“If you want to live a happy life, tie it to a goal. Not to people or things.”—Albert Einstein

Can you take a little constructive self-criticism and self-evaluation? The term “constructive criticism” can be a double-edged sword depending on who is on which end of the equation. Remember that terrible boss who gave you a little constructive criticism years ago and told you that you shouldn’t be doing what you were doing at the time? Well, he’s still in the corporate world, and you’ve taken his advice and left. Now it’s time for you to evaluate and constructively criticize not only your work, but also client relationships, projects, pay rates, and everything else that encompasses your career as a consultant. In the corporate world, this is called benchmarking.

“For free agents, it’s crucial to build your own benchmarks. When you’re on your own, you don’t always know how you’re doing or where you’ve been. So I recommend that at the end of each project, independent workers actually rate the client and the gig,” advised Dan Pink, a contributing editor with the e-business magazine Fast Company. Pink went on to say that it’s important to ask yourself four questions:

  • Did I learn something?
  • Did I make new connections?
  • Did I earn decent money?
  • Did I have fun?

Next, rate the questions on a scale from 1 to 4. “At the end of the year, you’ll have a great benchmark you can use to evaluate future assignments,” he explained.

Show me the money
Let’s start with the most important issue—pay. If you constantly find yourself saying, “I’m not getting paid what I’m worth,” then it’s probably your fault. The best way to keep this from happening is preventing it in the first place.

When you set your rate, take into account your overhead, cost of materials, and profit margin. According to J. David Harper, Jr., president of Harper Financial Group LLC in Atlanta, there are several pricing mistakes you should avoid:

  1. Minimizing the value of your time. Before you were a consultant, your employer took care of marketing, advertising, overhead, health insurance, taxes, and so forth. To cover the extra expenses and risk, multiply your former rate by at least 2.5.
  2. Underselling the competition. A small operation can’t afford to cut its profit margin. Strive to serve better, perform faster, and do more than your competition.
  3. Confusing profits with wages. Gross sales minus expenses equals profits. Include your living expenses in the “expense” column or you’re still just taking a wage.
  4. Bidding too low. Once you quote a price, you won’t be able to raise it. Be confident in the value you offer. Start high. Focus on the value you bring to the customer, not just the price.
  5. Being too flexible. Being overly anxious will downgrade your value. Quote a reasonable price and walk away from the table.
  6. Don’t charge a corporation the same fee as a nonprofit or it could hurt your credibility. Know yourself, your business, your customer, and the marketplace, and you will position your consulting practice for long-range success.

So happy together
A quote from Life’s Little Instruction Book sums up how your clients can affect what you do: “Choose your partner carefully, from this one decision will come ninety percent of all your happiness or misery.” After every project, rate your client. Ask yourself whether you’d work for that person again, and if so, why. If you liked the client, then by all means work for them again.

There are also a few extra things you can do to keep those great clients. “Remember, 80 percent of the competition in your business seeks to do only what the client requested—and many times, they fail,” wrote Robert W. Bly, author of The Six-Figure Consultant: How to Start and director of the Center for Technical Communication in Dumont, NJ. Bly recommends two things to give your client their money’s worth:

  • Create an expectation on the client’s part that is realistic, yet one you know you can not only meet but also actually exceed.
  • Consistently exceed expectations and deliver more than promised in a way that delivers revenue to you, via increased client retention and repeat business.

On the other hand, if you have a client who’s driving you crazy, but you need the income, slowly look for other clients to fill the void and then “fire the client.” There are definite red flags that let you know when a client is going to be a problem: hassling with you over your fee, asking for an extensive written proposal, or requesting a lot of front-work gratis. When in doubt, go with your gut feelings. Think about it this way: You wouldn’t maintain a business relationship with someone whose own internal business processes (and attitude) keeps you from doing your best work, would you?

The net of working
When you work for a new client, you’re instantly exposed to new people, places, and things. It’s up to you to take advantage of the situation. When you were an employee, you were hired into a clear-cut work culture. As a free agent, you have the ability to learn new things every day, develop new skills, hone your abilities, and move from project to project with a real emphasis on doing your best work and getting the credit.

Take Einstein’s advice and tie your career to the “goal” of being happy and working on your own terms—and most of all, learn to listen. Opportunity sometimes knocks very softly.
Do you apply benchmarking tactics to manage your career? How does this help you? Share your thoughts by posting a comment or sending us a note.