How to Find Your Area of Expertise

If you're following the First Client Checklist, then you're trying to get your first consulting client - but to get hired as an independent consultant, you first need to know what you're actually selling to a company.

Consultants are Hired to Solve Problems

When looking for a full time hire, a company is usually looking for a certain skillset.  That skillset may including knowledge of a certain programming language, or experience with certain libraries or toolchains; or they may just be looking for smart, ambitious people who can learn on the job.

When looking to hire a consultant however, they want you to come in already knowing your stuff.  People hire consultants because they're experts in their field, with the ability to solve their problems.  In order to sell you services, you have to be able to define your expertise and explain that to a company in a way that tells them that you can solve their problem.

The problem that a company is trying to solve might look like:

"We need a Ruby on Rails programmer"

But even if that's the reason they give publicly, the real problem they are trying to solve probably looks something like this:

"We have 3 applications built on Rails.  One of them is 2 years old and probably has security vulnerabilities, another is a mission critical application but has no automated tests, and the third has a backlog of 200 features - 12 of which we need done in under a month before our user conference.  Oh; and our lead developer just quit."

Most companies won't publicly say something like that, because it makes them seem broken; but all companies have some level of that going on - and that's often the world you will step into as a consultant.  In order to give the company piece of mind that you can solve their problems then - you need to be much more specific than just Ruby on Rails Progammer when you describe your offering.

The most effective way I've found to get clients is to develop your story to tell to prospective clients that describes your experience in a way that ensures them that you can do the job - and most importantly, that you can solve their problems.  The closer you can match your story to the list of problems that they need to have solved, the better your chances are of getting hired - and the higher the rate you can charge.

How to find your story

What has someone paid you to do?

If you have ever had a job, then someone has paid you to solve problems.  What were those problems?  What did that company need to have solved so badly, that they were willing to pay you a full time wage to do?  You might start with a description like _program their application_; but that's just part of the story.  What is difficult about what you were doing?  What roadblocks did you run into?  What technology did you use?  What did you have to learn on the job in order to do that?  The answer to all of those questions is another point in your story.

Be specific

Companies are looking to solve very specific problems - so be specific when you're thinking of your story.  Don't just say:

"I setup a web application"

But be specific and say something like:

"I managed three applications that each had an production, database, QA, and background job servers"

That's a specific story that a company can relate to.  The extra detail in the second story is vital to a company when deciding what consultant to hire.  It could check all sorts of boxes on their side like: "We need to set up a QA server" or "Our application is complicated, and I don't know how to manage it".

Listen, and refine your story

As you start talking to different companies, listen to how they respond to different parts of your story, and refine your delivery accordingly.  If one company really responds to how you tackled a certain problem for example - then the next company you talk to may also respond to that.

The idea here is to filter your story and lead with what's important.  You want to make sure you're telling the client the most relevant parts of your experience, so that in their mind, they can match your experience with the current problems they are trying to solve.

Over time, you will learn what really gets certain types of clients excited - and you'll be able to lead with that information.  It's important that you shouldn't misrepresenting your past work in any way - but just that you should lead with the parts of your experience that will most closely match what the client needs.

Keep it short

You will often only have one email chain or phone call to convince a client to hire you.  For larger contracts there may be a long RFP process, but independent consultants are often hired after only one or two interactions with a potential client.

Because of that - it's important to keep your story short.  You should be able to describe your relevant experience in two or three sentences.  For example - if a company in the healthcare sector is looking for a Ruby on Rails programmer, you might say something like:

"I've been programming in Ruby on Rails for almost 10 years.  I've managed everything from small prototype applications to large and complex, distributed applications.  Most of my experience has been in regulated environments like healthcare and finance."

Zero in on what they care about

After you tell your short story - sit back and listen.  That description gives them a broad overview of your experience - but it includes specific details about certain parts of what you've done.  Many clients will immediately latch on to part of your initial story - and that's when you can give more detail.  

For example, if they follow up with:

"Great, because our application is spread across multiple servers, and we need to figure out how to manage that, while still being HIPAA compliant."

That gives you the next, very specific thing to talk about, which is your experience managing distributed applications in a HIPAA regulated environment. 

If you didn't start with a simple story with specific details, you might have droned on about parts of your experience that aren't relevant to the customer at all.

Before your next client meeting

Before you talk to another client, do this exercise to help you come up with your story:

  1. Write down the technologies or programming languages that you have experience with.
  2. Write down specific problems you have solved in the past
  3. Refine that list by talking to trusted advisors
  4. Condense your story to include the details that are _most likely_ to resonate with that specific client
  5. During the meeting, drill into details that the client latches onto

After a while, telling your story will come naturally.  When talking to someone new, you will find yourself asking a few leading questions, and then changing which details you put in your story, to give that client something to connect to.  Most importantly, you will find that you get more clients once you have the ability to tell a story that resonates with the problems they are facing.

Get Your First Client

I made a guide just for you! Learn how to get started with this 5 step checklist.