Building Your Consulting Business Virtually

By Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR May 11, 2010
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HR consultants are in a perfect position to build a business virtually—relying on talent and collaborators literally from around the globe. In fact, sales, consulting and IT are some of the top areas in the virtual world—a world populated by millions of business professionals. In its survey brief Telework Trendlines 2009, WorldatWork reported that the sum of all teleworkers—employees, contractors and business owners—had risen 17 percent from 28.7 million in 2006 to 33.7 million in 2008. And that number continues to grow.

Barbara Poole is founder and CEO of Employaid in Ridefield, Conn., an online community for small business owners and employees to find the resources they need for career success. Poole started the service after spending 25 years in the human resource industry.

HR consultants are representing an increasing portion of these numbers, said Poole. “It’s become the way of the world in the training arena, in HR compensation and in other project work,” she noted, pointing to the recent economy and downsizing of traditional HR roles as an added driver for the formation of these virtual businesses.

HR professionals, said Poole, are comfortable with working with contractors and consultants. “It makes it easier for them to jump the fence and work successfully in that kind of environment,” she said. In fact, Poole is so sold on the idea of virtual work that she has devoted an entire section on her web site to the topic.

“I have many people working with me and for me who I’ve never even met,” said Poole. “I’m in Connecticut and I have people working for me in California and Texas and in Chicago. It’s a wonderful way to build a business.

“I would say that there is an entire army of people who make up this type of business world,” said Poole.

Tina Kashlak Nicolai, PHR, president of Resume Writers’ Ink in Orlando, Fla., is part of that army. She has more than 20 years of experience as an HR leader for Fortune 500 companies. But, Nicolai, like many others these days, recently found herself without a job. Fortunately, she had been dabbling in a side business for some time (with the knowledge and approval of her employer), so she was able to ramp up her efforts quickly and now works full time as a virtual entrepreneur.

Like Poole, Nicolai finds that the world of virtual consulting is a good fit for HR professionals, particularly in today’s technology-driven environment where name recognition and awareness can be leveraged significantly through social media tools.

Phillip Wilson is president of the Labor Relations Institute, in Broken Arrow, Okla. “We have successfully used virtual tools to grow our consulting firm by more than two times during the middle of the Great Recession,” said Wilson. There have been three keys to his success, he said:

  • Using strategic partners to grow virtually. His firm has about 80 consultants that operate independent consulting businesses. “This team works for our clients on a contract basis,” he said. “This allows us to add consulting resources as we need them, gives us the ability to provide the exact right resource for the particular client need, and gives our consultants flexibility.” The model has allowed his firm to increase its consulting staff exponentially without increasing costs.
  • Using virtual tools to collaborate. “Even our local employees often communicate as if they were working virtually,” said Wilson. “It’s just more efficient,” he said.
  • Face time still has huge value.“We never lose sight of the fact that technology is only useful if it increases connection to our clients and their employees,” said Wilson. “We regularly hold face-to-face meetings where we fly people in or we fly to them to make sure we maintain personal contact with employees, strategic partners and clients,” he said.

Poole agrees that communication is critical in a virtual work environment. “The level of communication cannot be overestimated,” she said. She recommends setting up meetings that take place on a weekly or biweekly basis to get updates and share information. In addition, she said, it is important to make your communication expectations clear.

Feedback to virtual staff members is also important, noted Poole, who emphasizes that positive communication and praise can never be overdone. “It’s very important when you haven’t met somebody face to face, to communicate often and with sincerity your happiness with and appreciation for their work,” she said. Poole said that she often delivers small tokens of that appreciation—flowers, gift cards and the like—to help connect with and motivate her virtual staff.

Poole prefers to find staff and collaborators through word of mouth and referrals. “If you use something like Craigslist, for example, you get anybody and everybody responding, and I’d say it’s a real ‘buyer beware’ environment.”

Virtual business requires a high degree of comfort with and the ability to leverage virtual communication tools to make connections and achieve awareness, said Nicolai. “Building your brand through virtual means is very accessible and can be very fruitful,” said Nicolai, who makes sure that she visits Twitter at least once a day and contributes content to blogs that reach her target audience.

Penny Miller, SPHR, with Venture HRO in Wichita Falls, Texas, said that she is finding that “more companies are more comfortable with and expect more online presence and activity.” Miller has found business through the Society for Human Resource Management’s HR Talk consulting board and through Facebook.

Still, like Wilson, she emphasizes that a web presence doesn’t eliminate the need for face-to-face contact. “My primary market is not a web-savvy group—they still want face time,” she said. Experiment with technology, but don’t forget that people still want to know you, advised Miller.

People like Poole, Nicolai, Wilson and Miller—and, quite possibly, millions of others—enjoy being part of a trend that shows no sign of slowing. “As virtual HR consultants, we have that opportunity to help lead and change the nation when it comes to employment,” said Nicolai.

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues.

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