What is a consultant?

A consultant is a person who provides professional or expert advice in a particular field of science or business to either an organisation or individual. As there is no legal protection given to the job title 'consultant', in theory, anyone can wake up on a day and decide to adopt the title. In essence, despite the broad definition that can be subsumed under the term, there are three characteristics that distinguish consultancy from other professions.

Firstly, a consultant provides expertise that a client lacks or support that a client is unable to provide internally. In return for his/her professional services, the consultant charges a fee. Secondly, a consultant operates independently from the client, implying that there is no conflict of interest between the client's issue and the services provided. Thirdly, a consultant operates in a professional manner, which ranges from having the right qualifications to ensuring high quality service delivery and a solid internal operation.

Why do clients hire consultants?

One of the defining features of consultants is that they possess a knowledge advantage. In the majority of cases, a client hires a consulting firm to provide expert advice that ultimately (should) lead to the resolution of an issue within the client's organisation. There are, however, more reasons why consultants are hired:

  • consultants are independent and provide an objective view on dilemma's and solutions
  • external consultants are less susceptible to internal politics and/or sensitive situations
  • hiring consultants may be cheaper in certain areas than retaining the expertise in-house
  • when firms find themselves short in capacity for projects/positions, consultants can backfill
  • It is easier for consultants to do the 'dirty work', i.e. take the decisions no one internally wants to take

Where do consultants work?

Consultants could work at a consultancy firm, operate as independent consultants (freelance), or else work as an ‘internal consultant’ within the company they work for.