Editor’s note: This article was originally published August 20, 2003.

Several years ago, I was working with one of the CPAs employed by a client law firm. He said something to me about how it must be nice to have a “small cap” company. He was referring to the fact that a lot of capital wasn’t required to start a consulting company.

At the time, I had just spent several thousand dollars on new computer equipment so I didn’t feel very much like talking about how little money being a consultant actually takes.

However, he was right. It doesn’t take much money to be considered a consultant. There is no certification exam, no membership dues, and no large costs that have to be deferred. In other businesses, machines must be bought, overhead established, and in some cases standardization bodies must be appeased. In consulting, there aren’t as many barriers. In fact, if you already have a computer, your biggest expense in becoming a consultant might be buying business cards.

Foundation for good technical consultants

Because a consultant’s value is assigned by the clients he serves and because those clients differ in their needs and desires, it’s not possible to quantify exactly what makes a good technical consultant any more than it’s possible to quantify exactly what makes a good manager.

But it is possible to define characteristics of a good consultant. Similarly, there are skills that are most often found in good technical consultants that are lacking in technical consultants who are not at the top of the pack.

If you want to improve yourself as a consultant, it’s important to learn about these characteristics and skills and to develop them. Whether you’re in a consulting organization or out on your own, these skills will improve your ability to exceed your client’s expectations.

Characteristics of good technical consultants

Beyond the obvious need to be flexible and ready to serve, there are two key characteristics that good technical consultants tend to share.

Long-term thinking

Good technical consultants tend to look for the long-term game. They recognize that working exclusively on short-term problems will eventually force them into being completely reactionary to customer problems. That’s a position that good consultants loath since it means a much higher level of risk and makes it difficult to plan for sustained success.

Drive to absorb more skills

Good technical consultants recognize that their technical skills are important no matter in what area they are helping clients. Some consultants do very tactical work and must keep their technical skills up to date. Others, who advise on more strategic issues, may need to maintain a wider breadth of technical knowledge and trends. As long as consultants continue educate themselves, they will increase their technical skills.

Skills of good technical consultants

The characteristics above are more about knowledge, thinking, and attitude. Skills are about action and what can be done. There are three key skills that good technical consultants tend to share.

Customer service
Customer service is more than just responding to the customer’s immediate needs. It’s learning to respond to customers in ways that make them feel good about being served. It’s about learning the personal side of the customer beyond the technical needs. Customer service is the intent to make the customer feel good about the interaction of hiring the consultant even when the technical resolution isn’t exactly what was hoped for. Good technical consultants practice active listening and control their enthusiasm in ways that make the customer comfortable.
Addressing customer problems
Every consultant has run into the customer who’s difficult to work with. Some customers are difficult because they’re too demanding, but most often the difficult client is the one who is incorrect about something very technical and has to be corrected. The good technical consultant uses techniques that allow customers to understand technical explanations.
Problem solving

Ultimately, consultants are hired to resolve a problem or to take advantage of an opportunity. Despite this, most consultants simply follow the directions given by the customer. The customer asks the consultant to set up a printer, and he sets up a printer. Most consultants — not the good consultants — blindly follow directions without learning more about the problems that the client is facing. Good consultants are hungry for problems to solve. They are fed by learning the root problems that are driving the customer and finding the best resolutions to those problems that they can.

Becoming a good technical consultant

If you’re already a good technical consultant, these characteristics and skills will challenge you to become better. If you’re aspiring to be a good technical consultant, this article lays out a roadmap for the things that you should be considering and working on.

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