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Should you call yourself a freelancer or a consultant?

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When I first started freelancing, the word “consultant” sounded shady to me. In my mind, consultants were people who were paid huge amounts of money to deliver a seemingly small amount of work. Freelancers, however, were the real underdogs of the world and got paid less money to deliver more “real” work.

Of course, that was back when I thought the only way to make money was to sell time. I had no concept of selling value to my clients.​ As it turns out, that’s what makes all the difference.

What’s the difference?

Before deciding what to call yourself, it’s important to understand how people perceive both terms. As you might expect, consultants argue in favor of “consultant” and those who aren’t as familiar with consulting (most freelancers) argue in favor of “freelancer”. The biggest difference is in the perception of each term, but what I’ve learned is that this perception is slowly evolving.

” The words you use influence others’ perception of you. Saying you’re a freelancer doesn’t signal to others that you’re a know-what-you’re-doing, take-no-crap professional. That bias may be unfair, but it’s a reality. Clients too often see freelance arrangements as low-cost line items rather than strategic partnerships. “

–  FastCompany

“Consultant” implies that your solutions are valuable beyond the time it takes to create them.  It also signals to the client that you’re an experienced professional and are a worthy investment to their business. Most importantly, the client engages you as a partner who can provide expertise in a specific area. You don’t have to convince them of this during your on-boarding process.

In contrast, clients often see freelancers as a way to get work done cheaper and faster than if they hired a consultant or agency. To them, freelancers are cheap laborers rather than strategic partners. Clients who hire freelancers often provide the initial direction for the project and expect you to complete the work from there. They usually don’t understand the value of the solution.

Do you really have to choose?

As the freelancing industry continues to explode, the differences in terminology are becoming less obvious. There are extremely talented freelancers positioning themselves as consultants, but calling themselves “freelancers”. Therefore, it’s no longer safe for clients to assume all freelancers are cheap laborers who don’t provide any value.

It's no longer safe for clients to assume freelancers are cheap laborers who don't provide value. Click To Tweet

Many people, including myself, have been calling themselves “freelancers” for years and still manage to work with high-paying, high-profile clients from all over the country. They can do that because their work, experience, and approach to projects is the same as a consultant. The copy on their websites speak to potential clients with the same verbiage a consultant would use. They also provide a lot of value to their client’s business like a consultant would.

Based on this observation and conversations I’ve had with successful consultants, I’ve concluded that the way you position yourself is more important than what you call yourself. Having said that, I recommend avoiding hybrid names such as “freelance design consultant” as this may confuse potential clients and cause them to question your professionalism.

The way you position yourself is more important than what you call yourself. #freelancer #consultant Click To Tweet

While I do think the way you position yourself is more important that what you call yourself, these terms are not completely interchangeable and my beliefs don’t change the client’s perception of each term. Sometimes I even think that freelancers graduate into consultants as their career evolves and that right now I’m somewhere in the middle. Regardless, here’s my attempt at some tangible advice:

When to call yourself a “freelancer”

You should call yourself a freelancer if you’re selling your time by billing hourly and don’t have a clear focus on the value your work provides for a client’s business. Calling yourself a freelancer can potentially limit you to working with clients that have lower budgets and are interested in cheaper, “commodity” services.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The world needs “freelancers”. Not every client has a complex business problem that only a “consultant” can solve. The important thing is that you realize the word “freelancer” has an unfair bias attached to it which will make it more difficult for you to acquire high-paying clients.

When to call yourself a “consultant”

You should call yourself a consultant if you have left hourly rates behind and charge exclusively for the value of the solutions you provide. Calling yourself a consultant will help you attract high-paying, high-profile clients to your business. However, you may also receive fewer leads and inquiries as there aren’t as many high-profile clients out there. You must also be prepared with a strategic approach to solving the clients business problems and helping them achieve real business goals. These clients are looking for tangible business results, not just high quality execution.

Position yourself for success

If you’re interested in getting better clients, charging more for your work, and and dominating the freelancing market regardless of your title, my eBook about freelancing can help you do just that.

Did you enjoy this post? Agree? Disagree? I’d love to hear from you. Also, if you found this article helpful, consider sharing it with a friend, colleague, or on social media!

Last updated on April 17th, 2020

About Matt Olpinski
Matt runs his own web design and development company Matthew’s Design Co. and teaches thousands of freelancers how to succeed through his personal blog, newsletter, and community for freelancers — The Freelance Institute.
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