Throughout my career I have often been asked “How do I get into the consulting game and land that first contract?”

I always begin by answering, “You need to first understand what type of consultant you are or want to be.”

Over my 25 years in the job search industry, I have come to the conclusion that there are three types of consultants or temporary brains for hire: 

  • The door-opener full-timer: a full-time worker at heart who accepts a contract in the hopes of getting her foot in the door and converting from temporary to full-time status in the short term.
  • The wannabe consultant: who wants the so-called freedom of being his own boss, but really is a gap consultant suffering from being stuck in the doldrums for long stretches at a time and constantly and consistently searching for his next contract. The wannabe uses an unproductive job search tactic of applying to posted contracts online with a resume, by clicking, sending, and hoping. I call this misguided digital resume scattering approach, career gambling.
  • The Business Owner: The real consultant who runs her practice as a business – focused on marketing, customer service, and delivering what she promises.

If you are serious about getting into consulting and building a business then you need to land that first contract and in this Part I of a two part series, I show you how to land your first contract and get started in consulting as a business owner.

Know what you want and look the part

I have heard many times from wannabe consultants or those desperate to land a job: “At this point I will take anything even a contract. I don’t know how much to ask for or which project I am interested in – anything will do.”
Don’t expect an employer to figure out what you want or to take time to give you career advice. They are seeking someone who knows who he is and what he is good at and is confident about his abilities to do the job at hand, deliver on a project deadline, and looks and acts the professional part.

Employers will only hire you if they trust you and not knowing what you want, what you can do, and what you charge is a sure way to be passed up.

Be in shape. Don’t look like a heart attack ready to happen. Make sure to dress the part. Dress for success!

Put yourself in the shoes of a decision maker and ask what does your corporate uniform say about the respect you have for yourself and the company you may be working for? Will the potential employer have to tell you to dress-up because a client is coming in or can they put you in front of a client as is if they needed to?

Will the professionals you meet through networking or professionally view you as a professional they can trust and refer you to colleagues or will you be viewed as a dishevelled lost puppy or a tire kicker not committed to building a consulting business.

Every meeting you have with other professionals, be it an official interview, a  networking meeting, or an informal introduction, is in essence an interview so be prepared.

Make sure to have a business card with your picture on it that is a quality product. If you are going to buy business cards online then make sure to upgrade to a quality card. Consider creating your own Business Card Resume and adding a QRcode that links to your LinkedIn profile.

Your LinkedIn profile should also support your new business – it should say consultant or clearly state available for consulting opportunities. Make sure to optimize your Linked profile to get more hits. Don’t expect visitors to your profile to guess what you want because they won’t. There are over 180M professionals to choose from on LinkedIn and if they don’t get your message in a few seconds they move on.

In order to be a business act like a business and put down some permanence and claim your digital real estate. Lock down and buy a domain name that is keyword rich for SEO reasons and represents your expertise.

Get into the mind of the decision maker

When you understand the process of how jobs or contracts are filled you can then appreciate the power of getting in front of decision makers. You can tap into the hidden job market by getting in front of decision makers before jobs become known and get to the front of the line before it becomes a competition (see diagram).

Job Hunter

Get out from behind your resume. Most business deals are landed through referrals or networking. Decision makers first search their mind for viable candidates to approach and then turn to their staff for referrals. In most cases, the last place they turn to in order to generate candidates is online postings, which first generate lots of applicants before producing, in the best of cases, candidates, yet that is where most wannabe consultants turn to first to look for a job.

The last step used by an employer in filling a job is through an online posting or a contingency agency search.

Your best tactic is to get the inside track and land a contract by being referred to or by establishing direct contact with a decision maker. In each case you want to make a memorable impression so she will think of you first when a requisition becomes official or ideally, if you impress her enough by showing your value, you may compel her to open up a spot for you.

Business professionals don’t play the career gambling game by sending out a resume in response to online job postings, instead they use a SmartSearch process. They use referrals, marketing letters, networking letters, white papers and presentations to grab a decision maker’s attention.

Pros have a verbal polished message that clearly describes what they can do for an employer and what the results and transformation will be when they finish the contract and move on to take on a new project.

A 30 second regurgitated elevator pitch might be what you have practiced but a real message is not a bunch of memorised corporate gobbledygook. Rather you must first ask and get clarity on what are the problems that need to be solved and what the deadlines for delivering the solutions are. Once the problems are identified you must clearly communicate how you will solve the problems, specifically what you will do and why you can do it. Each message must be customized to solve each employer’s unique problems or issues.

Get the Decision Maker to Focus on Outputs

When asked in an in-person networking meeting for a resume, present professional eye-catching marketing materials that clearly demonstrate what you can do for an employer rather than presenting a boiler plate resume on copy paper. Additionally, links to case studies in your marketing material go a long way to showing your proficiency.

Focus the decision maker on what you can do for her, that is, what are the results and outcomes you will achieve. A decision maker wants a job done, she does not want to marry you, so keep it focused on the value, results, outcomes, transformation, and ROI you will bring about not on spewing out your past employment history and responsibilities.

Focus the discussion on the outputs rather than the inputs. Even though you have never done this particular type of project before, be confident and ask specifically what are the goals, the outputs and the results expected, and confidently tell her you will get it done.

If she questions your ability, tell her exactly the way you work, that is, how you set a goal and how you deliver the outcomes requested. Provide examples of accomplishments that demonstrate how you have done so in the past; how you set a goal and delivered the outcomes expected on time and within budget.

Don’t stop at showing how resourceful you are instead demonstrate your resourcefulness; show how you have delivered results in the past even though the challenge you faced was something new. Use the RAP formula  when describing your accomplishments – What are the Results you achieved, what Actions you took and what was the Problem(s).

Take the time to outline your approach to solving the problems being discussed or to point the decision maker to a case study you prepared for marketing purposes.

If you have decided you want to run a business and keep your project pipeline full then make sure to read Part II of “How to Land Your Next Contract.”

Paul Hill is a Job Search Expert and the Chief Instructor at Transition to Hired and the Ultimate Panic Free Job Search Boot Camp. He is also the author of The Panic Free Job Search book and can be reached through his web site at