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Business Acumen

Finally we come to the last set of prerequisites. You need to know how to run a business and you should have the required skills to do so, or else make sure you have access to people who have the skills you lack.

You can't hire someone to exercise good business judgment in your stead. Neither can you rely on someone else to make decisions based on sound ethics and principles. You can hire other people to handle some of the business procedures in which you lack the expertise.

The following descriptions provide a quick list of the skills you will need to succeed in business.

Between Colleagues

You might consider hiring a marketing expert (or consultant) to help you develop a marketing plan for your business. This type of investment can really pay off and is particularly useful at start-up since it will help you learn about marketing and get your business off the ground. Make sure the person you hire is familiar with your target market and area of specialization.

Marketing Skills

During the first year, you will be spending a good deal of your time figuring out how to market to your potential clients. That means you have to know something about sales and the marketing process, and about the various options you have at your disposal (for example, brochures, cold contacts, networking, associations, advertising, Internet presence).

Don't worry if you don't yet have this knowledge, but do commit to acquiring it as soon as possible. You will learn much as you go along.

Networking Skills

Networking is often part of the marketing process, but it's also an important aid in keeping your sanity and growing your support network. There is an art to it. You have to balance your "sales needs" with the need to establish free and equal relationships with other people. For example, if you use networking as a way to push your services down other people's throats, you soon won't have anyone to talk to. Nobody likes a pushy, self- centered networker.

Think about whom you should be networked with and then decide how to go about it. To increase sales, you need to network with people who are in positions to hire you or advise people who can hire you. Don't make the mistake of confusing networking with other consultants with networking with potential clients. Both are important but address different goals.

Financial Management Skills

Have trouble balancing your checkbook? Ever been late filing or paying taxes? Hate paperwork? Not good. Even though managing your company's finances is a tedious and sometimes burdensome task for which you don't get paid, it must be done. Luckily, some or much of this task can be off-loaded to others (accountants and tax preparers). Decide now whether you want to do it yourself (be realistic here) or have someone else help you out.

Computer Skills

Computer skills are even more important than you'd think. Being able to use computers efficiently to create documents, prepare marketing copy, and communicate with clients (via computer, fax, or Internet) is essential.

Consulting Confidential

Which computer skills are ab-solutely essential? The ability to use a word processor package, the know-how to send and receive e-mail, the ability to browse the Internet to accomplish simple tasks, and the ability to use a basic financial management or accounting package are musts. Also useful is the ability to use web development tools and a desktop publishing program.

Perhaps it's occurred to you that you may not be able to afford someone to handle and create correspondence, operate your customer database, or computerize your billing and accounts receivable. If you don't have the skills to undertake these tasks yourself, consider enrolling in local community college classes to acquire them. If you are well capitalized, you might be able to employ someone else to do those things—but likely not, at least in the early days of your business.

The more you can do on your computer, the faster you can work. And the less you need to rely on paid help.

Oh yes. You can type, right?

Written Communication Skills

Written communication skills are a definite must for consulting with organizations of any size, although they are less important if you are consulting to individuals. You need to be able to write prose that is easy to understand, clear, and precise. You also need to be able to create documents quickly. If it takes you a week to draft a five-page report, you are in trouble.

Your written communication skills are important in getting contracts (both in the marketing stages and in the contracting stage) and completing such documents as consulting project reports to your clients. At minimum, your clients are going to expect something on paper that summarizes your advice. Some projects may require the submission of major reports and also interim reports done during the life of the project.

Presentation Skills

Presentation skills relate to your ability to speak in public to (usually) a group of people. I know some people who would rather have teeth pulled than speak to a group of people. So are these skills essential? Yes, unless you work only with individuals.

When is it likely you'll have to do group presentations? Often, this is something you'll have to do right up-front. Corporate clients in particular may ask you to speak to a group of people about what you can offer. Next, it won't be uncommon for you to have to speak to a group of people during a contract, either to report on progress, to present interim advice, or simply to get information from them. Finally, you will want the opportunity (yes, opportunity) to speak to clients in order to present your advice in ways that will encourage them to use and implement it.

Proposal Writing Skills

Finally, if you plan on working for clients who may require you to respond to requests for proposals or who want fairly detailed plans about how you can help them, you need to develop skills in writing proposals. For some consultants, especially those who consult to government and corporations, these skills are essential. The ability to give proposal reviewers exactly what they want and little more is invaluable. A combination of writing skills like concise phrasing and document organization along with a knack for understanding what proposal reviewers are looking for will help you compete for contracts.

For others, such as those who consult mainly to individuals, they may be irrelevant.

The Least You Need to Know

  • Assess your knowledge and skills in your specialty areas in terms of breadth and depth.

  • Pay special attention to identifying where you may need to develop your consulting process skills.

  • Before making an irrevocable decision to start a consulting business, be clear about the challenges involved and examine your own values and attitudes. Is this something you will really enjoy?

  • Begin thinking about the business skills you may lack and consider filling in the gaps or deciding where you can find the expertise you lack.

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