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Freelancing, consulting, and coaching

I recently took on a new client that I've been coaching in design, and it got me thinking about how the terminology of freelancing, consulting, and coaching really does define the engagement and working relationship.

Freelance work is often relegated to production with a set scope and deadline. Whether it's true, being a freelancer seems to have the connotation of someone who is assigned well-defined projects that might have smaller scope or quick turnaround. A freelancer might bill hourly, by the word or deliverable, or have a retainer for consistent production targets. If there's an opportunity for value-based pricing, it's usually for projects that again are well-defined with a known deadline.

In my career, defining myself as a freelancer felt like I was limited by unfair client expectations that I could/should only work this way, which led to lots of price negotiating and clients looking for a discount. If I had wider recommendations around processes or an area I wasn't explicitly assigned to, they weren't really welcomed or treated seriously.

The working relationship as a consultant or coach feels very different. Both these roles have the connotation of outside expertise, a fresh perspective, of someone you bring in to help with hard problems, illuminate opportunities and inefficiencies, and give guidance on how to progress.

This leads to one of my favorite quotes:

We give added trust to claims made by external sources.

Actually, I just wrote that. But by framing it as a quote, it seems more objectively and universally true, which proves my point.

What sets apart consulting from coaching in my experience is the level of embeddedness. When I consult for my clients, I strive to basically be a member of the team, and often contribute directly in addition to evaluating, teaching, and advising. With coaching, I'm a bit more removed, asking questions and providing feedback with check-ins or while talking through challenges and recent work. Coaching sessions definitely can involve pairing on things, but it's usually a lighter touch or with the coach acting purely as the navigator.

Consulting and coaching also open the engagement up to high level observations and recommendations about how the work is being done, or if there are opportunities in areas beyond the original focus. I might begin working with a client primarily focused on accessibility, but this can naturally lead to further visual design and performance implications or have wider learnings with how the team is structured and collaborating.

These types of engagements are also better suited for a retainer model or value-based pricing (often at a higher amount), with more flexible scopes and an ongoing timeline.

The connotation of expertise with consulting and coaching is definitely a benefit, but it needs to be handled carefully. The main advantage is clients seek and value your insights and observations, which leads to a much more successful working relationship compared to an engagement where I'm supposed to hand over deliverables without question. This allows me to contribute much more business value, which deserves a higher rate.

There is a risk to this perception, however. Because clients assume consultants have outside expertise, that sometimes means they don't believe there is internal expertise. One of my objectives in working with clients is to ensure that everyone, both leaders and individual contributors, recognize, respect, and praise the expertise across all roles in the team. There may be cultural or process issues that are inhibiting this, but I can use the trust placed in me as a consultant to surface and resolve them.

All this said, it's strange how much these terms define the working relationship, limit or open opportunities, and even affect how much you can charge for the work. As much as I feel that titles and roles are largely superficial and unnecessary, they do really affect the perceived value of our work. Shifting my focus to consulting and coaching over time really did change the dynamics with better work, pay, and impact.

So, if you're a freelancer with clients who don't allow you to bring your full potential, maybe try calling yourself a consultant to switch it up. You work for yourself, so it's not like you need permission.