you or your team.

The cyclic nature of giving and receiving advice forms it’s own type of ecosystem within the business world—if you’re looking for guidance to take your business to the next level, or if you’re hoping to share your expertise with a company that needs it, consultancy can lead to success on both fronts. Between business partners, professional mentors, friends, family, and paid consultants, the most successful and well-known businesses wouldn’t exist the same way without the relationship between those who can give advice and those who can accept it.

Caitlin Bishop is a writer for WeWork’s Ideas by We, based in New York City. Previously, she was a journalist and editor at Mamamia in Sydney, Australia, and a contributing reporter at Gotham Gazette.

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