Differences between a freelancer and a consultant

Consulting Freelancing

Posted by Enrico on Sep 21, 2017

Confusing freelancers with consultants is, unfortunately, very common. And for some industry professionals this might be a non-issue, but the differences carry influence. And how you position and brand yourself matters.

More Than Just a Title

When you are self-employed, your title becomes intrinsically linked to your brand, which in turn influences the perception potential clients and business contacts have of you. And their perception shapes how much they are willing to pay for your services, with more value attached to consultants than to freelancers.

Understanding the Differences

The easiest way to understand the differences is to start with a look at how the two titles are defined. Investopedia defines a freelancer as:

A freelancer is an individual who earns money on a per-job or per-task basis, usually for one-time or short-term work. A freelancer is not an employee of a firm, and may therefore be hired to complete different jobs concurrently by various individuals or firms, unless contractually specified to work exclusively until a particular project is completed.

and online platform Consultancy defines a consultant by identifying three distinguishing characteristics:

Firstly, a consultant provides expertise that a client lacks or support that a client is unable to fulfill. In return for their professional services, the consultant charges a fee. Secondly, a consultant operates independently from the client, implying that, from the respective consultant, there is no conflict of interests between the client's issue and the services. 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.

What stands out for me when looking at those definitions is that only one of them talks about expertise and professionalism. I am sure that - like me - you know many freelancers who are experts, and who operate professionally. There are many definitions for both of these terms, but most follow a similar pattern, influencing perception - and personal bias - to favouring one over the other.

Unfortunately, if you want to command higher fees, and change how other views you, branding yourself as a consultant, rather than as a freelancer, appears to be the only viable solution. Except that it isn't.

Changing Your Approach

Branding yourself as a consultant is definitely a step in the right direction, but it only works if the services you offer are also adjusted to align with what a consultant offers. As a freelance writer, you write content for clients. As a content marketing consultant, you not only write content, but are also able to provide input on your client's content marketing strategy, social media strategy, and even their approach to email marketing. Following the same approach, as a freelance designer you execute design work according to your clients needs, but as a visual branding consultant, you could advise them on how visual design could improve their communication, and strengthen their branding.

As a freelancer you help implement strategies, but as a consultant you help shape strategies.

Improving Your Approach

It is one thing to call yourself a consultant, and quite another to actually be a consultant. There are a few things you can do to ensure you aren't just using a new title, but actually providing the services to match. Aside from what I discussed in the previous point, consider the following too:

  • Improve your knowledge within your field. This can take the form of furthering your studies, staying informed of key developments and trends within your field, and following thought leaders within your field.
  • Expand your knowledge outside of your field. As a web or app developer, you should already have some knowledge of UI and UX. But as a consultant in this field, you should also have a deep understanding of how human psychology and behaviour influence UI and UX. You should also know how to conduct research amongst users, and how to interpret the results of any research.

As a consultant, you aren't only advising clients on how to approach certain concepts, but also why a certain approach is better.

Conclusion

The key differences between a freelancer and consultant are not only in perception and value, but also in what is offered. And it certainly is more than a simple change to your title. But if you are able to offer up expertise, and continue working to improve your expertise and knowledge, branding yourself as a consultant will definitely change how clients perceive and value you.

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    Enrico Tam

    MBA, Ph.D, tech entrepreneur, consultant and advisor

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