A while back, I read a book on consulting, and it occurred to me, given the advice being given and the types of activities described, that I am not, in fact, a consultant. I am a contractor.
What’s the difference?
Contracting – Writing for hire
A contractor–the niche I fulfill as a technical writer for hire–is someone who’s hired to perform specific work as a particular type of contributor. Examples would be proposal, technical publication, or instructional design writing.
At the end of a contracting job, the customer has a clear idea of what will be delivered and how long the job will take–especially if there’s a proposal deadline. You’re being hired for a particular number of hours or a set fee. While I’ve not experienced it myself, performance bonuses could be thrown in as well, depending on what you’re doing and how well you end up doing it.
A contractor is essentially an auxiliary employee who’s brought in to help the existing workforce develop a known product or service.
Consulting – Shaping the business
A consultant is someone who’s brought in to help an organization solve a problem or organize a process. This could be things such as establishing a strategic communications plan, setting up a crisis communications process, or organizing/setting up a department to develop the organization’s brand.
Consultants are brought in when an organization is often uncertain what they want or how to go about getting what they want. The project could take a week or it could take several months or years. They are seen more as partners than employees. There is still an employer-employee relationship, but there is usually more of a recognition that the consultant has been brought in because the organization’s leadership does not have the knowledge or skill set to accomplish what they want.
Which one should you be?
A consultant has more of an opportunity to shape their customer’s outputs. For example, an instructional design consultant could be brought in to determine whether or not a situation in the organization requires a classroom training experience vs. a website or handout. A contractor, by contrast, would be hired after the decision has already been made to deliver a particular type of product and usually have only tactical input into how it should be executed.
I’ve been quite comfortable being a contractor, as I confess to a great deal of discomfort with consulting. I don’t consider myself knowledgable (or, in my admittedly parochial view, arrogant) enough about any particular topic to tell someone how to run their business. I’m also more task-focused and comfortable in the role of a team member than a leader. I’m quite happy to take orders and deliver the products my customers want rather than tell them what they should do.
The down sides of being a contractor include lower pay, less decision-making authority (for example, you don’t get to question why a particular product is being delivered), and less influence on overall outcomes–such as profitability.
On the flip side, the problems solved by consultants are more challenging and more in-depth, and likely to pay more. Consultants can get paid anywhere from $150 to $1,000 (or more) per hour, depending on the perceived value your service provides. Consultants get to help shape policies, decisions, processes, and organizations. There is more “hands-on” time with the client, as you’re simultaneously offering your expertise while also ensuring that the client has input into what you’re doing.
The down sides of consulting, based on what I hear from my consulting friends, are more complicated, in keeping with the more challenging nature of the work. Because you’re making changes to how a business is run, your clients might resist your inputs. You could be fired suddenly because you crossed an invisible political line you didn’t know existed. And lastly, there is more pressure to ensure that you produce tangible results–more revenue, less expense, more time saved, et cetera.
I don’t believe there’s a definitively “better” role for the freelance contributor. Each role–contractor or consultant–has its pluses and minuses, its costs and benefits. It’s worth investigating what works for you.