Running a successful consultancy: practical tips

29 Jun 2011 | Research & Business Knowledge

Comments from ICG e-group members in response to a request for tips. The results were fed into a seminar for postgraduate students thinking of working in consultancy.


  • I’d say, don’t get so caught up in the day to day so that you forget overall future strategy. However small the business is, I think owners need to be clear on:
    Exit strategy (right from beginning and even if you change it).
    Finding a mentor (someone who has set up/run a small business, not necessarily in same area) [not that we did either of these things, but wish we had!]
  • I moved from employment to self-employment 11 years ago. My first shock was I had no work to do. I had to go out and look for it. 1st step: decide your unique selling point (USP) 2nd Step: work out who might want this unique service from you and has the money to buy it from you.
  • It's your commercial lifeblood, so take it seriously. Work at it and never let up.
  • In summary, get the right guidance and support; don’t try to be a loner even if you are practising solo; and be prepared for a lot of hard work in the initial stages. Good luck.
  • Set very clear goals for your business and focus on the destination rather than how you are going to get there. By being flexible about the journey (the precise services you offer or processes you employ), you are more likely to reach your destination (target revenue or profitability) when the unexpected road blocks crop up along the way.


  • Setting up a limited company is far easier than people think, so do it yourself. You need very little.
  • Get an accountant from day 1. Worth their weight in gold.
  • Get all the setup done in your spare time before you hand in your notice: website, home office setup, company formation, stationery, costing spreadsheet, etc, so that all the admin is sorted in advance and you're ready to start fee-paying work on day one.

Marketing, networking & ‘client management’

  • Spend time building your credentials and infrastructure and if in a niche area write extensively (papers, editorials, blogs press releases, opinion pieces) and keep writing • Invest strongly in marketing and appointment setting to secure a flow of seriously-interested prospects
  • Don't forget small fry can lead to big fish
  • Clients like to talk about their problems, so be a good listener. They want advice rather than having to listen to you hard selling your service. Above all, minimise technical jargon
  • No business can exist without Clients – and Clients come & go – so never stop topping up the reservoir – not even when you are busy!
  • Try to be distinctive….
  • Be seen because you won¹t always be at the top of people¹s minds. So pop in, arrive early in reception where people walk past and say, ‘oh, we should have a chat, I might have something for you’
  • My tips: Be seen. Be nice. Be helpful. Be flexible. Be good at your job! And ALWAYS offer help to everyone else, because what goes around comes around
  • Do the best you can (identity) – don’t sell, just add value
  • Listen and define what they need, always be a giver not a taker
  • Returns follow good work, build long term relationships, trust the process – it works!, be yourself!
  • Contacts need to be actively nurtured and replaced, because some will fall by the wayside. Find (vaguely) useful reasons to keep in touch.
  • Don't assume (as I did) that word of who you are, what you do, and how wonderful you are will automatically spread by osmosis as you do more work for more clients. Contact networks don't develop by themselves. (I'm assuming here that there wasn't an automatic dissemination of the message 'he's crap'.)
  • Find ways to proactively help your contacts, without looking for short term paybacks. It helps your reputation and provides a reason to talk (see first above point).
  • You're only as good as your contacts book. (It's actually advice I was given on my first day as a trainee journalist, but I've found it to be just as true in research, whether as a client-side research manager or a consultant.)
  • Keep talking to everyone. And never fall out with anyone.
  • Be as generous as you can with your time and assistance, within reason of course.

Financial management

  • Put a proportion of incoming revenue in an account which is difficult to get at so that when HMRC come calling you haven't spent what is (rightfully) theirs
  • Don't be coy about your daily rate/prices, keep your invoicing up to date, and be brutal about chasing late invoices.
  • Keep overhead costs down ("if in doubt, try to do without")


  • Get out of your home and find a co-working space. There's the walk/ ride to work (research suggests seeing different faces makes us happier). The people working in these spaces are interesting – business owners often with useful skills and contacts they may even be market researchers. An opportunity to get some frustrations off your chest, or chat about topical/ interesting things. A chance to make some very solid, lasting friendships. Best thing I ever did
  • Work from home until you absolutely have to rent premises and when you do, be aware that serviced offices can work out expensive.
  • Clients generally don't care whether you have an office address and *rarely* want to visit.
  • The most important thing for me when I set up was to rent a cheap desk somewhere, despite working a heck of a lot online. Getting out of my flat helped me establish a proper work/ home distinction, which I've considerably eroded since! If you can find a place which has competitors (potential collaborators), like-minded people, it also kick starts your network.

Personal skills, competencies, values & attitudes

  • Always keep your ego out of the relationship between you and your client, but be as fully present as you can. Never be afraid!
  • Don't expect it all to happen at once
  • "Be out of your pyjamas, at your desk, by 9 every weekday morning "
  • Look after yourself constantly so that you can maintain your energy, brainpower and enthusiasm…even when the going gets tough.
  • Accept that not everyone will like or value you. Move on and don't dwell on these setbacks.


  • Think of your fee before and after, but never ever while working with your client
  • "The price is right" – pricing high enough – your rates must produce a profit (on top of own salary) and be inflation-proof for a couple of years. You can always offer discounts.


  • Create a clear vision of the added value you’re delivering and what it’s worth. Live up to this.
  • Never set yourself up to fail – by that I mean stick to your core competences, don't take anything on that you are neither competent nor confident in delivering.


  • My tip: Don't stint on technology (there's no IT dept to call for help) and
    back-up everything regularly!