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ARE YOU A CONSULTANT OR A CONTRACTOR?

By Michael Wilkinson, CMF
Managing Director, Leadership Strategies, Inc.

The term “consultant” is used to describe a wide range of activities. At Leadership Strategies, we make a very specific distinction between what we call “consultants” versus what call “contractors.” Take a look at these examples. Which would you consider consultants? In each case, you should assume the most likely circumstances.

Example 1: You go to a HAIR STYLIST, tell him how you want your hair cut, he does exactly what you asked him to do, you pay him for the work.

Example 2: An IMAGE SPECIALIST whom you run into at a restaurant comments that what you are wearing could be enhanced in certain ways. You later pay the person to meet with you to make specific wardrobe suggestions.

Example 3: You pay an independent INFORMATION SYSTEMS ANALYST who specializes in SAP financials to modify the package. The analyst makes the modifications you request.

There are perhaps circumstances in which all three could be considered consultants. But given the most likely circumstances, if you said only the image specialist, we would agree with you.

At Leadership Strategies, we define consulting as “the process of providing objective expertise to an organization, group, or individual, in order to influence a decision or action.”   The key to this definition is “influence.”  We believe that the true value of a consultant is in the ideas, expertise and experience they bring in order to influence actions taken by clients.

While a consultant attempts to influence a decision or action, a contractor on the other hand implements a decision or action.  A contractor is a doer, a person with a set of skills who uses those skills to bring about a desired result.  In the example, the hair stylist does exactly what he is asked to do.  Likewise, the information systems analyst makes the modifications you request.  Both are contractor roles.

Keep in mind, however, a person who is primarily a consultant may from time to time slip into a contractor role.  In this case, the client might say, “We like you recommendation.  Can you implement it for us?”

Likewise, a person who is primarily a contractor may from time to time play a consultant role.  The hair stylists might say, “Have you considered having your hair cut this way?  What would you think if we…”  Or the information systems analyst might say, “I can program it that way, but you might get greater value if I do it this way…”

So why is the distinction between consultant and contractor important?

For successful client relationship management, it is essential that you and your client agree on the role you will be playing.

  • If your client is looking to you to be a consultant and all you are doing is getting the job done, the client might be very frustrated with your lack of suggestions and recommendations.
  • At the same time, if you are thinking that the client has hired you to be a consultant and yet the client sees you as a contractor, you may find yourself continually making recommendations that get ignored because your input is not desired.  In extreme cases, the client may even be frustrated by your lack of focus on what they see as the real work!

In any assignment, be sure to know whether the client is seeking you to be a consultant or a contractor.  This knowledge can prevent strain and frustration.


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