April 2020
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Become an Exceptional Consultant

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

In more than 50 years of consulting, we’ve observed hundreds of consultants. Many were very good, and some were mediocre. You aren’t starting your business to be mediocre, so here are some of the practices and characteristics that differentiate between mediocrity and being exceptional.

Mediocre consultants:

• believe that being a consultant means they can be just who they are without concern for what clients expect

• refuse to be flexible when necessary to fit their clients’ environment

• are unable to identify practical marketing tactics or find excuses to avoid implementing them

• have an inability to recognize an opportunity when it is slapping them in the face

• insist on using a model or solution that they are familiar with rather than creating or identifying a new solution that would be more appropriate for the client

• continue doing the same things over and over instead of creating new materials or trying new options

• have limited desires to continue to grow and learn


• lack recognition that their consulting practice is a business that needs an investment of entrepreneurial time, attention, and resources.

How can you stand out, differentiate yourself, and distinguish what you offer as a consultant?

We could write a whole book about ways to answer those questions. Instead, we’ve narrowed it down to four actionable suggestions you can implement right away to set yourself apart from the rest.

Be a lifelong learner. That means be a consistent and deliberate learner. Pay attention to the facts of the past, realities of the present, and predictions for the future. There are learning opportunities in all of these realms, and lifelong learners intentionally and proactively connect threads from one to another.

Why is this important? Your clients are paying you for your expertise. Organizations find it challenging to hire enough good people to keep up with normal, ongoing tasks. They need you to fill their knowledge and experience gaps. That’s how organizations will be able to exude the necessary agility to keep up with the ever-changing world in which we live.

Be client-centric. Listen carefully so you can reflect a deep understanding of your clients’ problems. Ask questions, challenge assumptions, and get to know your clients’ strengths and weaknesses so you can create the customized solution each client needs. Be focused on your clients and project an image that matches the organization’s image. Partner with your clients to build trust and deliver bottom-line results. Get involved and be passionate about meeting the needs of your clients and producing tangible, measurable results that your clients value.


Project a positive image. Demonstrate confidence without arrogance. See the glass as half full. Offer solutions and influence the change that must happen to reach the preferred future. You’ll need to balance authoritative with authentic, assertive with caring. Exhibiting two seemingly dichotomous traits at the same time is a true mark of professional excellence. Believing in an optimistic outcome and an encouraging future helps clients believe, too. Positive energy contributes to a winning solution.

Adopt an entrepreneurial mindset. Having consulting expertise is important to starting a consulting practice, but knowing how to run a consulting business is the only way to stay in business. Exceptional consultants have a business plan and a marketing plan and they use both. Entrepreneurs know how to generate work based on a marketing and sales plan. You must promote yourself and keep your name in front of potential clients. The easiest way to guarantee a steady flow of clients is from referrals and repeat business. That means you must do exceptional work.

Are there more characteristics and behaviors that can help you become an exceptional consultant? Yes, of course. We advise exceptional consultants to also be good communicators, knowledgeable, solution-focused, ethical, future-focused, and excellent leaders, and know how to manage their businesses.

In our experience, exceptional consultants continue to learn, focus on their clients, project positive energy, and use entrepreneurial skills to run their businesses. They’re guaranteed to win clients and run a successful practice that will serve clients for as long as they desire.

How about you? What are you doing to set yourself apart and to be the consultant that clients want to work with? Share your thoughts in the Comments below.

Elaine Biech and Halelly Azulay are successful consultants with a combined 50 years of experience. Both are leaders in the talent development field, volunteers for ATD, and mentors and coaches for new consultants. They are the creators of the online course, Building Your Successful Consulting Business.

About the Author

Elaine Biech, president of ebb associates inc, a strategic implementation, leadership development, and experiential learning consulting firm, has been in the field for 30 years helping organizations work through large-scale change. She has presented at dozens of national and international conferences and has been featured in publications such as The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Management Update, Investors Business Daily, and Fortune Magazine. She is the author and editor of over 50 books, including the ASTD Handbook for Workplace Learning Professionals, ASTD Leadership Handbook, 10 Steps to Successful Training, The Ultimate Trainer, Thriving Through Change, The Business of Consulting, 2nd ed., and Training for Dummies. A long time volunteer for ASTD, she has served on ASTD's National Board of Directors, was the recipient of the 1992 ASTD Torch Award, the 2004 ASTD Volunteer Staff Partnership Award, and the 2006 Gordon Bliss Memorial Award. Elaine was instrumental in compiling the CPLP study guides and has designed five ASTD Certificate Programs. In addition to her work with ATD, she has served on the Independent Consultants Association's (ICA) Advisory Committee and on the Instructional Systems Association (ISA) board of directors.

About the Author

Halelly Azulay is an author, speaker, facilitator, and leadership development strategist and an expert in communication skills and emotional intelligence.

She is the author of two books, Employee Development on a Shoestring (ATD Press) and Strength to Strength: How Working from Your Strengths Can Help You Lead a More Fulfilling Life. Her books, workshops and workshops build on her 25 years of professional experience in communication and leadership development in corporate, government, nonprofit and academic organizations.

Halelly is the president of TalentGrow LLC, a consulting company she founded in 2006 to develop leaders and teams, especially for enterprises experiencing explosive growth or expansion. TalentGrow specializes in people leadership skills, which include communication skills, teambuilding, coaching, and emotional intelligence. TalentGrow works with all organizational levels, including C-level leaders, frontline managers, and individual contributors.

Halelly is a sought-after speaker at conferences and meetings and is a contributing author to numerous books, articles and blogs. She recently published two popular LinkedIn Learning courses titled Leveraging Your Strengths and 10 Mistakes Leaders Should Avoid. Halelly blogs at www.talentgrow.com/blog and publishes a leadership podcast at www.talentgrow.com/podcast.

In 2019, Halelly partnered with "the Titan of Training," Elaine Biech, to create an online course titled Building Your Successful Consulting Business for new and aspiring consultants.

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Hello! This a helpful, succinct article. Your last point was truly for me. I have been working as an independent consultant for nearly 14 years, but I have not had a genuine business or marketing plan since the first year. Since I changed the focus of my practice last year, I have been making new plans. THANK YOU for the strong reminder to get my house order.
Hi Hope - we are so pleased that you found our article valuable! It's easy sometimes to just go with life's ebbs and flows, and always beneficial - not matter how long it's been - to stop and be more intentional. Go you! :)
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