Coaches and consultants are a dime-a-dozen, especially in the small business space. There are a lot of them out there, with wildly varying skills, qualifications and experience, all espousing to be experts. Since each has their own approach, what they are selling is their own version of success to business owners. I have worked in this space for the last 20 years and have worked with hundreds of clients. So I know for sure that professional advice, coaching and mentoring gets great results when done properly

For business owners, finding the right advisor can be like a maze and can be tough going, and it’s easy to pick an advisor that is not great and costs you a lot. So here is my users guide for coaches and consultants that will hopefully make the process easier for anyone looking expertise to help you grow your business.

Coach or consultant? What’s the difference?

With so many advisors, all with different methodologies, the label probably means less than you might think. Some bigger companies and franchises have popularised the term coach (so it’s more common), which tends to be a broad umbrella term that encompasses a whole range of training and education process. I prefer the term advisor as it is more encompassing. There is no accreditation so the exact titles don’t necessarily directly link to a specific type of service and their individual approach of the advisor matters more.

What do you get out of it?

For most businesses, the owner wants to improve profits and revenue, although other projects like system development, succession planning, franchising or strategy are also common. Often business owners just want to clarify their direction and action plan on how to get there.

The approach of every advisor differs unless you are working with a franchisee network of bigger consultancy, where processes are standardised. Some companies have very strict, structured, timed programs that you need to follow in sequence, with particular sections focussing of specific business functions like marketing or financials. These programs are not tailored and you will be required to go through all sections. Personal-style coaches will focus on you as a person more than your business, such as Executive Coaches and Life Coaches. Others focus purely on some aspect of the business, overall strategy, marketing, sales, financials or other core business functions, how the business owner handles those functions and then work to develop problem areas in the business. In terms of communication, sometimes it is by phone, others have regular meetings, whilst others work in groups.

Is it a cost or investment?

Most business owners want to improve their financial position, and a good small business advisor will make you money. But it doesn’t happen straight away. One common challenge I see with clients is they get professional advice in when things are not going well (too late), don’t really have the budget and expect to make their investment back plus more in a short time. That will happen (with a good advisor) but it takes longer to see return on the bottom line, more like 6 months and even more by 12 months. Some clients of mine saw their biggest returns 2 years later. On top of that, there will likely be other costs that come along on top of the advisor’s fees, for example a new website, marketing costs, new systems or software. Many consultants charge outrageous prices, in total ignorance of the reality of small business, where budgets are always tight. More expensive is not always better.

Businesses that see the best results are the most proactive and work hard with their advisors to implement strategies into their businesses. Take a long term view with consulting and see it as a transformation, to make you a better business owner and pay for the investment long term. But you can’t just sit back – it’s work.

Where do you start?

Finding a good advisor that fits your exact needs takes some time and effort, but it’s crucial to get the right person. I have picked up the pieces from bad consultants (and it’s not been pretty), so it’s worth taking the time to get someone good.

Before you start, know what type of help you want: are you lost with direction? struggling with a specific business function (like marketing)? need to improve your own skills or motivation? Have a budget in mind with some of the investment set aside so you aren’t scraping by to pay for their services. 

Once you have your needs identified, start asking your business colleagues or social networks who they recommend and create a shortlist. Decide if you want a tailored or fixed program. Interview at least 3 and speak to some other clients before you make the final decision. Small business advisors must have real small business experience, meaning they have owned businesses, ideally more than one and ideally with some failures in there. Corporate experience is all well and good but scaling big business thinking to small doesn’t always translate. Some companies ask for bigger upfront payments - negotiate smaller ongoing payments, it’s too punishing on cash flow and puts more pressure on the advisor to perform.

Building a great team around your business is one of the key skills of a successful business owner, and an advisor is a central member of that team. When it works, it can add significant wealth to you and your business and provides enormous relief. Treat the process like you are hiring an very important employee and you will enjoy the rewards of a great business relationship.