For consultants and consultants-to-be: expert advice (pt. 2)

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It’s here — part two! 

Whether you are thinking about venturing out on your own or have already started, this two-part series will arm you with advice from seasoned consultants! This post features Ann K. Emery, who provides her insight on common questions consultants (or consultants-to-be) might have. Check out the first post in this series here.

Bio:

Ann K. Emery is a speaker, workshop facilitator, and blogger, passionate about “making technical information easier to understand for non-technical audiences.” In other words, she is a dataviz expert! Ann is also a well-known blogger, bringing practical tips to those looking to transform their data into effective stories through the use of data visualization. Without further ado, let’s dig into her tips! 

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How did you prepare for running your own consulting firm?

Launching my own consulting firm was a happy accident. I started blogging back in 2012, just for the joy of sharing skills with others, without expecting it to lead anything. And I always enjoyed public speaking and leading workshops. My name got out there. People read something I wrote or saw me speak at a conference. I started getting a few invitations to give talks and redesign the visuals in reports. And then I got a few more invitations. And a few more. At the time, I was working full-time and doing grad school at night. I had limited bandwidth for independent consulting projects. In Spring 2014, I finished grad school and had the time to accept some side projects. I did the math; the projects would actually pay more than my current (good) salary. People started asking when I was going independent. I hadn’t considered going solo. I had planned to stay at my current position for a long time. Over the summer of 2014, I spoke with a dozen of my mentors. I got great advice:

“Don’t even think about quitting your salaried job until you have a years’ worth of household expenses saved—and be willing to lose every penny if you’re not profitable the first year.”

“You’ll work harder than ever, but the work will be more fulfilling than ever.”

In the fall of 2014, I was having dinner with some girlfriends, and mentioned that I might go solo someday. “Well, what are you waiting for?” one asked. I didn’t have a good answer. That next week, I put in my notice.

For those wondering how about the transition to a consultant, did you continue working at a 9-5 job until you became established?

I’ve met two types of consultants: those who find themselves with spare time (job loss, just finished grad school and they’re job hunting, etc.) and those who have already built a reputation for doing great work and have prospective clients banging down their door. The first type struggles to take in work. The second type struggles to turn it down. The second type has no choice. You have to quit your salaried job and start your own company. You work harder than ever, for a while. Then you get better at subcontracting and saying no. You get to choose which type of consultant you want to be. Pull the trigger too early—before you’re established—and you may always struggle to bring in work and pay the bills.

How do you avoid being spread too thin?

I hire smart and talented subcontractors like you!

More importantly, I say no so that I can say yes. I don’t appear on podcasts (I’m visual so an auditory medium has zero appeal). I don’t write guest blog posts (my clients hire me to write blog posts so it doesn’t make business sense to write for free). I don’t work for free (I like to keep a roof over my head). I have to decline projects that aren’t a perfect fit so that I have creative energy to rock the ones that are.

Describe a time when you dealt with a difficult client (or situation). How did you make things work?

I divide my projects into two broad categories: training and design.

In training projects—my keynotes, workshops, webinars, and individual coaching sessions—I haven’t had difficult clients, but I have had inexperienced clients. The contact person has been put in charge of planning the keynote address for their conference for the very first time. I often need to teach them about coordinating with A/V staff, setting up projectors, connecting and testing the microphones, and so on. Planning a talk of this level can be a stressful experience for my clients. They want the logistics to be perfect. I try to walk them through the unknowns and alleviate as much of the stress as possible. I’ve given a billion talks. I’ve seen all sorts of stage setups. Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong—projector lightbulbs burning out mid-talk, fire drills, laptop batteries dying, malfunctioning microphones. I get migraines a few times a year—the kind where your vision and smell are all messed up—so I knew it was only a matter of time until I got a migraine during a speaking engagement. It happened in February. I could only see a sliver of my slides thanks to tunnel vision. Then the smells and nausea started. I gave participants a coffee break, puked in the bathroom, and came back and finished the talk. From the audience’s perspective, it was one of the better workshops I led all year. Good public speaking is more about rolling with the punches than about careful preparation. I let my client know that I’ve experienced every possible projector and microphone hiccup and that the talk will be stellar no matter what. 

In design projects—revamping existing reports or designing the visualizations for client reports from scratch—I haven’t had difficult clients, but I have had difficult timelines. Contracting takes longer than expected because we need a signature from someone who’s on vacation. I’m graphing the data and notice that the numbers don’t make sense and they have to re-run the analyses to fix a few typos. Every consultant I know has been in this situation: Something goes wrong that’s outside of your control, and you’re the one who has to give up your weekend to fix it. We all notice the red flags early on. In the past, I’ve tried to give the project the benefit of the doubt. This project will be different, I lie to myself. Sure, their timeline is tight, but maybe everything will go according to plan this time.

My number one goal in 2018 is to trust my gut instinct and decline the projects with too-tight timelines.

How do you measure the success of a project?

Repeat clients and referrals!

A few months ago, I gave a mediocre workshop—or so I’d thought. I’d pose a discussion question to the group, and people just stared at me with poker faces. I’d tell a joke, and people just stared at me with poker faces. I couldn’t understand why the workshop structure I’d carefully crafted over the years had fallen flat. I left feeling deflated. Over the weekend, I had serious self-doubt, questioning whether I was even in the right career path. Then, on Monday morning, the client emailed me, praising the workshop and saying it was the best they’d ever attended. They invited me to return to their organization for another few days of workshops. I returned, gave another few days of workshops, and left with the same self-doubt. For the second time, nobody responded to my discussion questions or laughed at my jokes. And then—you guessed it—the client emailed me, praised the workshop, and invited me to return. The organization is accustomed to traditional, buttoned-up lecturers. My skin gets thicker each time, so when I return for the third series of workshops, I’ll be prepared to pose non-discussion discussion questions and tell my unfunny jokes.

In design projects, I used to think that a repeat client was a bad thing. If I redesigned the report well the first time, the client should be able to follow my steps and do it themselves the next time, right? But my clients are often pressed for time. Or, they can get the design 90% of the way there, and they need me to nudge the visualizations to the finish line. I’m working on a multi-year project right now. Each year, my role shifts. At first, I was creating the visualizations myself. Later, I was coaching their staff members through the process, making minor adjustments to their drafts, but creating very little myself. Other consultants have warned me against this approach, worried that I’ll teach clients too much and be out of a job. But my instincts keep telling me that training up staff is a net positive. I’ve taught the staff so much during this multi-year project that I wish I could hire them. Literally. I tried to subcontract part of a project to one of the women, but we discovered that our contracting language wouldn’t allow it. We’ll definitely be working together again someday.

Finally, what advice do you wish someone had given you as a new consultant?

I’ve learned from the best: Herb Baum, Tanya Beer, David Bernstein, Dave Bruns, Isaac Castillo, Stephanie Evergreen, Edith Hawkins, Rodney Hopson, Kylie Hutchinson, Helene Jennings, Cole Knaflic, Chris Lysy, Kevin McNamee, Johanna Morariu, Kim Narcisso, Veena Pankaj, Maryfrances Porter, Jon Schwabish, and Trina Willard.  

I adore each of these people for telling me what I need to hear, not what I want to hear. They’ve given me all the personal and professional advice I’ll ever need. There’s nothing I wish I would’ve known earlier—just advice I wish I would’ve followed earlier.

Want more?!

If you’re interested in learning more from Ann, check out her website. You won’t be sorry, and I bet you’ll be adding it to your favorites

“Expert” Photo by Rita Morais on Unsplash

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