Consulting is not easy work – no matter the industry or skill level. There’s no sugar-coating it. While challenging, it’s also extremely rewarding. Unfortunately, I don’t have a cheat code that I can give you to become (and remain) a great consultant. It takes hard work, dedication, and constant learning and improvement.

The good news is there are certain ways you can work to become a great consultant and key part of the business. After spending more than six years working at a digital agency and recently making the move to in-house, this is something that has become even more clear to me. Now that I am on “the other side,” the areas of consulting that I have always excelled at are apparent, as well as the areas that I probably should have paid more attention to.

8 Ways to Become a Great Consultant

There are several elements and characteristics that make all the difference and will set you apart from other consultants. On the other hand, if these components are lacking, it can severely cripple your consulting business.

Let’s jump into some of the ways you can take your consulting from zero to hero.

1. Define Goals

Setting goals at the start of any consulting relationship is key.

This way, everyone involved in the project has a clear understanding of the mission, what is reasonable and obtainable, and can hold themselves accountable. Without setting up goals, it is extremely difficult (nearly impossible) to prove value or understand if the project was successful. Decide on what metrics are key and ensure that tracking is in place, so that you can regularly report on the progress.

Whether the goal is to:

  • Increase organic traffic by [X]%.
  • Improve keyword visibility around [X], [Y] and [Z].
  • Cut the cost-per-click in half.

Or all the above, you and your client must agree on the metrics that define success.

Along with these goals, your client should have a solid understanding of what you need from them. After all, it is a two-way street.

The nature of consulting means that you will not always have direct control over the execution of your recommendations.

Therefore, setting expectations at the beginning is absolutely essential.

What do you/will you need from them to be successful?

Picture this – you are supplying content recommendations on a monthly basis to target specific keywords that you are tasked with ranking for, and an in-house writer on the team is supposed to execute and implement them.

It’s now three months into the project, and nothing has been written. This will certainly make hitting your goals challenging.

If expectations are clearly defined from the start of the project, you have a better chance of avoiding these types of difficult conversations.

2. Educate Your Clients

Especially in the digital space, education is a huge part of a successful client/consultant relationship.

Providing your clients with education and understanding of your expertise area will be essential when it comes to proving your value.

The truth is that there are so many different facets of digital marketing that you cannot expect someone to be an expert in everything. Or, even be familiar with best practices and tactics in each area.

Thinking about SEO (only a piece of a successful digital marketing program), there’s technical SEO, keyword research, external link building, internal cross-linking, on-page content optimization, etc.

In addition to this, the landscape is constantly changing. And, if your client has not been involved in SEO for even a couple of years, their understanding will be behind the times.

Depending on who you are working with and what their position is in the organization, they may be removed from day-t0-day digital marketing tactics and rely on you for that guidance.

The first part of this is understanding where your client is at.

  • What is their background in marketing?
  • What is their position in the organization/key responsibilities?
  • How familiar are they with your expertise area?
  • Have they worked with a consultant (in your focus area) in the past?
  • What are the best practices that they are familiar with (if any)? Are they the same as yours?

Once you understand your client’s background and experience more, you will know the areas that you need to spend time nurturing.

A classic example of this:

One time, I spent about half an hour going over a proposed keyword strategy with a new client. I laid out all our keyword research, and the keyword priorities that we wanted to focus on for the next few months.

When I stopped to ask if they had any questions, they asked, “Yes, so… what does average monthly search volume mean?”

Might I add, this is an extremely reasonable question to ask.

My only wish was that I spent time at the beginning of the conversation to get a better understanding of their grasp on the terminology and explain what all of this meant before I dove into it headfirst.

Remember, it’s nearly impossible to understand the value of SEO, if you don’t understand SEO (even at a high level). Spend the time educating your clients.

3. Show Your Expertise

A great consultant is not only aware of what is happening on the account but also understands the bigger picture.

It’s extremely important to demonstrate your knowledge about the account, the company you are working with, and their industry as a whole.

In the discovery period, make sure to ask questions and get all the information you need. And, it should not stop there.

Regularly check in with your client to make sure you are aware of key business changes, new focuses, and things that may be less of a priority.

Put in the work and really understand the business, the landscape, and key competitors.

This involves things like subscribing to top publications in the industry, setting up Google Alerts to watch recent content around key focus areas, monitoring competitive activity and more.

Then, demonstrate your expertise.

Do not just take direction or instructions but tell your client what needs to happen to reach the goals in place. Be confident – you are the expert.

These simple gestures will help gain trust and prove your ability and value as a consultant.

4. Clearly Answer Questions

When asked a question, a great consultant will clearly and immediately answer it.

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I realize that this seems obvious but have found this to be a challenge that many face.

You may want to get your points across first, you may be overwhelmed with the information you need to present, you may be crunched for time.

But, acknowledging and addressing your client’s questions and concerns is essential to a successful program and relationship.

A great consultant will not say something like: I will address that further in the presentation or let’s come back to that in a few minutes.

Even more importantly, a great consultant will not dodge the question, supply a vague or confusing answer, or make something up.

This is not to say that you need to know the answers to everything. You should prepare as best as possible to answer questions that may arise.

If you do not know the answer, let your client know that you will get back to them as soon as possible. And, make sure that you do!

5. Take Action

The very nature of consulting means that you will not always have direct control over the execution of your recommendations.

The challenge is you are relying on the execution of your recommendations to hit your goals.

So, what do you do when faced with this dilemma?

Consider the following:

  • Prioritize deliverables: Not every recommendation is a high priority or urgent. Clarify what action items are a top priority and which ones can wait. This way, you can ensure everyone is focusing on the items that will have an immediate impact.
  • Encourage execution: A good consultant will make solid and strategic recommendations. A great consultant can present these recommendations in a way that encourages people to act by stressing the importance, result it will generate or potential repercussion of not executing.
  • Consider alternatives: Is there another approach that would leave you with the desired result? Is there a way to execute this in a more efficient way? Is the recommendation truly a high priority?

Lastly, after considering all of the above, can you help with the execution of it?

Sometimes it’s worth it, if it means hitting your goals and keeping a valuable client relationship.

6. Choose the Right Tools

A consultant is only as good as the tools they choose to use.

No matter how much experience and skill you have, it’s difficult to grow without the right tools and resources.

Tools can severely affect the efficiency of your business as well as the information and data that you are able to supply clients.

With that said, the scope of these tools should be specific to your business size and needs.

To be a great consultant, having tools for communication, project management and digital marketing tactics is key. However, choosing the right tools can be exceptionally challenging and confusing with so many options available.

Being at an agency for so long, I tested many different tools including;

  • Google Hangouts Chat, Slack, Teams, and Google Docs for communication.
  • Basecamp, Trello, Asana, OneDrive, and Monday for project management.
  • SEMrush, Moz, Screaming Frog, BuzzSumo, Buffer, BuzzStream and so many other digital marketing tools.

From this, I cannot say that one is better than the other but stress the importance of choosing tools that are aligned with your consulting needs and not solely based on the consensus of the marketing community.

What works well for others, may not work at all for you.

7. Know Your Audience

Part of being a great consultant is knowing your audience and being able to adapt your communication.

Always know who is on the other end of the phone and joining meetings.

This way, you can tailor recommendations and communication in a way that everyone understands. This will also help ensure you are putting your best foot forward with key decision makers.

For example, you will be presenting a performance report to a client and your contact lets you know that the CMO will be joining the call.

In that case, it makes sense for you to give some background on who you are, goals of the project and key milestones.

You may want to keep the conversation more high-level by going over the bigger picture performance metrics and what it means for the business rather than granular details (unless they say otherwise).

Make sure that everyone in the conversation is aware of what is happening on the program, why it is happening (what you’re doing to drive those results) and feels that their needs or concerns are recognized.

8. Prove Your Value

Bringing this full circle, defining goals will help you prove value. A great consultant sets clear expectations and communicates the progress effectively.

As a consultant, it is important that your client is aware of performance and, more specifically, what you are doing to drive those results.

It is also essential that you are communicating performance in an easily digestible and straightforward way. This is one of the biggest challenges that I see digital marketing consultants face – reporting.

Any consultant can put together a report of key data points and metrics that outline the performance of a website. Take it a step further and tell the story.

What do these data points actually mean for the business? What is working? What is not working? What next steps are needed to drive performance?

Be careful not to lose your audience with a bunch of technical terms: impressions, clicks, users, sessions, bounce rate, time on page, etc.

For example, instead of saying something like:

The product page generated 29,000 sessions in July 2019.

Say something like:

29,000 users visited the product page in July 2019, up 55% from the previous year. This can be traced back to [X], [Y] and [Z] updates that we made to the page. As a next steps, we will continue to implement [X] and [Y] tactics.

Setting goals is only half of it.

Being able to communicate the results in an effective way is the other piece of the puzzle.

Final Thoughts

There are certain elements and characteristics that set great consultants apart from the rest, and these are just a few ways to better yourself.

The key is constant improvement.

If you’re not moving forward, you’re falling behind.

Being a great consultant is not easy but it’s worth it – to see happy clients, establish long-term relationships, get valuable referrals and see your business grow.