The Four “Cs”… Consultants vs coaches vs counselors vs contractors

Consultants come in may flavors… To add to the confusion, not everyone calls them self a consultant — many refer to themselves as coaches, counselors, or contractors.

So what is the difference, anyway? And do the differences really matter?  In a broad sense, all of the above are “consultants,”  providing advice and guidance for a fee. All of the above need suitable clients if their business is to be a success. But the approaches and focus may vary, so here is an attempt to clarify these differences.

Coaches… This category has become very popular in recent years. Examples are life coaches and management coaches. Based on the sports model for coaching, the focus is on people, often at the individual level. The emphasis is on motivation and improvements.

Coaches are often generalists rather than specialists. They rely on their past experiences and strong personal skills to help their clients. The field is easy to enter, as there are no regulatory bodies or prescribed fields of study. In the latter case, however, many of the more well known coaches offer brief training programs, which can also confer a certain level of credibility.

Counselors… This category has been around for some time. Examples include marriage counselors or drug counselors. Like coaches, the focus is on people. In this case, however, the emphasis if often on changing negative behavior.

Counselors are often specialists, and may rely on specialized training along with experience.  Like coaches, most have strong personal skills. Counselors may be regulated (such as psychologists or psychiatrists) and may require special licensing before offering services to the public.

Consultants… It seems like consultants have been around forever. In fact, it is often referred to as the world’s second oldest profession. Many wags like to point out there is little difference with the world’s oldest profession. After all, both provide services for fees.

But I like to think there is a distinct and important difference. Most consultants focus on identifying/preventing/solving problems or improving the future.  Some are technical specialists (such as engineers or doctors), while others deal are business specialists (such as management consultants.)

Technical specialists are often professionals (doctors, lawyers, engineers, architects, accountants, etc.), and typically deal with specific technical problems or issues.  Most professionals are licensed by state governments, which may require passing a compressive exam, plus demonstrating appropriate education and experience. Typically, you can not offer professional  services to the public without the appropriate licenses.

Business specialists are often have business backgrounds (management, marketing, operations, manufacturing, etc.), and may deal with a wide range of business problems. Unlike technical professionals, business consultants generally do not require any legal credentials.  Many business consultants, however, obtain nonlegal credentials such as certifications from various industry organizations.

Contractors… Often confused with consultants, most contractors are “rented employees.”  Contractors usually work for a contracting company, who then place them with their customers.  Contracting assignments can run from several days to several years. The contracting company handles the marketing (getting the clients) and administration (insurance, taxes, etc.)  Consultants, however, usually obtain their own clients and handle their own administration.

This is not meant to be disparaging, as I have known many engineering colleagues who have been contractors. In fact, some have switched among being employees, contractors, and consultants at various times in their careers.

So, the common thread in all of these categories? With the exception of contractors, all are in business for themselves. As such, all need to attract clients, set suitable fees, and run the business in a profitable way. The last  point is very important, for if you can’t eventually turn a profit, why do it?

Never forget… this is still about business (even if your practice is small)… not charity!

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