3 Things Freelancers And Management Consultants Typically DON’T Have In Common

Consultants are commonly self-employed, like freelancers. But there are important distinctions between the two. Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Freelancers, attorneys, dentists.

They probably haven’t been mentioned in the same sentence many times before.

But wait:

What’s the difference between a freelancer and a consultant anyway, I hear you ask?

The dividing line is thinner, and grayer, than many imagine it to be.

But the one I would default to if somebody asked: freelancers provide deliverables. Think: pieces of writing. Coding projects. Graphic design projects.

Nothing wrong with that.

Consultants commonly do provide deliverables (consultants can be used to plug manpower gaps). But more commonly their deliverable is their thinking, or rather the actionable advice that they derive from it. These are consultative services after all.

I position myself as a marketing communications consultant — or strategist — who executes (does projects).

I want to keep the focus on the thinking and experience I can bring to clients — and ideas and ways in which I can add value — and less on what I simply ‘do’ or ‘produce’ while still making it clear that I do some of the execution. Which is why I lead with strategy rather than output. If you want to sell on value and not on price, consulting often provides an easier model for doing that.

Beyond that: semantics and sometimes differences in occupational classification vis-a-vis tax. But important ones.

Consultants — at least the ones that I know who work for themselves — are careful to avoid the ‘freelancer’ label.

Their rationale: they want to hone their value offering in on the thinking and the strategic input that they provide and not get pidgeon-holed into being thought of as simple task-doers.

And vice versa, if you’re a freelancer who “just” produces deliverables, it doesn’t make sense to brand yourself a strategist.

There’s no judgement intended here.

Many freelancers are perfectly happy with what they do. And some freelancers make more money than consultants.

But the differences, or distinctions, are actually very significant for other reasons.

There are a few very important things that consultants can learn from consultants and other self-employed professionals.

Consultants Don’t Generally Do Trial Projects For Free

If every freelance writer who had been asked to produce a piece of writing for free to “test out” their writing skills were to receive a dollar, and that dollar were to be put toward some kind of fund to send them all off to Barbados for a week’s rest and relaxation (I’d call it the Jaded Writers’ Hammock Fund), I think we’d have hundreds of millions of dollars at our disposal .

Sadly, freelance writers are asked all the fricking time to do a project for free as a means of “assessing” their writing skills — often, ludicrously, when they already have an extensive portfolio of clips (more ludicrously, many say ‘yes’).

This is abusive. And — in my opinion — always wrong. Testing out a writer is fine. You just have to be prepared to pay for the privilege of defraying the risk involved. That’s the quid pro quo.

Companies hiring talent — or people for that matter — are commonly expected to foot the risk that the service provider, or business, will turn out to be a dud.

If you hire a plumber to fix your toilet, you take the risk that they’re not going to do a great job. You don’t attempt to defray that risk by asking them to do a freebie. They would probably say no because fortunately their industry hasn’t reached a point of downward evolution at which this kind of this has become acceptable. They might be insulted. I think they are right.

Before you say ‘yes’ to any form of unpaid trial project, ask yourself how likely any of the following professionals would be agree to the following propositions:

  • “Hey! I’d love to make you my family doctor. But I’d like to know that you’re good first. Would you be willing to do a free checkup just so that I can get a sense that you know your stuff!?”
  • “I love the thought of using you as my dentist. So here’s what I’m thinking. We’ll start with one wisdom tooth extraction. And then we’ll see where we can take it from here. I can write a blog if the first one goes well and tag you on Twitter. Deal?”
  • “I heard you were a great corporate lawyer. So before we move forward, I’d just love to get a sense for how you draft. Could you perhaps write up this email and send it over and then I’ll take a look at your lawyering sample?”

Consultants Charge Mercilessly For Their Time

This makes total sense.

There’s no reason you should be “merciful” to your clients.

You’re not even under any obligation to charge them the lowest rates that you can.

Of course, a lot of people will feel compelled to keep their services affordable so that a certain type of client or catchment can afford them.

But don’t mistake that for an obligation.

If you want to get a feel for what it looks like to be charged well for something, just hire a lawyer (at least one that’s in-demand). Lawyers are sometimes accused of being predatory chargers. I think there’s a much more positive way to look at it. They’re the gold standard for how self-respecting professionals should be charging for what they do.

In many cases, you’ll note that:

  • Everything was itemized and billed for. You probably got charged for that consultation phone call. Which is totally rational when you think about it because it took up the lawyer’s time and that time has an opportunity cost associated with it.
  • Nothing was all that cheap.

Again, I’m by no means suggesting that freelancers should start charging their clients through the nose. Simply that by comparing standards in their industry with the manner in which other professionals behave, they can see how truly dysfunctional things are and rally others to push back against them.

This is actually why I have always been a fan of very tightly defined service level agreements. Here’s precisely what I’m willing to do for precisely this much money. Take it. Or leave it.

But equally, I think it’s illogical to work for free. Under any circumstance.

Common ways in which freelancers allow themselves to do work for free:

  • Holding sales calls which clients who ask them how they would solve their business problems in minute detail. This is kind of the same thing as a free writing test. It’s just harder to spot. They’re looking for free consulting. I’d call this a red flag.
  • Holding out of scope calls and being expected to tend to lengthy email correspondence chains with unexpected stakeholders.
  • Freelance writers who commit to “unlimited” revisions. Many advocate for this approach. For the above reason, I’ve always been firmly in the opposing camp.

Consultants Think About The Big Picture

Finally, here’s one that might tick some people off.

Preface all this with in my opinion.

Consulting is more likely to be a “big picture” type engagement than freelancing. And it’s hard to present yourself as one without getting rooted to the label.

You come into a business and look at what they’re doing right and where, you think, they might be able to improve.

Some consultants will look at the business’s supply chain management (SCM) and make recommendations based on that. Others will look at their marketing. And others yet will look at their approach to PR.

One of the problems I see with exclusively freelancing is that–by focusing on task delivery — freelancers loose sight of the higher order thinking going on inside businesses.

Before businesses decide to do something — like even write a blog — they do some thinking about why they might want to do that.

What are their objectives? How might they wish to do that? How can this play into the business’s larger branding and marketing objectives?

It’s a lot easier to capture some of the work that there is to do in that space if you look like you’re primed to do it.

So if strategy work is something that you have offered to clients and know how to do, make sure to make it clear to your prospects that it’s a part of your service offering.

The similarities between several different categories of self-employed workers belie some important distinctions beneath the surface.

Freelancers and consultants typically offer different services to businesses. Ther are parts of the typical consulting engagement process that can be instructive to freelancers.




Daytime: writing for other people. Nighttime: writing for me. Or the other way round. Enjoys: Linux, tech, beer, random things. https://www.danielrosehill.com

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Daniel Rosehill

Daniel Rosehill

Daytime: writing for other people. Nighttime: writing for me. Or the other way round. Enjoys: Linux, tech, beer, random things. https://www.danielrosehill.com

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