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6 Tips for New Consultants: Thriving and Surviving in an Unfamiliar World

Go Beyond What You Think You're Capable Of

Starting out as a new consultant, especially if you’re a fresh graduate, can feel intimidating. The title of ‘consultant’ suggests subject matter expertise, which new hires typically lack. Being unable to answer client questions when you’re starting out often leads to feeling of uncertainty mixed with an unhealthy dose of imposter syndrome. Fear not, new consultants, for I have been in your shoes and have tips that helped me a lot when I was just starting out.

1) Accept that Nothing is Faultless

Perfectionists beware, consulting is not a field in which everything is polished and perfect. When you advise a company with thousands of users in dozens of countries, no process is followed exactly, no data is clean and consistent, and no two people want exactly the same end result. Your job is not to be perfect, nor is it to strive for perfection, nor is it to please everyone. If you start your career in consulting aiming for a goal you can never reach, you’ll burn out.

Your work will not be perfect the first time, nor the fiftieth time, and that’s okay. Some of the documents I’ve created are now on version 4.5. Consulting is a collaborative field with constant feedback and adjustments as needs change and clients get a clearer idea of what they want. Once you accept that nothing is faultless, your chances of satisfying your client while maintaining a healthy work/life balance and positive outlook improve considerably.

2) Learn New Things Every Day

New hires don’t know everything, and they aren’t expected to. The expectation is that new hires will learn quickly and efficiently, and there’s several ways that can be accomplished:

Research

Even experienced consultants constantly research, ask questions, and learn new things. Your clients, your field, and consulting itself are in constant states of change and growth as industry leaders shift strategies and disruptive innovation displaces existing market-leading firms, products, and processes. Pay attention to shifting trends and new processes, ask your coworkers questions when you’re stuck, and use the online resources available to help you do your job. All of it will help you down the road.

Offer to Help

When I have little going on, I ask my coworkers what they have going on. Sometimes, they’re stuck on something I can help with, or I can at least help them research the solution. Other times, they’ll be doing something I have no experience with, and if they don’t mind showing me what they’re doing, I’ll watch and learn. There are also times they have way too much going on at once, and I can take something off of their plate like documentation. Your best resources are the people you work with, and if you’re not trying to learn from them, you’re stagnating yourself.

Teach What (You Think) You Know

Sometimes known as the Feynman Technique, teaching others is one of the best ways to learn a topic. My coworkers and I are constantly creating workshops, demos, instructional videos, and quick reference guides. Not only do these activities allow us to bring positive attention and marketing to the company, but it also allows us to receive and pass on knowledge to each other. Additionally, learning something with the intention of teaching it ensures that you take special care to trying to learn every detail of the process. You have to be able to answer questions, which means you have to think of possible questions someone may have and find answers before the question is asked. My areas of expertise are those that I’ve learned with a focus on the ability to teach them later.

Take Advantage of Learning Opportunities

They’re all around you. When I was just starting out, a coworker posted an open offer to be in a presale client call, and I jumped on the opportunity because I’d never been in a presale call, and I saw the value in learning how calls are conducted. When I noticed a grammar error on our website, I learned how to use WordPress and Elementor to edit the mistake myself (Webmaster’s note: Michelle has saved us from many a tipo typo). When my client asked to implement something neither myself nor my team lead had experience with, I offered to learn and demo it, and be the go-to for that feature in the future. When new YouTube videos pop up related to the software I use, I watch them. When SAP hosts a webinar, I dial in. When I learned that my industry has respected certifications related to my subject matter of expertise, I started studying for them. There is almost never ‘nothing to do’ so long as you look for it.

Ultimately, if you’re learning nothing, something is off. Consulting is a dynamic field, and your responsibilities change often (if not all the time, then project-to-project). In my role, I’m doing something different every day, and thus each day presents an opportunity to gain new expertise and hone existing skills.

3) Document as You Go

We all have to do it, and the longer you put it off, the harder it will be. Documentation is an incredibly essential but often tedious part of consulting. It is necessary to ensure that you and your client are on the same page as you work through a process, and it protects you and your company from liability issues or claims of differing from the statement of work. It also gives your client and yourself the ability to look back and understand why certain decisions were made, as so many decisions will be made in the process of a project that you won’t remember all the reasons without good documentation. 

If you put off documentation, you’re liable to forget, and then you’ll waste time and resources trying to remember. So, document as you go. You’ll thank me (and yourself) later.

4) Repeat after me: "I Don't Know, but I'll Find Out"

In my experience, this is the best way to handle a question when you don’t know the answer. Most importantly, do not lie, do not make something up, and do not end with just “I don’t know.” Not knowing is acceptable, not knowing and showing your client that you don’t care to find out is unacceptable. 

If you have a good idea of what the answer should be, consider using a sentence constructed like this: “From what I’ve seen/in my experience, it is like this, but I’ll double check and follow up with you.” Write down whatever they need, make sure you fully understand what they’re asking, and follow up with them promptly. Your reputation as a consultant relies on your ability to keep promises to your client. Once you lose your client’s trust, you’ve lost your client.

5) Be Mindful of Scope Creep

Scope creep refers to “changes, continuous or uncontrolled growth in a project’s scope, at any point after the project begins. This can occur when the scope of a project is not properly defined, documented, or controlled.” You may be tempted to “save the world” or do all your client asks of you as your project progresses. Don’t shut down all client requests, but at the same time, ensure that you’re sticking to the scope that was outlined in the statement of work. If you feel like your project is veering far off that track, address the issue with your client and coworkers.

6) Meet Your Client's Needs

This point can essentially be boiled down to “do your job,” but as a new consultant, understanding what your job entails can be difficult. Your job isn’t to please everyone, know everything, bill a million hours, and do it all yourself perfectly. It is to meet the needs of your client, as outlined in the statement of work, in the designated timelines, with a focus on customer experience so that hopefully your client likes you, respects you, trusts you, and would be willing to refer you and/or work with you in the future.

The stability of your company and your role in that company rely on the satisfaction you bring to your clients, so keep your focus tight and work to build a solid relationship. As a bonus, your job will be more enjoyable and rewarding, too.

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