What Is Consulting, After All?

The messy exercise of trying to define it.

If you're here, you're probably a consultant. I also consult, and all of my clients are either self-employed consultants or specialized consulting firms. When we meet, we can discuss or joke about similar challenges or common situations we face at work, and learn how to distinguish a seasoned consultant from a starting one.

But if you had to explain to someone what consulting is, what would you say?

You probably have been asked that before. When someone said, "So, you're a consultant... (?!)", waiting for you to give them a hint of what exactly you do. You can clarify with your value proposition: "I design packages for manufacturing companies." But they still don't have a clue what consulting is.

While it's true that communicating your specialization and who you work with is the easiest way to explain to people what you do, I noticed many of my colleagues don't have a clear definition of what "consulting" is. And this annoyed me.

It's not only because you'll be carrying this title for years during your career. The biggest problem of not having a personal definition is lack of clarity:

  • Is every consultant an expert or specialist?
  • Do consultants only work with companies, or can they also sell to individuals?
  • How is consulting different from freelancing, coaching, or advising?

Answering these questions can be harder than it seems. But if you don't adopt a clear definition of what consulting is, it simply becomes an impossible task.

Different Definitions Of Consulting

It can be messy to define consulting since the term has been used in different ways by a variety of sources. Here are some of them:

  • Cambridge dictionary: "Consulting is the activity or business of giving expert advice about a particular subject."
  • Harvard Business School: "Consultants advise on how to modify, proceed in, or streamline a given process within a specialized field."
  • Alan Weiss: A consultant is an expert in one or more identified areas who partners with a client to improve the client’s condition.
  • Peter Block: "A consultant is someone who has influence over an individual, group, or organization, but who has no direct authority to implement changes"
  • Consultancy.eu: Consulting is the practice of providing a third party with expertise on a matter in exchange for a fee.

These definitions share many common terms, but also show conflicting points. Here are some elements that remain unclear:

  • Does it only consist of giving advice? Formal definitions equal consulting to the act of giving advice. Weiss and Block, however, also include "influencing" and "improving the client's condition" in the definition - for them, giving advice is only one of the tools you have to help your clients change. The root of the discussion seems to be the fact that advice can take many different forms, ranging from a formal report, a one-to-one conversation, or even relevant content distributed through books and online training programs.
  • Expert vs Consultant. Most definitions highlight the need for expertise, which is usually connected to specialization ("particular subject", "specialized field"). This makes sense. Advising on topics we know little about is the same as simply expressing an opinion - there's no value for the client. Some definitions, however, seem to see experts and consultants as synonyms. This seems misleading: if every consultant is an expert, is every expert a consultant? Absolutely not.
  • Who's the client? I heard a couple of times the myth that if you're a consultant, you're in B2B and your clients are organizations. I didn't find any definition that supported this or offered any kind of distinction. Consultants can serve people, groups, and organizations. The only similar point that appears in several sources is the lack of final authority to decide for changes.

As you can see, it's easy to get tangled up with semantics. But what is our goal here after all? Your definition will not be universally accepted by other consultants.

The exercise of trying to come up with your own definition is useful, but its value doesn't come from the final answer. It comes from the questions that they raise.

My Definition And Answers

I couldn't end the post without sharing with you my definition of consulting, and how I answer those tricky common questions about it.

For me:

Consulting is the activity or business of improving a third party's condition by providing and/or implementing expert advice.

  • Is every consultant an expert? Yes, but I see a whole spectrum in the industry. The bigger your expertise, the more valuable your advice will be. That's one of the reasons why generalists struggle to charge high fees.
  • Is every expert a consultant? Absolutely not. Consulting means applying your expertise to improve a third party's condition. To do that, you need to be able to correctly diagnose an often poorly-defined problem, and use your specific knowledge, resources, and processes to create an effective solution. Some experts are good consultants and vice versa, some are neither, few are both.
  • Consulting vs freelancing. A freelancer is a self-employed professional, so you every consultant who works independently (is not employed by a consulting firm) is a freelance consultant. In practice, however, the two terms are perceived very differently in the marketplace. Companies usually associate freelancers as professionals who sell their time by billing hourly and typically deliver implementation or maintenance services in short-term engagements. Topic for a future post.
  • Consulting vs coaching. Sometimes the lines can get blurred, but the difference between consulting and coaching is often clear. The consultant provides value by applying their expertise to identify and/or solve problems. The coach works with the client helping its people acquire new skills and capabilities. The consultant diagnoses and recommends, the coach explores and guides. The few professionals who can do both at an expert level are better equipped to deliver client transformations.
  • Consulting vs advising. I've previously written about the distinction here. Both are in the consulting business, but advisors usually only sell expert advice - not implementation. If that's your case you can use both terms interchangeably, and whichever you prefer the most to describe you and your services.

What about you? What's your definition of consulting?

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