How to become an effective Consultant

A guide for Software Engineers

The advantages of working in tech is that our work can easily transition into consulting. It's all code after all. But at work we use tools like Jira or Trello. The manager drops tickets in your queue and that's what you work on. We rarely think about what to do next. When consulting, you are on your own to figure what to do right now. Most developers will give up on consulting after their first stint. (Turns out you hate working on your cousin's app)

There is a gap between writing code to close a ticket and writing code for consulting. Right in the middle, there is the word Selling. As a developer myself, I hate selling. But I'm ok with gathering information. (It's the same thing, just keep on reading)

The great thing about sales is that you learn so much from a single fail. It's one thing to write about my experience every time I got a new client. I can explain the steps that I took to make sure I can answer their questions and deliver their product. But what's missing in this picture is what we tend to do naturally.

In the past, a client would approach me for a simple project and I'd wing it. In most of these cases, I'd fail. I either won't get their business, or I'd fail to deliver a final product. The reason would always be the same. I had no system to turn the first interaction into a final product.

Today, at the end of each interaction with a client, I aim to create a product. My goal is to have enough information to create this product. Here are a few examples of failures and what I learned from them:

Casual, unprepared encounter

I enjoy having a casual conversation with customers rather than have a rigid sales call. The goal is simple, by the end I want to have a packaged product I can sell. In this case, it's information.

We can meet in a café (pre-covid times) and talk it out until we have an idea of what we want to do. This is great, until you realize that you haven't asked the right questions to get started on a project.

To counter this, you have to come prepared to the meeting. Do some research on your client and the type of product they want. Write a list of questions you want to ask to clarify things. Try to have as many details as possible.

Armed with a list, you can extract useful information out of a casual conversation. A bonus would be to reuse the same list for every single client and improve it over time.

Failing to take notes

This is something that I hate to do. I always believe that I can memorize all the important details. I often remember a good chunk of it. But the human mind is not perfect. So I got into the habit of having a notebook around. A notebook rather than a phone for taking note. A phone or electronic device is often the source of many distractions.

Also, handwriting things down is an incredible process. It cements ideas in your head for the long term somehow.

At the end of this process, I have a list of questions and answers. I can use it for the next step.

No summary email

It's exciting to talk with someone about ideas. It's a free thinking process where everything can be said. But when it comes to building a product, we have to come back down to earth. When things are still fresh in your mind, rewrite your notes in actionable form, then send a recap email.

The summary email is the first product you sell to your new customer. This is what determines whether you will work together or not.

This email helps both you and the client know exactly what needs to be done next. It also allows the client to rectify any errors or assumptions that have been made.

Everyone wants to build the next Facebook. But looking at your ideas clearly written down, helps you better understand them. When I miss this step, I leave my customers with an unrealistic vision. They often think their idea is bigger than what it really is. A realistic description helps sort things out.

No Follow up

I once took a sales class where the motto was: 3 to 5 exposures in 7 to 10 days. If you meet with someone once a month, they probably won't even remember what you are supposed to work on. People get bored and forget. If you want them to stay excited about the idea they are willing to pay you for, you have to remind them.

Schedule a weekly meeting. And also interact with them through email, text or phone a couple more times a week. Never leave a long gap between interactions, unless you want them to forget about you.

No weekly update

Work takes time. Sometimes you need to work on stuff for weeks or months at a time. You can't show a half-baked product. In times like these, you still want to send at least a weekly update. If you are still working on the thing from the previous week, let them know that it is a slow but steady process. You can even give details, like "I'm building the scraper, it takes a little time to test."

You can see the pattern here. Consulting is selling. A consultant sells the information he has gathered. Selling is not convincing a customer to buy your product, it's having a system of accountability. Every time I failed, it's because I wasn't as accountable as I could. I would say accountability may be even more important than building the product.

I've once consulted with a company where the product ended up never being delivered. The funding had run out. But at the very least it turned into a great contact. They recommended me to my next client.

Come prepared to your customers. Gather information and show them the information you have gathered. And when you start working, keep them constantly updated.


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