Choosing the right professional identity in business is important. It drives the approaches we take when working with clients. Deciding to call yourself consultant vs. coach can significantly impact your success attracting the right clients to your business. Likewise, if you’re looking for business support yourself, which one would you be more inclined to look for?
Consulting and coaching are both focused on helping to solve problems, and bringing about change and improvement. The difference between a consultant and a coach as a professional identity in business is not really about what is achieved, but how it is achieved.
In this two-part series I want to talk about the consultant vs. coach dilemma. And I’m going to explore this with you from two angles, both of which I hope will be helpful to think through.
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Firstly, if you’re a small business owner, service provider or entrepreneur, which most of my clients are – and feel free to attach to whichever term you resonate most with, however you see yourself – then I want to say that what you call yourself matters.
Choosing a professional identity in business is not just a nuance – it can be critically important. That’s because calling yourself a consultant, coach, or any other kind of label, predicates the approaches we take when working with clients.
Maybe you say you’re a business consultant, or a health coach or a therapist. I think, to a degree, it’s ‘easier’ if you’re a professional within a clear specialist area, such as a graphic designer or a relationship counsellor. But even there, you have a challenge to differentiate yourself from all the other people who call themselves that too. We’ll come back to this later on in the episode/article.
What if you choose to see consultant vs. coach dilemma as an opportunity or choice rather than as a dilemma or tension?
If you’re the professional looking for the right label for your brand positioning, this is something you’ll need to consider carefully. And here’s why.
Because the second way I want to come at this is, the other angle, is where you are the customer. When you are looking for support for your own business or life or relationship, how do these different professional identities and labels affect how you see their expertise. And how do you know which kind of support your business really needs? That’s what we’ll come onto in part 2.
First, today, let’s start by looking at the key differences between consulting and coaching and explore why does it matter what you call yourself.
Key Differences Between Consulting and Coaching
The key differences between consulting and coaching are nicely laid out in a recent article by Forbes (source). But I feel there are some nuances that aren’t as easily explained by the typical distinction of a directive vs non-directive approach.
Typical you hire a consultant for their specific expertise in an area you need help with. They are on a pedestal as having ‘been there, done that’ – they are both great at the strategy and at the implementation; they have extensive experience. When you’re working with a consultant as an adviser, they don’t generally turn your problems into questions. They’re not there to ‘draw it out of you’; they are there to give advice and offer solutions.
Coaches, on the other hand, while they may or should ideally be experienced working in your industry and have great knowledge and grasp of the subject area generally, they are more there to get the best out of you. In coaching, there tends not to be a hierarchy of who is more successful, experienced or knowledgeable, you enter into a partnership.
As a coach, our expertise also lies in the coaching process, developing an effective coaching relationship. We are skilled in knowing how to help our client turn a barrier into an accomplishment. We are not there to be an expert on everything the client knows about or does in their work, business or life.
It is true that we do market ourselves or brand ourselves as a particular type of coach say a business coach, a life coach, an executive coach or a health or relationship coach. And that is usually where we have either experience of a particular industry or sector, or where our biggest skills and passion lies. But we are not there to be an expert and know everything about the subject matter.
Why Does What You Call Yourself Matter?
Using the term consultant or coach as a professional identity in business, or other labels we choose, can impact our success significantly. Why does it matter what you call yourself. Well, the answer lies in the expectations and perceptions of your clients.
If you identify as a consultant, your clients will expect you to have deep expertise in a particular area and to provide a clear plan of action. If you identify as a coach, your clients will expect you to provide guidance and support in developing their skills and mindset.
Using the right label for your professional identity in business can help you attract the right clients and manage their expectations effectively.
As the world evolves and new needs arise, there are many new opportunities for growth and development. This may mean flipping roles between adviser-consultant, which is more of a directive role, and coach-confidant, which is more non-directive. As such, you may want to consider more hybrid models in the proposals for work you make.
Exploring your professional identity in business can be a fun journey, even if it’s several years since you first set up. The exercises can reveal fresh meaning and purpose in your work.
If you offer consulting and coaching, or you’ve ever looked to work with a consultant and/or a coach, undoubtedly at some point you will have come across the consultant vs. coach dilemma.
Your chosen professional identity in business, and the labels and roles we use as service providers, can affect how clients perceive you, the type of work you are hired for, and the expectations they have of you.
Additionally, the labels you choose can impact your own mindset about your role, approach to your work, and ability to achieve your goals. Therefore, it’s important to carefully consider the labels and identity you adopt and how they may impact your success in the industry.
In my book, Leveraged Consulting in the Digital Age, I talk a fair bit about professional identity, and there’s a couple of ways this (I hope) is helpful. In chapter 3 on Leveraging You, I cover defining your professional identity, and in chapter 4 on Leveraged Marketing, I dive more into reinventing your professional identity.
If you’re currently using a standard label, you can totally switch to something more telling about how you work with your clients, and how you really help people and achieve results for them.
And here’s why you might want to do that.
Firstly, because when I’ve worked with clients who are just setting up in business, experts and service providers – consultants and coaches especially – they either spin around not knowing what to call themselves, or they simply adopt the standard labels of their profession, or use past job titles even! Heavens, pretty unimaginable.
On the one hand, yes people may immediately ‘get’ what you do. But on the other hand, you won’t stand out amongst all the other people in your profession with the same title. You’re just a commodity. What you want is to be unique.
And if this is the case for you, then I urge you to get the book – it’s an encyclopaedia and covers the gamut of starting, building and growing a service-based business, from identifying and attracting clients, to fulfilling on the delivery of services they contract you for, and everything in between.
And getting super clear on your professional identity and what you call yourself, it’s one of the cornerstones for the business you build.
And if you already call yourself an X consultant or a Y coach, you might just need a bit of reinvention. If this is an area where you really need to do some work, then I also recommend Dorie Clark’s book called Reinventing You – it’s brilliant.
Your professional identity and the thinking behind it provides the foundation for every piece of content you create, every piece of marketing you put out there, and every conversation you have: be it answering the ‘what do you do?’ question at networking events, introducing yourself in a presentation, or on a sales or enrolment call.
Right, so let me come back to the first angle I mentioned, which is about establishing your brand position.
Brand Positioning and the Distinctiveness Challenge
Have you ever struggled with what to call yourself? If you have then you may also have wondered, for your own business, do you need a consultant or a coach? Or maybe, you’d look for a mentor? What do these terms mean to you and your target market?
For example, on the opening header of your website, or the headline in LinkedIn, what do you say you are? You have only a limited space to capture the essence of your professional identity and pitch?
And sure, you can say a lot more in the About section on both your site and LinkedIn or any other social media profile for that matter. But really that section should not actually be about you, it’s not a space to plonk your media bio or list of qualifications. Contrary to belief, and common practice, an About me profile should be about your ideal client, who they are, what they struggle with and what you do for your audience.
So, in this regard, does it really matter what you call yourself?
I was so tangled in this, I even started referring to myself as a consultant-coach because I couldn’t decide on the best professional identity in business, or maybe I just didn’t want to have to choose! I mean, honestly, a hyphenated double barrel – it’s absurd, but that’s how much I felt I had to put my eggs into one ‘type’ of role or professional identity.
And I still do to the extent that I’d say I tend to work more with consultants than I do with coaches – but that’s not strictly true. What I tend to be good at is working with B2B type businesses, but again I also work with business owners who provide services and programmes B2C.
So, the consultant-coach hybrid didn’t really hit the mark either.
And this is because more accurately there are even more than two roles that I’m playing in the work I do with clients. Depending on what the person or team or business or organisation needs, call it a proposal of work or project or a program and action plan, like my Leveraged Business Accelerator, there will be a mix of provision.
Let me give you some examples, and you’ll see why my programme is pretty distinctive compared to many other coaching programmes out there or the way many other consultants work. (Are you starting to get this?)
Right, so examples:
I do strategy, obviously, and create 90-day business plans with milestones and targets so you can see what’s been achieved in any given accelerator period.
I leverage online course materials and guides. I provide planners, templates and checklists.
I dive into a platform or tool and get my hands dirty to sort something out for a client.
I review or even write sales pages or email copy.
I create nicely designed brochures.
To get something moving for a client, and get sales and revenue coming in, I pretty much will turn my hand to anything that speeds things up for them. And I have a huge range of experience and expertise to do a decent job. If they need more help further down the line, we pull in copywriters, designers or tech specialists. But taking imperfect action, that I can help them do.
In consulting proposals, we talk about the scope of work, and what is in or out of scope. This is really great for setting clear boundaries of what you will and won’t be included in the project, but sometimes you just have to go the extra mile. If it’s something that maybe take an hour or so, but saves them a week of struggling, then it’s generally worth it, right?
And the client is always delighted. Isn’t that value-add what drives customer satisfaction as well as helps you deliver on your promise?
This way, my clients are freed up to focus on interacting with their leads, prospects and clients – working at the top of the tree rather than getting bogged down and stuck at a particular step.
So, I’m continuously called to switching roles between consultant, coach, adviser, trainer, designer, tech specialist, and more of these labels.
You might ask yourself the same question about where on the spectrum you lie in what you do and how you work with clients.
What do these words conjure up for you, for your own professional use or for how your clients might perceive you and what you do? Is there a pecking order? Or is it about a skillset? Is it about flexibility or adaptability to what’s needed in any given period.
That single question when starting a business can be alarmingly challenging. It’s something that ties a lot of my clients up in knots – sometimes for several years. Or at least when they come to me for help with brand positioning or strategic marketing, they may be many years in business and this is a dilemma they still face!
And they think they want advice or guidance on the strategy – which is why I often call myself a business strategist – but what I find when we dig into a little is that they are getting in their own way. So I can consult with them ad infinitum, and I can create a strategy, but they won’t implement something or execute effectively unless we crack what’s going on inside their head (or heart or even their soul).
For some, that can take some deep coaching over time. So, while we’re working on the practical action steps to develop and grow the business, we’re also in parallel working on personal development and growth.
I refer to this as the outer game and the inner game that business owners, entrepreneurs and many professionals more widely have to be aware of.
It’s way more straightforward to identify a specific ‘niche’ in terms of the industry we work in and the people we help if you have your ideal client dialled in. We call this your customer avatar or persona.
When you have this ideal customer avatar identified, and have your professional identity clarified in terms of how you work with them, you will (or should) be able to focus all your offers and marketing and sales collateral on some very specific messaging that is most likely to resonate with that target audience.
From that standpoint, I want to share a way of looking at the consultant vs. coach dilemma from your customer’s perspective.
How We Perceive the Consultant Vs. Coach Dilemma as Customers
One of my new clients this year is a graphic designer, and she’s also a whizz at visual branding. She’s very clear about her professional identity in business, but we had an interesting conversation about the meaning of titles to the customer.
During our strategy session, we talked a lot about how her clients perceive the work she does, and can do and what they mostly come to her for first. And that is logo design.
After the initial conversation, as a customer, at that point they realise she can help them with way more than just the logo. Because she has helped them see the logo is the tip of the iceberg of the bigger more holistic way to think about their business branding. (Fun choice of metaphor there, since she’s from Norway, and presumably there are a lot of icebergs there!)
Now the interesting part is that they might come to her as a graphic design ‘consultant’ or service provider, but what they get in that conversation is actually a bit of coaching even training. They learn to see what’s in their blind spot about the process of logo design and the questions you need to ask about brand values, target customers, style and personality as a business owner, and so forth. They not only end up with a great logo for the business, but also a great confidence in what their business stands for.
The bigger more strategic shift this has enabled for her, is that she doesn’t want to be in the commodity pool, she wants to position herself as working more at the premium end. Her ideal client is not someone who’s looking for a high-quality logo with all the thinking and consultation behind it, but only wants to pay $50 for the finished product.
Her ideal client is someone who understands what goes into a high-quality logo and knows the value of a great designer in that whole process. For them, they’re expecting the price to be in the $500 to $1000 range.
And by the way, if you’re looking for someone who can help you think through all of that, her name is Hanne Bröter: go look her up at YourBrandVision.com. We’re just working on the website, but you can book a logo/brand consult and see where the conversation takes you!
Back to professional identity… and here’s why we’re working on her website.
Perhaps she might call herself a logo designer, brand strategist and graphic designer. The second two labels back up her excellence as a logo designer without scaring anyone off.
Everyone wants the best, and she’s not competing with Fiverr or Upwork for creating logos – you get what you pay for in this business. If you pay $50 for a logo, you get a $50 logo, which may be fine for your needs. But if you want the logo to be the flagship ambassador of your business, you’ll want to invest a lot more than $50. Go figure!
Anyhow, that’s a deep example of what I’m talking about here. You have to meet your customer where they’re at, reflect their ‘world view’ so to speak, and educate them to understand the value in what you do and how you achieve the result they’re actually wanting. You have to fill their current blind spot so they can see what you see, as the expert, and appreciate more the steps to success.
Reflect Your Customer’s Starting Point
Noticeably, Hanne currently calls herself a graphic designer, strategic brand manager, and interaction designer. Does her average client understand any of this? We may need to look at this.
Nothing wrong at all with those professional labels, and interaction design is very up-and-coming area of specialism, but you have to think about where those terms appear in relation to the customer journey.
As she told me, the main thing her clients come to her for in the first instance, is they want a logo, either a new one or to revamp an old one that’s a bit tired or dated or just not very good, and they never liked it or felt much excitement about it. They have what you might call ‘logo shame’. Lots of problem and pain language in there, right?!!
Now if her clients are looking for a logo, the professional identity they’d most associate with this is not a brand strategist – unless they’d already done their homework, and that then means they are much more knowledgeable and aware of the visual brand development process. No – they’d be most likely looking for a graphic designer.
So we created a whole lead magnet and email series just for prospective clients who want a new logo. On that page, Hanne’s more likely to lead by saying she’s a highly experienced graphic designer and brand strategist.
What she doesn’t want to do is say I’m this top visual branding specialist, because it’s going to put off the people who at the outset just think they want a bit of graphic design doing for a logo. They don’t yet understand the logo design process and how enlightening it is when you come at it the way that Hanne does, because she’s a visual brand expert.
Do you get the difference? You have to meet your audience where they’re currently at, not where you want them to get to.
Perhaps for this purpose, simply I’m a logo designer might work best as her professional label. But because she really wants to work with a business owner to help co-create their entire visual brand ensemble, she’d start with an exploratory conversation about the logo needs, and the design strategy would flow from there.
How to Move Between Consultant and Coach Roles
Next, we’re going to discuss how to move between consultant and coach roles when working with a client, or any other roles that you find yourself torn between different hats that you might wear. This is a topic that many professionals struggle with.
Some people set up very clear boundaries about the type of work they do as a coach. And personally, I don’t find that helpful. You’re there to achieve a goal for a client, and I’d argue, you don’t want to put a stop sign up. You want to draw on all your skillset to deliver great results.
This is an important topic because many consultants and coaches often get stuck in one role and struggle to switch between the two, or they set up a divide that really isn’t helpful to their practice.
Before we dive into the details, let’s return briefly to the difference between the two roles so as to really ground what we need to do to move effectively between them.
A consultant is usually hired for a short-term project and are expected to provide a clear roadmap for achieving the desired outcome. A coach, on the other hand, is someone who helps clients achieve their personal and professional goals through a long-term relationship. Coaches focus on developing their clients’ skills and abilities to improve their performance over time.
The challenge then is knowing when and how to switch between these two roles when working with a client, for instance when a certain thing you’re helping them implement becomes a mini-project.
Let’s talk about this next.
Switching Seamlessly between Consultant vs. Coach Roles
As a consultant, you’re expected to have all the answers, provide expert advice and solve specific problems for the client. You’re hired for your expertise and knowledge in a specific area, and the client expects you to provide a clear roadmap for achieving their desired outcome.
As a coach, you’re expected to guide the client to find their own solutions and support them in their journey. Coaches focus on developing the client’s skills and abilities over time to improve their performance.
Balancing these two roles can be difficult, but it’s essential to be able to switch between them to meet the client’s needs and expectations.
There are four key practices that I feel, in my experience on both sides of the client and consultancy or coaching relationship, can help here.
#1 NEEDS & EXPECTATIONS
The first step is to understand the client’s needs and expectations.
You need to have a clear understanding of what the client wants to achieve, their timeline, and their budget. If the client needs a quick fix for a specific problem, then you should act as a consultant and provide a solution.
However, if the client wants to improve their overall performance, then you should act as a coach and focus on developing their skills and abilities.
#2 CLARIFY THE BOUNDARIES
It’s also important to establish clear boundaries between the two roles or to set out how they interweave. As a consultant, you should focus on providing expert advice and solving the client’s problem. As a coach, you should focus on developing the client’s skills and abilities over time.
You can do this at the start through a letter of engagement, a scope proposal or a coaching agreement, and in practice, you can set this out in the action plan you’ll work on in the partnership.
#3 COMMUNICATING THE ROLES
And, it’s essential to communicate the way you work, how it may vary across the plan of work you do together. There’s a certain ‘power relationship’ that can exist with a client that further exacerbates the consultant vs. coach dilemma.
Communicating the nature of the partnership, as well as the scope of work is important. A set of principles or “standards of presence” can be a useful way to bring transparency to what you and the client are each responsible for bringing to the relationship.
When you communicate, review and discuss these roles and boundaries clearly to the client both at the outset of your work together, in your client agreement and your first meeting, it can really help set the relationship up for success.
#4 REVIEW THE RELATIONSHIP
As well as communicating and agreeing the relationship, and what you’ll each bring to the table, you’ll also want to review the relationship, and whether it’s working for all parties. Sometimes things don’t always click between you and a client, and you’ll want to explore where the dissonance is happening.
I’ve been in situations with a ‘coaching’ client, and particularly if they are themselves a coach, where they might say something like ‘it’s a style thing”. But what’s often going on is that they don’t realise you’re wearing your consulting hat, because that’s what you feel matches their needs. They wonder why you’re not ‘coaching’ them.
Or you can be in a situation where you use a non-directive style, and the client just wants you to tell them what to do, they want and need direction (or think or feel that they do).
It’s important to have a clear understanding of your skills, expertise, and the services you offer to choose the right label for your professional identity.
So quick wrap up on what I covered in this part 1 with a summary and key takeaways.
First, we looked at what is the difference between consulting and coaching, and what exactly is behind the consultant vs. coach dilemma. Second, we dove into brand positioning and the distinctiveness challenge, and finally, I gave you four key ways you can set yourself up to move seamlessly between roles when working with a client.
Next time, in part 2, we will flip things – and look at this from your own perspective as the customer of consultancy or coaching. It should really help you think through which kind of support you and your business really needs for the stage you’re at.
And maybe what you feel you need for yourself, in terms of business support, is a bit of a mix – a chameleon of sorts. When you have a coach who’s adept at moving between roles and practices, you’ll go much faster by achieving your objectives in the most effective way.
Until the next time when I’m back with Part 2 of Decoding the Consultant vs. Coach Dilemma – Which One Does Your Business Really Need?
Ciao ciao from me!