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What it takes to be a successful consultant.

What it takes to be a successful consultant

Laboratorians with an entrepreneurial spirit can learn to sell their advice and expertise. The author describes opportunities and procedures for would-be consultants.

Just because you dance well, that doesn't mean you'll be asked to the ball. Just because you're an expert lab professional, that doesn't mean you'll be a successful consultant--or that you even want to offer such services.

To be a consultant is to provide, for a fee, advisory services and counsel. Services might include inspection, evaluation, information, and research, with subsequent recommendations. Consulting is not a profession in itself, but a way of practicing one. It can be done on a full- or part-time basis. Consulting can be a part of your regular job, with the income going to your employer, or a sideline for personal compensation. Some employers will want you to consult; others will not.

Because a technical consultant needs to be more than an expert, it's not a job suitable for everyone. Those who embark upon it should read extensively on the subject and seek the advice of established consultants.

Reasons to consult include increased income, freedom, job flexibility, independence, professional satisfaction and recognition, and self-expression. * Skills. Consultants sell time and expertise. They also:

* Bring to a client information, knowledge, or skills not held by members of the permanent staff.

* Supplement the talents of the permanent staff for a special assignment or limited time.

* Teach the staff a new skill.

* Oversee or supervise a single operation.

* Serve as a catalyst.

* Bring a relatively objective third-party point of view and the fresh insights that go with it.

* Serve as a troubleshooter to identify a weakness or deficiency. * Opportunities. Figure I lists some of the many opportunities open to laboratorians who wish to consult. This list is not all-inclusive but meant to give you ideas. Some are more financially rewarding than others.

* Expert testimony. There is a need for consultants who are experts in certain areas of laboratory medicine, such as parentage testing and testing for drug abuse in the workplace. The expert witness is usually employed by an attorney to provide information or opinions to augment a court case.

Those who serve as expert witnesses should limit their testimony to areas in which their knowledge is outstanding and kept up to date through experience and continuing education. The narrower your field, the more credible your testimony will be and the less competition you will have.

* Technical advice. Many diagnostic manufacturers employ technical advisory panels of three to six consultants who meet from one to four times a year. These panels advise the marketing and research departments on matters of interest to the firm involved. Consultants prepare for such meetings with the aid of agendas sent in advance by the client.

* Speaking assignments. Addressing seminars and workshops and serving as the keynote speaker at meetings provide excellent opportunities for consultants. In many cases, additional consulting develops as a spin-off of speaking. Are you an expert on a management or technical topic that someone is willing to pay for? Many management topics, such as increasing productivity, effective time management, and team building, are suitable for almost any group, medical or otherwise.

* Tapes. Are you an expert on a marketable topic? Have you published papers or books? Selling video and audio tapes is a route many consultants and speakers follow. If you are a good speaker and have up-to-date information that others want, you can sell it on tape at meetings or by direct mail. Diagnostic companies often contract with lab professionals to make educational tapes.

* Technical writing. There is a demand for laboratorians who write self-study courses, brochures, CE materials, descriptions of tests for lab marketing departments, package inserts for diagnostic companies, and articles for professional journals.

* Product evaluation. If you direct a clinical laboratory, you may be asked to evaluate new products or some that are not yet on the market. In the past, many laboratorians have provided this service free of charge. To avoid any ethical problems, including accusations of a conflict of interest, don't accept money for evaluating products without giving the matter careful consideration and thoroughly reviewing the contract.

* Computer consultation. Laboratorians who are knowledgeable about computers have many opportunities to evaluate hardware and software, write software, train other lab professionals, and advise laboratories on purchases.

* General consulting. Labs employ consultants for various tasks, such as evaluating QC and assuring that licensure and accreditation standards are met.

* CLIA '88. Certification and inspection standards mandated by CLIA '88 are likely to provide expanded consulting opportunities.

Once you have decided that consulting is for you, here are some tips to help you get started. * Homework. Sharpen your business skills: accounting, record keeping, cost analysis, financial management. Hone your management skills: effective listening, time management, goal setting, delegation, stress management, and team building. Know yourself and your market, decide how much to charge, and be sure you understand how to complete the job and do it well.

A successful consultant speaks and writes effectively. If you are weak at public speaking, one way to improve your communication skills is to join your local affiliate of Toastmasters International (Mission Viejo, Calif.), a group that encourages public speaking, and participate at meetings. * Research. Determine the services your firm will provide and limit yourself to them, at least initially. Target your market; develop a business plan. Decide whether to incorporate or to work as a sole proprietorship.

Your local office of the Small Business Administration will advise you, at no charge, on starting and running a business. You may need additional legal, insurance, and accounting advice; there may be licenses to obtain from your city, county, or state. If you are consulting full time, you may need start-up financing and possibly a staff working for you full or part time. * How to survive. Nine laws of survival for consultants are listed in Figure II. These commonsense measures will help your new career to thrive. * How to market. Adapt as your marketing strategy the goal of building an image and reputation in your chosen field. Be comfortable in your role as a provider and seller of consulting services. Market with consistency and regularity. Develop a style that is appropriate to your personality and the services you provide.

Your image represents the total of your clients' perceptions about you and your business. Augment your image with a capability statement; doing this is a way of life for successful consultants. You may need several different statements if you consult in different fields and markets. Figure III is a sample of such a statement for a hypothetical consultant in drug abuse testing.

Your image is portrayed by your business cards, stationery, and brochures. These brochures should state who you are, what you do, when and where you do it, and how to reach you.

Another important aspect of your image is your personal appearance. Most appropriate is standard business attire: conservative suits for men and dresses or suits for women.

Increase your visibility and gain the recognition of those who can help your career. Register with a local speakers' bureau. Volunteer to speak at professional meetings and community events.

Be professional and gracious. Avoid the temptation to be Mr. or Ms. Personality or anyone but an articulate expert in your field. You are not being paid to talk politics or religion. * Becoming known. There are numerous ways to gain exposure and increase your professional reputation at little or no cost. Give lectures. Enroll your name in directories. Publish a newsletter. Attend public and professional meetings. Publish books. Write articles or letters to the editor of professional publications. Secure an academic appointment as a teacher or seminar associate. Make effective use of the press.

The best exposure is publication in the field in which you plan to consult. Publication will build your reputation, establish your credentials, create a favorable impression of your expertise, bolster your marketing clout, generate inquiries, and prompt invitations to speak at meetings.

Networking is the art of communication and self-promotion between successful professionals. Make good use of networking opportunities at all times, especially while attending association meetings and giving lectures. * Meet the client. Treat your first visit with a potential client as part of your marketing strategy. Often the decision to hire you will be made on the spot. Don't assume that you should receive a fee for getting acquainted. If you are to be paid for the first visit, agree upon the amount in advance. At this meeting, discuss the specific services you will provide and the fee you will require.

It's normal for a client to have certain fears about soliciting your services. Clients may fear that a consultant will be incompetent, charge excessive fees, or lack impartiality or sufficient time. They fear that to admit to a need for a consultant is to acknowledge failure, that your relationship may end in the disclosure of proprietary or sensitive information, or that they will become dependent on the consultant. How you respond to such fears may determine whether you get the job. Rehearse answers to each of them. * Is the client serious? It is crucial to determine whether you are talking to the right person and whether the client is really interested in engaging your services. Identify the decision maker and future contacts. Establish a start-up date. Make sure that the client has adequate funding for the project. Judge from the prospective client's answers whether you are wasting your time and effort.

Perhaps your qualification are not adequate for the job being proposed to you. If so, do not accept the assignment. Other telltale signs of a potentially bad business deal include evident personality conflicts, unrealistic client expectations, hints of illegal or unethical acts, a client's apparent failure to appreciate the value of your services, and lack of time to do the job well.

With practice, you can learn to turn down unwanted or bad business tactfully. Bow out as follows: "I'm sorry, I don't do that," "I'm too busy right now to complete the project in the time frame you need," or "That would represent a conflict of interest. Please find someone else." * Get it in writing. It is not necessary to draw up a long and complicated legal contract. Your confirmation letter accepting the job should include your fee, the services you will perform, when you will complete them, and when the fee is to be paid.

Don't expect payment on the day of completion. It's common for large organizations to pay 30 to 60 days after receiving an invoice. For airfare, hotel bills, and other large out-of-pocket expenses, obtain prepaid plane tickets and an advance check. You might arrange to have your hotel charges billed directly to the client. * Continuous growth. Let your fees lag behind your talent, not the reverse. Always look for new ways to improve what you do. Don't charge clients for a store of knowledge that you have not yet acquired.

Read widely. Take the time to listen to audio cassettes on management techniques, including time management, at home and in your car.

What consultants sell is their time and expertise. To make your time worth selling, spend plenty of it on enhancing your value as a consultant. [Figures I to III Omitted]

Christopher S. Frings, Ph.D. is a consultant, speaker, and president of Chris Frings & Associates in Birmingham, Ala. He is adjunct clinical professor in the department of pathology and the School of Health Related Professions at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:for medical laboratory professionals
Author:Frings, Christopher S.
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Oct 1, 1991
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