Stuart B. Brown, founder and managing principal of consulting firm Veryst Engineering, Needham, MA, likes to say that to be a successful engineering consultant, you have to be bipolar.
But as might be expected, his definition of bipolar is not the traditional one. "You have to be an expert," he says. "And then you have to be able to do everything else."
He's learned over the years that clients hire a consultant for his or her expertise but after assessing the situation, consultants often recognize that the clients' problems require a totally different skill set. Consultants must develop the ability to understand clients' problems, empathize with their pain, and find solutions, he advises.
"The right response is: 'Here's the solution, and I can do it in this amount of time.' You might not necessarily be using your specialty," he says. "But if you find a way to solve a problem, clients will be happy."
For example, his firm was hired by an athletic shoe company to investigate why some fluid-filled, shock-absorbing shoe components were failing, he notes. The decision was based on its expertise and familiarity with the failure modes of polymers and how they handle stress under impact conditions. After meeting with the client, a major project became helping to develop a children's activity shoe that included sensors, circuitry, and LEDs to measure how fast a child was running and then display that speed on a set of LEDs on top of the shoe. After completing the project, the client applied and received a patent on the invention with Brown and some of his colleagues as co-inventors.
"Although this expertise was part of our skill set, it was not the reason for our original retention," Brown says.
People come to consultants for several reasons: they don't have the time to come up with a solution, they don't have the people, or they don't have the expertise. If they perceive you as being the best and a problem-solver, you have the beginnings of building a client base, Brown says.
Brown, who holds literary and business degrees as well as a B.S. in mechanical engineering (ME) from Washington University, an M.S. in ME from Stanford University, and a Ph.D. in ME from MIT, believes there are steps and practices engineering consultants need to take and adopt to have a successful career.
Be better than anyone else in "something"
"When you are young, you must have as an expectation and objective that sooner or later you are going to know something better than anyone else in the world," he says. "Maybe you won't pull that off. Maybe you're the best in the state or the country, but if you have that agenda and you think intelligently about what people will need [or want] in the future, you have the opportunity to get people coming to you because you have that expertise."
Develop as many tools as possible while young because that's when learning is easiest. Increase the size of your technical toolbox as much as you can.
Offer a strong point of view; people hire consultants for their idea and opinions.
"You need to have an ego because no one wants to hear from someone who doesn't have a strong point of view," he advises. A client doesn't want to hear things like, "Maybe you'd like to try this," or, "It seems like a good idea to me." Clients hire a consultant to provide an answer, and most clients are smart enough to recognize that you aren't operating with perfect information because they aren't either and that's why they hired a consultant to begin with, Brown explains. "You have to form an opinion, defend it, and deliver it competently so that people will act on it and come back to you. Why would you want to hire someone who says, 'I don't know. Maybe this is something you should do'"?
Don't be afraid of marketing. "Someone said the best marketing is done by people who may not be the best but who are persistent. Don't let someone saying, 'We're not interested,' make you disheartened. It is a learning experience," he advises. With consulting, you can explore different types of work to find what you want to do and find the types of clients with whom you want to work. "You can only do that by trying. So being out there and marketing a lot matters enormously," he says.
As a final word of advice that may sound like a cliche, Brown says the best marketing is a happy client. That's why it's important to work very hard to make sure current clients are happy because they will come back to you.
Nancy Giges is an independent writer.
You need to have an ego because no one wants to hear from someone who doesn't have a strong point of view.
Stuart B. Brown, founder and managing principal, Veryst Engineering