If you could pay someone a reasonable amount of money to solve all your problems, you would jump on it in heartbeat. Right? Especially if the price is fair, and even more so if it would solve all the problems you hate solving yourself.
The Big Picture
In every industry there is an ample supply of consultants trying to help you and taking a good chunk of your money in the process. There are times when a consultant can be a good investment, but they are not the silver bullet that everyone hopes for. Let’s explore ways to think about your next investment.
In Latin ‘Consultare’ stands for ‘to discuss’. In modern terms, it is a individual who provides professional or expert advice. I, actually, like the Latin word because ‘discussing’ implies an exchange among two informed individuals to refine an idea or to evaluate some options based on available data. It may, also, imply reaching agreement or compromise on two opinions that may start out as afar but resolved afterwards.
When I listen to photographers talk about consultants, more often than not I get the sense that they really just want to outsource, or get the answer of something they really rather not deal with. It may be because it’s a distraction, outside of their comfort zone, or it’s an area they are not secure about. Most often it has to do with marketing, but also commonly with personal branding and portfolio building.
In fairness, many of the big ‘Consulting’ companies, such as Accenture, Deloitte, or PwC, are making most of their business on outsourced projects, not professional discourse. The meaning of consulting has morphed in various ways. The infamous Healthcare.gov was built by a consulting company, not because the Government needed expert advise, but because they just needed someone to do it. We all know that it got infamously screwed up and the launch wasn’t as smooth as they hoped. Another consulting company had to come in and fix it.
How is This Related To Photographers?
As photographers we run our own business, and it depends on the brand of You, because You is what you are selling. Your ability to take the right picture at the right moment is almost secondary to that, but is also your product. Extreme caution is warranted in outsourcing anything that has to do with the brand of You. Nobody has any stake in it other than you. If you are just a number, just a billable hour for someone, then it’s a gamble if it makes the brand of You stronger, or becomes its new weakest link.
When the job finally comes in and you have to be on set with the client, You are on full display. There is no one else that can substitute your presence, communication, appearance, ability to connect, or your ability to edit in realtime. If you outsource too much and don’t invest the time and energy to make sure that all aspects of your business are authentically You, that disconnect will be glaringly obvious on set.
Example: You, as many photographers, may absolutely detest cold calling leads. Maybe you pay someone to do it for you. But why do you hate it? Because it’s not your natural way of communicating. Photographers are often introverts. They often like to control the details. And there is nothing wrong with that. But if you had some outgoing person do the cold calling for you, and then you show up as super introvert on set with the client for the first time, after doing everything over email up to this point, it will be a huge and obvious disconnect.
Consultants love to help you with all kinds of other aspects of marketing yourself: Editing your portfolio, putting a campaign together, targeting some portfolio reviews, refining your target genre or market segment, building your list of clients to go see or sorting out who your dream client is, setting you up with services for email campaigns. The list is semi-endless.
Despite the help, you should stand behind your portfolio edit. (Don’t squirm at the review and then admit that you didn’t really like that photo either.) You should have an opinion. Do you prefer email blasts or direct mail campaigns? You should always know from your heart who your dream client is. You’ve got to do the work!
When it comes to topics consultants like to help with, I prefer to actually research the topic, educate myself, and evaluate my options. Only after I am fully educated, I may engage a consultant and validate that I’m on the right track. A good consultant will have seen many cases and data points and will have more facts to help me validate or reposition myself on the topic. Remember the original definition of consultation? The meaning ‘to discuss’. If I get into a situation with clients or others, I can speak to the topic as I have immersed myself in it. I will be authentic and nothing is more important in a business relationship than being authentic.
Here’s a good discussion by my most trusted consultant on the topic of being authentic, and it being an overused buzz word in it’s own right: “Being authentic is about being real.”
There are three aspects you should consider when evaluating consultants: compatibility, originality, and currency.
A consultant you work with has to have a compatible style and or approach. If their way of doing things is not aligned with the brand of You in a stylistic sense, the advise they will give you can easily lead you down the wrong path. Wrong in the sense that it’s a path that just isn’t You. If a consultant simply insists on you having to get over it and do the cold calling, instead of discussing with you effective communication strategies that fit your business, personality, and target audience, you are not getting the right help. Maybe you are just not the cold calling type, but in-person networking is your forté. So how can you effectively get in front of the right people? As mentioned earlier, you should already be thinking this through and then ‘discuss’ your thoughts and possible approaches with the consultant to validate and refine your plan.
A consultant has to be original, in the sense that they take an individual approach to You and your business. You have heard it over and over again, that as a photographer you have to find your ‘own visual voice’. To be in business a consultant has to help hundreds, if not thousands, of clients in their career. Because of economics they will have to have spiel or system that they use. What if they give you and your 100 closest friends and competitors the same advice? How does that differentiate you in the market? How does that give you an ‘own visual voice’?
Finally, a consultant has to be current on the market, on best practices, and the tools and resources available. The best consultants are those that can speak from their own experience, because they stood in your shoes. It’s easy for someone on the sidelines to make good sounding recommendations. It’s another thing to know what it takes, to have been there, and to have done that. The problem is that once a practitioner converts to consultant they can get stuck in time. They may be current for one or two years, but not for the rest of their consulting career. It’s best to understand where a consultant gained her or his experience. A glowing review is not enough.
If I had to rate risk factors, I think finding a consultant that is current is the biggest risk and the one that is hardest to test. Followed by originality, particularly at affordable price points. Compatibility is easy to spot.
If you ask me, cold calling still works for some, and that’s great, but the modern culture of communication has changed dramatically. The phone plays a much smaller role and is one of the most intrusive way of communication we have today. Not for you, but for the person you are calling. The person you’re calling has to stop what they are doing. A call can’t be taken while multi-tasking in the meeting or on the subway. It takes more time per piece of information than any other means. It lacks the ability to share images or links, invites spelling errors. It is not archived and cannot be searched at a later time. It really is an outdated means of communication. So if it is not natural to you, and it’s very intrusive to the person you are trying to reach, then why is it a good thing? Personally, I prefer networking, select personal email, and thoughtful print promotions, combined with a good social media strategy.
I personally prefer to self assign and get feedback from peers including braintrust like those available to members of the New York chapter of ASMP and to put my trust in people whose intentions aren’t compromised by the need to make money. I rely on people who have built their reputation on having solved the problem you are still solving, and prefer to invest the time to understand and run a business instead of outsourcing all the parts that are boring, painful, mind numbing, and distracting. If you have to outsource, hire an employee, build a team, or somehow keep it in-house. Spend the time being a mentor to others, you will be surprised how rewarding and helpful it can be, especially to your own business.
While it’s true that you can learn most things by reading and asking questions, some people need motivation, assignments and feedback. Consultants are advisors and can point you in the right direction, guide you on the way and hold your hand through some decisions, but ultimately, the work is yours to do. There are no short-cuts in owning and running your business. For everyone else there is a 9-5 somewhere with a paycheck.