How to be an Information Consultant


What can you expect to deal with each day as an information consultant? Well, as with any job, each day will bring its own challenges and rewards. When you're self-employed, as most information consultants are, discipline is required on a daily basis. You'll only be "making your own schedule" as far as your projects will allow. Sure, you may have a few days or afternoons when you can take a little time off, but you'll more than likely spend that down time drumming up business--unless you're so far ahead financially that you can afford to nap in the hammock for a while.

In this section, we'll take a look at a typical day in the life of an information consultant. This little synopsis assumes you're taking on an entire consulting business on your own. If you're going to be working with another person who takes on some of these tasks, you'll have more time to spend on your portion of the work--but you'll also need to get enough work to support the two (or more) of you.

9:00 a.m. Check Your e-Mail and Phone Messages
E-mail is the communication method of choice in today's business world. You'll need to check your e-mail constantly throughout the day for messages from clients. It's a good, quick way to send off brief notes, questions and project updates.

One of the many advantages of e-mail is that it allows you to keep a record of the correspondence you have with clients. With a little software savvy, you can create for yourself an electronic paper trail that shows what was requested by whom. Many e-mail programs will even sort your messages into different folders as they come in, so that you can keep the correspondence you have with each client separate.

Check your phone messages next. If you're on the West Coast, clients on the East Coast have a three-hour head start on you (unless you're a really early riser) and may already have been waiting a few hours for the answer to a question by the time you're having you morning cup of coffee. Follow up on any calls you've received from clients about current and future work--especially future work. When you're first starting out, it's quite possible to miss getting a job by not responding fast enough.

9:30 a.m. Primary Research
Unless a client specifically asks only for what you can find on the web or another online resource, you're going to have to do some primary research to fill out what you've dug up electronically or from libraries or wherever else you've been researching. Primary research means going straight to the horse's mouth by calling companies or people who have written articles about the topic you're researching.

Primary research frequently involves interviewing experts about a subject. You'll need to find these experts first, but they can be very helpful in keeping you up to date. If you're focusing on a particular area of research, developing good relationships with experts can be very valuable. Are there magazines or newsletters devoted to your area of expertise? Subscribe to them, and try to develop relationships with the editors. Are there conferences devoted to your research specialty? Attend them (cost permitting) to keep up to date with new developments and make other important contacts.

11:00 a.m. Contracts, Bills, Invoices and Project Scheduling
Ahh, here we are. The inevitable (and usually least favorite) part of running any business: paperwork. Establishing contracts with clients is important; it ensures that both you and the client know what to expect. Is there a limit to the number of hours you'll work? Are there limits to where you'll do the research? Is it clear how much you'll be charging for the job? All those things need to be reviewed carefully and put in writing to prevent you and the client from having misunderstandings later on.

Pay the bills. You don't want your phone shut off in the middle of a project, and you don't want your ISP to stop your e-mail service. Have you subcontracted any work to other information consultants? If so, pay them promptly, just as you would expect a client to pay you. Are any of your clients late paying you? Give them a call after 30 days to check on the status of your payment. Have you sent out invoices for the work you've completed? Have you paid for your magazine and newsletter subscriptions? Have you tracked all this information so you can pay the required quarterly income tax installments? If not, you have some work to do.

Check your schedule to make sure you know what your workload is going to be like in the next month or two. Too much or too little work can be equally damaging to your business. To avoid financially devastating down time, you need to make time to find work even when you're in the middle of a project. Make sure you set aside time for this no matter how busy you are, especially when you're starting out.

12:00 p.m. Lunch?
OK, go ahead and raid the refrigerator. You may want to take this opportunity to review the status of projects you'll be tearing into after lunch or to read the industry magazines and newsletters you subscribe to. You'll have to make time for these tasks at some point during the day, so you might as well do your reading and eating in the kitchen to keep the crumbs out of your keyboard.

1:00 p.m. Start Searching!
Finding information is your business. Spend the next two hours online, whether it's on the internet or one of the commercial online databases. You'll become more proficient at deciding which one to use as time goes on. You'll also realize that much earlier when you've spent too much time on a wild goose chase. Sometimes you can gain more information from making a single phone call than from spending hours online. Make a list of calls to make tomorrow.

3:00 p.m. Errands
Do you need to go to the post office to mail out invoices and/or contracts? Are there any urgent packages that need to be sent FedEx? Do you have blank cassettes for interviews? Ink and paper for your printer? Make a quick run out to take care of these tasks.

3:30 p.m. Search Some More
After getting out for a little fresh air on your way to the post office, etc., your eyes will be a little less bleary than they were when you left. Back to work! Find that information!

5:00 p.m. Organize
Spend the next half-hour backing up any work you've done using your method of choice. If you wake up in the morning to find that your computer won't start, at least you'll have the data in some form (like on disk or tape). Now spend some time organizing the piles of printed material you've generated during the course of the day.

5:30 p.m. Miller Time!
Time to sit back and sip your brew of choice? Maybe, but not necessarily. There are a number of things we haven't fit into our day:

  • Phone calls can come in at any time, delaying your other daily activities.
  • Meetings with clients can easily eat up half a day.
  • Trips to the library can set you back a few hours but are sometimes necessary.
  • Quarterly taxes will take a day out of your schedule four times a year.
  • Emergency rush jobs may come up. (These often pay well, but don't let them ruin jobs you're doing for other clients.)
  • Marketing, in whatever form you choose (mailings, maintaining a web page, and so on), must be attended to.
  • Making yourself more visible by writing articles or speaking at conferences can take up considerable time.
  • The information you've gathered for your clients has to be formatted into a readable report.

All this, of course, is assuming you're working full time as an information consultant. It's possible to get started in this profession working part time or even just evenings (though it can make contacting clients a little tricky). You can also partner up with someone who has complementary skills or subcontract work to other information consultants. But as a full-time information consultant, the key is to keep all the balls in the air at once.

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