4 Habits That Can Sink a Procurement Consultant’s Career

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Editor’s note: This is part of a new series of personal tales from the procurement trenches. If you missed Rebecca’s post on how she made the transition from corporate to running her own procurement consultancy, read it here. Know someone with a procurement story to tell? Tell us in the comments below.

So you told the corporate world that you’re going to go do it your way. (Congratulations, and cue inspirational theme song.) And for the purpose of discussion, let’s assume that you have taken care of the basics in going freelance: building an emergency fund, buying healthcare insurance, setting up retirement contributions, getting the right business insurance and so on.

I have been on all sides of the client-consultant relationship. I have engaged and managed consultants as a corporate client, I have engaged consultants for my own clients and I am also a consultant myself. So, I’ve seen where the landmines are and learned how to avoid them.

Here are the top temptations that can send you straight back to a corporate role — the “fateful four” — definitely in order of importance.

Calling Only When You Need a Gig

If there is one thing that you need to get real about, this is it. Dialing through your contact list when you are on the bench is not building relationships. People will see through you quickly on this one and will use caller ID to your disadvantage. They want to work with consultants they like — it’s how we operate as human beings. No one likes a phony.

Be sincerely interested in the people you plan to stay in touch with. Call to catch up. Meet for lunch, coffee or happy hour without an ulterior motive. You could uncover a great project by hearing about what’s going on with your contacts. I have never made a cold call. I have gotten several projects by hearing from former colleagues about their new roles or promotions and offering to help in their transitions.

One overlooked opportunity is building a network of people in related industries. I have colleagues at recruiting and procurement technology companies with whom I stay in regular touch. These are people who know when procurement teams are going through transformations, having staffing gaps or otherwise in need of the kind of help we provide. It’s a win-win because they benefit from being able to recommend good consulting support to their clients. Few independent consultants I know grow this kind of network — but it’s a goldmine.

Letting Yourself Go

I’ve run across people who are tired of the corporate world and basically retire from it. They use consulting to bring in extra money. That’s a fine position, but you need to accept what that means. Your close friends will be your primary source of revenue. That will stop the first time you regale their team with stories of recording negotiations with a “Dictaphone” or reproducing RFP documents on the “mimeograph machines.”

It’s important to stay up to date on technologies, practices and new theories in the field. If, like me, you still need to work, freelancing is now your “career.” That career needs to be managed just as if you were still in a corporate environment.

The most effective way to address this is built in. You learn the most from the companies you serve. During an engagement, be curious about everything. Soak in as much as you can, even outside the scope of what you were hired to work on. Find out what keeps the CPO up at night, how the function is organized, what systems they are using and where their biggest challenges are. If your current client is dealing with an issue, chances are good that others are too. You will be well-versed on the issues and have concrete examples to reference the next time you talk to a potential client. It will knock their socks off.

Of course, maintain your memberships in industry organizations and attend conferences and events. I can’t afford to go to everything, so I pick a few meetings each year and participate. Don’t overlook social media, webinars and podcasts. Yes, there is a lot of content out there and you’re busy. Be judicious with your time; every hour not billing is an hour you don’t get paid for. It took me a few wasted hours to realize that a sponsored webinar is often a sales pitch. Learn what you can from the free events, but moderate your expectations.

Ignoring Cash Flow

Remember how much we hated cash flow goals and payment term projects during our corporate procurement days? Brace yourself, because it is one of the most stressful things you will deal with when you’re working for yourself. The client who doesn’t pay is way more dangerous to your livelihood than the client who negotiates down your rate. You will most likely have to work and travel for 45 days before a check hits the bank. You can make all the “I’m a small business” arguments in the world, but companies rarely agree to upfront payments anymore.

This is where the traditional advice about having an emergency fund kicks in. I have found that making friends with someone who can influence the timeliness of your payments helps. This could be someone in accounts payable or the invaluable assistant who supports your executive client. Gifts of flowers or cookies — tactfully given, of course — are a small price to pay to get paid on time. And see the prior point about being genuine.

Firing Clients

People have called me lucky because now I could “fire” clients I didn’t like. Technically, yes. Practically, no. As an independent, your reputation is your biggest asset. The only sure thing you have is the engagement you are currently working. You are not guaranteed the next one, so it is critical that you deliver your project or other commitment to your client to the best of your ability. You were engaged to deliver some tangible value that your client is paying for.

Delivering at least what you promised is table stakes in this game. Too many consultants chase a higher daily rate or a better location. Some will try to renegotiate mid-project or leave before their engagement is over. Leaving early for a better gig elsewhere shows you can’t be counted on and will limit the number of people who will work with you. To quote every parent ever, be a grown up and finish what you started.

Of course the same rules of ethics and integrity apply as a consultant. If a client asks you to do something sketchy, whether it is against regulatory or compliance policies or flat out illegal — then bolt. Be professional and give the notice required in your contract.

The landmines don’t end here, and I could just as easily make this the “fateful eight” or even 18. The point is that hanging out your shingle is only the starting point. How you manage yourself will be the determining factor if that shingle will still be out and contributing to your livelihood years from now. Go forth and freelance. I hear “take this job and shove it” playing in the background.

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