The following is the first in a three-part series in which the AFP Advisors Network looks at the three core competencies of independent consulting: business, technical and consultative skills. Learn more about the AFP Advisors Network here.
The first core competency that any prospective independent treasury or finance consultant needs is business acumen. Simply being a subject matter expert is not enough—you must posses the skills required to run your own business if you want to be successful.
“If you’re going to be specializing in treasury related to cash operations, you need to have the expertise in that area,” said Lauri Putt Needleman, manager, advisor relations for the AFP Advisors Network. “But when we talk about business competencies, we’re looking beyond that—beyond your functional knowledge and looking at your business skills.”Setting a vision and a plan
Independent consultants need the ability to create and set a vision. They must be able to gather information from their clients and provide them with a vision for the project. “From there, you might develop a strategy or an approach,” said Putt Needleman. “You can then determine your goals, and the objectives that will help you meet those goals.”
Putt Needleman noted that many treasury and finance professionals already have substantial experience developing a vision, forming strategies, and setting goals in their roles as employees. But where independent consultants frequently get tripped up is in developing a work plan. “Oftentimes you’ll find that a work plan is divided into multiple phases,” she said. “Sometimes those phases happen concurrently, and sometimes they do not and happen one after another and there needs to be a thoughtful approach to the plan. What do we need to complete, in what order, and why? What would the deliverables look like for each phase, and what does the timeframe look like?”
Many professionals have not had to develop such a detailed proposal, unless they have served as project managers. Putt Needleman emphasized that independent consultants need to be able to explain how they will execute their strategy at a very granular level. “Your client is going to want to understand what steps you are going to undertake to get them from point A to point Z,” she said. “They want to know exactly what the work is going to be; they want to understand what they are paying for. Clients want to be able to trust that you know what you’re doing and understand what the deliverables will look like.”
A key to formulating this strategy is for the consultant to really understand the client’s company and industry, noted Himashi Soriano, director of business development and marketing for AFP. “It can’t be a cookie-cutter, off-the-shelf solution,” she said. “You have to really understand what their specific needs and challenges are.”Running your business
Independent consultants are responsible for managing their own professional services. Many of the professionals that the AFP Advisors Network engages for client projects have financial backgrounds and are fairly comfortable managing their own books, doing their own collections, invoicing, etc. However, some do not have the experience or are not comfortable with these aspects of running a business. “So when you’re looking at how you actually manage your business, there are many different aspects to that, like the accounting piece,” Putt Needleman said. “Is the accounting something that you’re going to handle in-house? And if not, are you going to send it out of house and manage the relationship with a vendor who does that for you?”
Generally, independent consultants will also be handling most of their own sales and marketing. They must be able to sell themselves and might need some training in that regard.
Soriano noted that having a major presence online and being active in social media and can go a long way. “Make sure your name is out there as a thought leader—there are so many types of engagement that can showcase that you’re an expert,” she said. “You have to be comfortable with that because that’s where society is going.”
One of the most important factors when leveraging a social media platform is being able to identify your target audience. “That’s somewhat of an analytical skill set, and that’s why we put this in the business competency bucket,” Putt Needleman said. “You need a plan for identifying your target audience and reaching them consistently.” Contracts and negotiations
The process of actually preparing a proposal for the client and then negotiating the contract is another intricate process for independent consultants. “Not everyone has negotiation skills,” Soriano said. “It’s a learned skill. You have to know your value.”
The AFP Advisors Network works with consultants throughout this process, helping them understand the scope of the project and develop a work plan and goals. After the client reviews a proposal, the Advisors Network manages the negotiations directly with the client. “We look at whether the Advisor will be charging by the hour or by the day, if there is a travel and expense budget. We might say, ‘This person will spend a minimum of 40 percent of their time with the client’—that could be a negotiating point. The client might want more or less than that,” said Putt Needleman.
Consultants may also wish to engage in a partnership or alliance with another consultant or company. “You’ll want to do so strategically, in a way that makes sense for you,” said Putt Needleman. “You’ll probably have some type of agreement between you and the other organization, and you need to make sure the terms are favorable for both parties. We see many independent consultants getting business on their own, but they also align themselves with organizations like the AFP Advisors Network, a local boutique consulting shop, or a firm with national reach. That helps them gain exposure to other opportunities that aren’t within the span of their own marketing efforts.”