The office: so you want to become a consultant

When public services were slashed in the 1990s, there was an explosion in the use of consultants, many of them previous employees of the same organisations they were selling their services to. Now the number of consultants is growing again as the government caps public service numbers. Treasury is now investigating the use of consultants in the public service. Naturally, it is employing a consultant to do this work.

By Noel O'Hare


So what does it take to become a consultant?

The first thing is to look the part – conservative, well-tailored clothes with black as the preferred colour – inspire confidence. One consultant reported he was able to double his fees just by upgrading his wardrobe.

Fees, of course, are what consulting is all about. You won’t get anywhere in the consulting business by charging reasonable fees. People respect you more the more money you demand for your services. And there’s an added bonus, as one consultant found out, “One of the first things I learned is that there is an inverse correlation between how much a client pays you and how many times they complain. In other words, the more money a client pays you, the less they will complain.”

Always add “& Associates” to your name – you don’t want people to think you’re a one-man band even if you are. A website is essential. There are plenty of business consultant website templates you can download that will make you look like a million-dollar company despite the fact that you operate from a desk in your bedroom.

A laptop and a facility with PowerPoint are the essential tools of trade of the consultant. Complex diagrams, graphs, flow carts, copious bullet points can be used to bamboozle most clients. Invest in a remote presenter device so you don’t have hunch over the laptop every time you need to change a slide. This is a performance. Watch how they do it on TED talks.

Every profession has its own lingo, often used to exclude outsiders. In the case of consultants, says former consultant Martin Kiln, “their jargon must exclude without being unapproachable. It must function along very slender dimensions, creating a patina of authority and wisdom, while seeming quite clearly to say something to the listener.” You want people to leave your presentation with the impression that you’re the expert they need without remembering a word you said. A day spent browsing the management shelves in your public library will be enough to absorb the business babble you need.

Consultants are often called in to cut costs while improving productivity. The quickest way to achieve these goals is to get people off the payroll (POPs in consultant jargon) so that those remaining have huge workloads. It’s not a durable solution because the best people quickly leave the organisation, which becomes a shambles of inefficiency and low morale. By then, though, you the consultant will have collected your fat fees and moved on.    

If you want to have a career in consulting, it makes no sense to come up with lasting solutions to problems. It’s all about building return business. For that reason you should resist management’s attempt to involve employees in finding solutions. For one thing, employees will know more than you about the organisation and expose your lack of knowledge. They might even become motivated to contribute their ideas on improving workplace practices. There’s no telling where it might end. And it’s unlikely they would be ringing you anytime soon.


This article is from the June 2012 issue of the PSA Journal. You can read back issues of the Journal by clicking here.