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Independent consultant

Consultancy is an attractive proposition. You can set your own deadlines, focus on your specialism and pick the children up from school. But the reality is long hours and a foggy financial climate. Here are the top 10 things you'll need to consider.

1. Answer the questions

There are five critical questions to consider before you go into private practice, according to guidance from the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI):

  • Do you have the correct attitude? Some planners are used to a reactive local government work culture. Consultants need to be proactive, as clients expect continuous updates.
  • What will give you a distinctive edge in the market? Make an honest appraisal of your strengths and credentials and decide what your unique selling point is. Confide in a trusted individual who knows you professionally and ask them for honest feedback.
  • Do you have a sufficient contacts book? Build a database of your contacts in the planning profession and related sectors.
  • Can you afford it? Look at your existing financial commitments and work out what the change is likely to cost you. You are likely to exchange a regular salary for a less predictable pattern of earnings; will you have the means to sustain yourself if work is scarce?
  • How much autonomy do you want? It is possible to act as a subcontractor or advisor to consultancies rather than work directly with clients.

2. Think like a business

If you are still convinced that consultancy is the path for you, here are the essential starting points:

  • Prepare a business plan. You can find a template here
  • Consult an accountant if you lack the requisite skills to manage your finances.
  • Set up an office. Home working is a practicable option but you may want to consider the extent to which you are likely to grow and the facilities you may need to receive clients.
  • Manage your time. Expect to approach many more people than you would ever receive as clients. Decide how many you will be able to take on realistically, especially if you combine work with childcare.
  • Continue professional development. The RTPI requires members to continually review their skill sets. Find out how here.

3. Promote yourself

Let the world know that you are in business.

  • Remember: You are marketing your personal strengths and experience. The most important client question is, "What can this consultant do to help me achieve my objectives?" Be clear in response. The indirect client question is, "Why should I engage you, not someone else?"
  • Don’t forget: The most influential form of promotion is a satisfied client. They are able to open doors for you within the market.
  • Clients won’t come to you: Raise your profile through conferences, meetings and seminars, writing for business publications and offering comment to the press. A website of your own is an asset and contributions to online forums and blogs can forge new connections.

4. Target clients

Identify organisations in your area that may require the services you offer. Be aware of their immediate, medium or long-term potential.

Build up a profile of your targets. Who are the key personnel involved in engaging consultants? Do departments have discretion in the way they procure consultants? Is there one individual to who you should direct your marketing efforts?

Brain drain: Now is the time to set up

Keith Evans is director of Town and Country Planning Consultancy in Conwy, North Wales. With many consultants retiring, there is a drain of skills from the sector, he says, so there are opportunities for new consultants entering the market. “In Wales, planning consultancy advice must remain flexible enough to deal with a diverse range of fast-changing economic situations in both rural and urban spaces."

  • Immerse yourself in a business culture before setting up alone.
  • Gain financial and managerial qualifications – you will need them early on.
  • Develop IT and graphic presentation skills – to sell the ideas in 3D, not just in words.
  • In time, aim to be an exclusive expert in your chosen specific field.
  • Word-of-mouth is still a powerful recommendation, even with social media.

5. Look the part

Be sure to produce separate and carefully focused forms of advertising for each sector of your target market. Some planners will already retain consultant-chartered planners, so take care not to blatantly poach work and refer to the RTPI Code of Professional Conduct if you are uncertain.

6. Win the work

There are several basic points to define in initial discussions. Namely, the scope of the advice required; the client’s objectives; the timetable available; outputs required by the client; budgetary constraints and specific requirements about the way the client would like the work managed. It is customary to follow up with a proposal letter that outlines how and when the work will be carried out and a detailed cost estimate.

7. Set your price

Your rates must be competitive, represent value-for-money and provide a reasonable profit. There are three types:

  • Time-based fees

Beware: new consultants typically undercharge, either from fear of losing opportunities or lack of information about market rates. They are also prone to omit charging for time spent on research.

  • Lump-sum contracts
  • Ad valorem contracts. You may agree a fee formula that takes account of the value of the work to the client: for example, a percentage of the increase in development value of the site.

Beware: There are evident risks on a speculative fee that does not cover costs and new consultants will find it easier to keep to time-based fees.

8. Set out a detailed estimate of fees

The RTPI’s experience is that most complaints about consultants’ fees occur where no agreement has been formalised between consultant and client. There should be no ambiguity. It is advisable to cover the following items:

a) Summary table of estimated costs
b) Detailed tables of time costs
c) Detailed tables of reimbursable expenses
d) Subsistence and daily allowances
e) Local authority fees for planning applications
f) Terms and schedule of payment.

Going it alone: Five top tips

Ryan Fuller and James Long set up Fuller Long Property Network when they became disillusioned with what they saw as a “restrictive” consultancy model. They wanted control over wages, time and creativity, and to offer flexible working to staff.

(1) Identify your most important reason for working for yourself and develop your business plan around that. If you enjoy it, you are more likely to succeed.

(2) Think about the people you know and how to turn them into opportunities.

(3) Surround yourself with good people who provide a supportive network. They may be family or fellow professionals you can call on to discuss intricate planning matters. Sometimes it’s the talking that allows you to come up with an innovative solution.

(4) Become an expert in marketing, accounting, time management and self-motivation.

(5) A true understanding of the processes, people and pressures of being a planning officer will equip you to give your clients the very best advice.

9. Note the RTPI must-dos:

  • Keep your clients well-informed
  • Don’t try to do your own tax returns
  • Never underestimate how long it takes to fill in an application form
  • Never say that planning permission will be granted just to get the job
  • Don’t rely too much on a handful of clients
  • Work at an hourly rate if possible
  • Keep in touch with your RTPI region and the Independent Consultants Network to prevent isolation and raise your profile.

10. Read the expert guidance

In April 2016, the RTPI updated its Starting in Private Practice guide (PDF) and published this helpful Starting your own private planning practice blog. Both are worth a read if you're considering a career as an independent consultant.