Five Ways to Get Your Start as a Qualitative Consultant (Plus an Unethical One)

In the past few months, I’ve spent some time talking to independent qualitative consultants to learn more about the industry and how they got their starts.

It’s been a fascinating exercise. Above all, what I’ve learned in that a new qualitative researcher needs to be patient. There are a variety of ways to get one’s foot in the door, but the most successful consultants spend years developing reputations as strong consultants before making a mark in the industry.

It’s been useful for me to survey and organize the variety of ways I’ve heard IQC’s got their starts. Here is what I’ve heard so far.

1. Work for a Supplier, then Go Independent

This seems to be the most common approach. A consultant gets their start as a junior moderator at a research firm that does qualitative research. The junior consultant does some training, spends a few years progressing through the ranks, and,  builds strong rapports with end-clients.

Having a rapport with the end-client is very important here because it gives the consultant leverage to leave the research supplier, but keep the work since the end-client likely would want to keep the consultant as the moderator. In effect, the consultant’s first client is their former employer.

To be sure, the consultant is best to contract the research company as their first client, and not the end-client. This type of subterfuge is an easy way to get blacklisted in the community.

2. Apprentice

It’s sometimes possible to work closely with an existing consultant in an apprentice-like setting. This is no different than any other apprenticeship, the junior consultant is essentially an employee or intern of the senior consultant. After some time, the senior consultant passes projects in-full to the junior consultant.

This typically requires that the senior consultant have extra work lying around, which often depends more on macroeconomic conditions than anything else. But if the junior consultant can offer something to the senior consultant, then it’s possible for a mutually beneficial relationship to forge.

3. Grind it Out

My personal favorite. A junior consultant with some basic research knowledge can just do business development like crazy. Ask around if anyone is looking for research consultation … at a low price. And if the junior consultant can’t lower their price enough, just start doing work for free. For example:

  • Collect some data, write a report and circulate it among a relevant industry, trying to target research buyers. Maybe the next time that buyer needs research, her name might be top of mind.
  • Publish on LinkedIn, gain a following on Twitter and tweet information relevant to a particular industry… get the name out there.
  • Ask for overflow work from existing qualitative consultants — recruit, write reports, manage projects, do anything to make the senior consultants job a little easier. (This strategy risks — slightly different than apprenticeship — the junior consultant pigeonholing herself.)
  • Network, network, network. Just get the name out there.

In this approach, the junior consultant has to be strategic about what communications are value add (i.e., publishing an article on LinkedIn) and what communications are actual asks. After some time providing value, the junior consultant may have enough of a reputation to solicit business … but this is a long-term strategy. Ideally, the value add communications create a need for new research. This way, the junior consultant it not seen as poaching existing business.

4. Get Lucky

A variation of a theme from points (1) and (2).

Some consultants formerly worked for a research firm that (likely because of the recession) dissolved. The result was a consultant-client relationship without the middle man.

5. Specialize, then back in

In some cases, qualitative consultants were specialists either in an industry vertical or a topic area (like, branding or user design).

For these consultants, the qualitative is kind of a secondary role since they are primarily soliciting work as an industry or topic area specialist, but often qualitative work becomes necessary in the consultative process.

6(bonus). Steal

I had to throw this in here because this is a surefire way to get blacklisted in what is a VERY TIGHT-KNIT community. There will likely be opportunities for a junior consultant to furtively contact an end-client, undercut price or disparage an incumbent consultant and steal the business.

The junior consultant might make a quick buck, but long term this is not a good strategy in a business that is marked by strong supplier-supplier relationships.

Overall, what I’ve learned is that the struggle does not end once a junior consultant gets her first client. The first client might require the most patience, but in reality successful consultants constantly work towards improving their methodological approaches, keeping up with technology, budding into different industries, and partnering with other research suppliers in clever ways all in the effort to keep doing what they love.

Qualitative consulting is a relationship business. The most successful consultants spend years putting it more than they take. This is the approach that nearly everyone seems to agree is the key to sustainable success.

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