The consulting market isn’t booming; it’s exploding. As of 2017, it has reached a market size of $63.2 billion, a growth of more than $50 billion from two decades earlier. Part of this growth is attributed to the reach of consulting. Any industry can benefit from hiring knowledgeable consultants with proven track records for success.
The trend of growth is expected to continue as businesses seek advice about planning and logistics, implementing new technologies and complying with regulations on workplace safety and the environment. Despite a large demand for consultants, competition is expected because of the independent and challenging nature of the work.
What is a Consultant?
Consultants’ projects for a client can include strategizing how to implement cost cutting measures, providing advice on entering a new market or reviewing processes for efficiency. Simply put, consultants sell professional or expert advice, and because of this, seniority matters. Having a thorough education, extensive field work and a large network of connections can determine consultants’ levels of success.
Often, those new in the field or fresh out of college start their careers at consulting firms. Taking entry-level positions at a firm, typically as analysts, provides an opportunity to build a base knowledge of the industry and cultivate a reputation. Every year, Forbes publishes a list of the best consulting firms in a variety of fields, including aerospace, defense and sustainability. Employees at these companies earn an average of $75,000 per year, though the salary figures vary.
An alternative to corporate consulting is freelancing. Though many are drawn to freelancing for the flexibility it can offer and the option to be their own boss, it can be tumultuous; when companies hire someone to analyze their business structure or find weakness in their security system, they seek out top experts in the appropriate field, so competition is fierce. Typically, highly experienced freelancers, such as former-CEOs and other successful-but-now-retired individuals, are hired. Success can be situational, though; a category of highly sought-after consultants is those who had an extensive criminal career but have since “retired” and no longer commit crimes.
One famous example of an ex-criminal turned consultant is Frank Abagnale, the man who inspired the Steven Spielberg film starring Leonardo DiCaprio “Catch Me If You Can.” Abagnale spent years as a check-forger, con man and faux airline pilot, posing as a Pan Am pilot for the first time at 16 years old. When the police started to suspect him, he switched “careers” and posed as a doctor in Georgia and then an attorney in New Orleans.
He was captured in 1969 and, after short stints in a French prison and then a Swedish prison, Abagnale was deported to the U.S. where he was sentenced to 12 years in the federal penitentiary. After five years – and two escape attempts – he was paroled on the condition he would work with federal authorities to uncover check forgers. Due to his extensive criminal background, Abagnale was unable to find legitimate work, and he used his unique skills in criminality to start a consulting company, Abagnale & Associates.
The company has advised financial institutions, corporations and government agencies around the world for over 40 years. His client list has included LexisNexis, Intuit, AARP and Experian. Today, Abagnale is known as one of the world’s most respected authorities on check fraud, embezzlement and secure documents.
Despite the competitive nature of freelancing, it has grown more popular in recent years, due in part to a reformed tax law. In 2017, Congress passed one of the largest pieces of tax reform legislation in recent years. The bill affected most taxpayers, but more notable is how it benefited small business owners. The new tax law has made it beneficial to be self-employed as a consultant. Some of these benefits include:
- A reduction in the top corporate rate to 21 percent
- A new 20 percent deduction for incomes from certain type of pass-through entities (partnerships, S Corps, sole proprietorships)
- Increased limits on expensing of interest from borrowing, almost doubling of the amount small businesses can expense from the 2017 Section 179 amount of $510,000 to $1,000,000
- An elimination of the corporate alternative minimum tax (AMT)
Working as a Consultant
There are many types of consultants, and the daily duties of each vary depending on the field in which one is employed, what title one holds and if one is a freelance or corporate consultant. Still, there are commonalities that help paint the picture of what can be expected working in this job.
An inevitability of the job is travel. Consultants must visit their clients, but the extent to which one travels varies. Some firms only cater to clients within a set region, and consultants can visit easily by car or train. Other firms have clients across the globe, and who they send – and when – depends on skill and seniority. Freelancers can select clients more freely, but extensive travel will impact income.
Consultants of all levels work with management. When in supervisory positions, such as principals or senior consultants, they provide professional development for team managers and provide input on their work. Lower-level positions, often called associate consultants, work directly with team members and the clients’ management staff in meetings. In these meetings, they review deliverables (anything that is owed by the consulting team to the client) and gather input to help create materials.
Long hours are common across most positions, especially when travel factors in. Many consultants have said their mornings start with early airline boarding times and en route editing of documents and presentation decks. Freelance consultants have a more unpredictable work schedule than those in the corporate world; some report having an incredible amount of flexibility and freedom while others find themselves on-call 24/7.
One of the most difficult aspects of being a consultant regardless of employer or field is getting client buy-in or support. Building trust is especially challenging for consultants given they constantly change those with whom they work, but it’s arguably the most important step in the consulting process. Without trust, consultants are likely to face pushback in the form of resistance to proposed changes, from clients or their employees.
Types of Consultants
Though there are many types of consultants, the five most common are:
- Marketing Consulting: Marketing consultants help companies decide how to best engage existing clients and attract new ones. They use analytical tools and the market potential to develop a strategy. Afterward, they measure success by tracking response and results by comparing sales numbers, ROI and using programs like Google Analytics.
- Financial Consulting: Financial consultants work with clients to develop individualized financial plans for savings, retirement, investments and insurance.
- Image Consulting: Image consultants help people cultivate a professional or updated appearance. They work with businesses or individuals, typically celebrities, to change the way others perceive them. Many image consultants specialize in a certain area, like public speaking or office etiquette.
- Social Media Consulting: Social media consultants use social media sites to build recognition for client brands through ongoing interactions with followers and other profiles. Using tools like boosting, they increase traffic to a client’s business, as well as build brand awareness, which can have a positive effect on the bottom line. They also monitor the success and reach of posts using impressions to better tailor future social media campaigns.
- Career Coaching & Consulting: Career consultants personalize career plans for clients. They help people define, strategize and achieve their professional goals by assessing the client’s personal characteristics, skills and interests. This assessment is typically done through interviews, either in a one-on-one setting or in a group.
Many firms hiring for these consulting positions require at least a bachelor’s degree and five or more years of work in the industry. In-demand positions and high-profile clients typically require 25 years of experience or more, much of which is expected to be spent in an executive-level position. However, earning an MBA can reduce the amount of work experience required.
Strategize Your Career in Consulting
If you’re interested in solving problems for companies, enroll today in Virginia Wesleyan University’s online MBA. You’ll secure the key skills needed to go out on your own and become a consultant, such as operations management, leadership and advances strategy and policy integration. Our online format allows you to balance your education with your busy life, and Virginia Wesleyan provides you with positive outcomes: more than 92 percent of our alumni are working or in graduate school within six months of graduation.