What We’ll Cover In This Piece:
- Why carving off your niche is critical to getting hired
- How to carve off your niche
- How to adapt if your niche isn’t working
Estimated Time to Read: 5 minutes
Understanding how to carve off your niche as a consultant is difficult, but critical for your success. I learned this lesson the hard way and want to save you some pain. Early in my career, when I was first starting my consulting firm, one of my partners got us a meeting with an executive at Hewlett Packard. We walked into the HP offices and listed every service and skillset we we could think of: business transformation, mergers and acquisitions, process optimization, technology implementations—we essentially told them everything we could do (and more).
I was confident we’d landed him as a client – after all, we had a trusted relationship and we told him we could do anything they needed. But as we walked out, this executive gave me one of the biggest lessons of my career:
“You guys are telling us you can do everything, and we know that’s not true. We want to know what you can do better than anyone else.”
What he was saying was that we didn’t have a niche. We didn’t get any work – and we learned a hard lesson. We thought listing more skills would help ensure we hit on something they needed, but that wasn’t true at all.
That conversation taught me that less is more, and that for consultants there is hardly anything more important than carving off your niche.
Why No One Wants A Consultant Who Does Everything
To be an effective consultant, you need to understand where you fit in a company.
People who do everything, who wear ten different hats, manage multiple departments, and have their hands in everything a company does should be part of a company’s full-time core team.
Consultants, on the other hand, are hired to execute in a specific area. You have one piece of a project to manage, one objective to achieve. If you aren’t clearly articulating why you’re the best for their one specific need, a company has no reason to hire you.
Plainly put: generalists don’t get hired – specialists do. Your other skills will allow you to help the client in other ways and possibly grow your role. But to get hired, they need to match you with a box they need to fill.
Another way to think about this is trust. If you’re new to a client, they need to be able to “put you in a box”. When your skills and experience neatly match a role the need, they’re much more likely to trust that hiring you will work than if you’re ambiguously “good at everything.”
Psychologically, this is because trust is about risk assessment. Dr. David DeSteno found in a recent study that in all relationships, trust requires one party to expose themselves to the other.
This vulnerability is easier when one party knows exactly how the other party is going to behave. In other words, if you’re an unknown quantity, you pose a much greater risk, and are therefore harder to trust.
All hiring is about trust. If you can define your niche and articulate your skills well, you will build trust. If you build trust, you will get work.
So how do you do that? How do you find your niche, so you can build trust? The first step is auditing yourself.
How To Audit Yourself And Find Your Niche
Auditing yourself starts with asking three questions:
What do I love?
It’s a fact of life that you will do better if you specialize in a field you love.
This might seem strange, but I love the oil and gas industry. I enjoy reading and learning about it. And because I enjoy it, I understand the context and challenges of the industry.
I also enjoy “being in the trenches” of a project. I like planning, executing, learning what’s working, fixing things that aren’t, and seeing a project through to completion. I actually enjoy this so much that I still execute projects at my consulting firm, rather than step back and sell more work.
This “niche clarity” is they single most important reason our firm has grown. Clients know what we are good at. And when they need it, they call us. And if their co-worker needs it, they recommend us.
What are interested in, and good at. Think back to classes that you’ve taken, projects you’ve worked on, books you’ve read. Among your favorites, what is the common theme? It could be a particular skill like project management, or it could be a field like the oil and gas industry.
Quite frankly, ask yourself: what do you like, or even better love, doing at work?
How can I create value at work out of what I love?
If I loved the oil and gas industry, but could only channel that passion into oil painting, I wouldn’t be creating any real value for companies like Chevron. You need to put a frame on your interests and skills that make them relevant to the people hiring you.
If you’re passionate about a field, frame that interest around a skill you possess:
- If you’re a strong writer who loves the auto industry, say you specialize in communications for automakers.
- If you love technology, pick 2-3 that are relevant to most businesses (Office365, Salesforce, SharePoint, etc.) and say you’re an expert in implementing or managing.
- If you really enjoy planning and executing projects, organizing all the details and working with groups of people, talk about your focus on project management.
The key here is to find the vocabulary to translate your passion into a skill a company would want.
Once you’ve done that, you have to point to places in your past where you’ve actually used that skill. You have to prove you have it.
What experience can you reference?
Most people are unaware of how experienced they are. We have a tendency to see our experience with a very narrow view.
For example, one of the consultants at my firm spent years leading technology projects at on the biggest trash companies in the country (a client of ours). After 20 years at the company, she was unexpectedly let go. She had no idea what she was going to do next.
I told her she should come work for me as a consultant, but she didn’t believe she could do it. She didn’t believe she had relevant experience—even though she experience implementing some of the biggest technologies in the world.
We put together her resume, citing her experience in Salesforce and project management, and she’s now been employed on consecutive contracts for the last five years at Chevron. They love her – and will probably never let her go!
To figure out how to frame your experience, do this:
- Make a list of every project (or change) you’ve worked on and every role you’ve held.
- For every project and/or position, breakdown the skills and technologies you learned. Pick the one’s you want to be your niche.
- List any experience related to your niche and leave out anything that’s not related.
Don’t add any jobs that you think are impressive but aren’t relevant. Keep your resume entirely focused on the skills you’re articulating, and be prepared to talk about your experience.
But What If I Don’t Have Any Experience?
A lot of young people legitimately don’t have experience yet. If that’s you, it’s okay. Below are some thoughts to consider, based on my experience hiring hundreds of consultants and contractors:
1. If you have a little experience, focus on passion.
Showcase your passion for the project. If we’re looking at two applicants for a position, and Applicant A has more experience than Applicant B, but Applicant B says something like, “I’ve only worked on a few projects like this, but I loved them for these reasons and I want to make a career out of them,” we’re going with Applicant B.
I know that even though they have less experience, they’re going to absorb information faster and work harder than the other applicant. Passion goes a long way in predicting success.
2. If you have no experience, trade money to gain experience.
When you are young, nothing is more valuable than experience. Please note, I said experience, not education. Don’t go spend $50,000 to get a master’s degree. Take any job you can get that gets you the experience you want.
To make it easy to hire you, drop your compensation as low as needed to get the job. And make this clear to the hiring manager. Here is a statement that can’t be ignored:
“This is what I want to do with my career, so I really want to gain experience in this area. I’m willing to drop my compensation to make this an easy decision for you. What compensation makes that happen?”
If you say that to me, you are hired. I understand your interest, your passion, and you are cheap. In general, people want to help others (especially young people), so if you make it clear and easy, they will hire you.
In the long-run, you will more than recover the money, because you’ll have experience that you can monetize.
If No One Buys Your Niche, Rewrite It
Carving out a niche means missing out on some jobs, and for many contractors, that’s uncomfortable. They have a fear that they’ll be stuck in a niche no one is interested in.
That fear is unfounded. If you spend 4-8 weeks using BenchWatch without landing a contract, something is wrong. Ask a consultant or mentor for feedback, because you likely aren’t articulating your value well enough. Or use one of our coaching services.
Once you have feedback, redefining your niche can happen in an hour. Simply update your BenchWatch profile, resume and LinkedIn profile. You’ve completely redefined yourself and your consulting business at no cost/risk.
If pivoting your niche takes less than a day of work, then there’s simply no reason to be afraid of getting trapped in one niche. If no one wants to hire someone from your niche, redefine it. That’s the beauty of this business. Name another business where that’s possible.