What Do You Do For a Living? Consultants must learn how to answer the question!


By Bill Taylor

In our practice we find that fear strikes the heart whenever the topic of Networking comes up. Many consultants avoid or even dread the act of Networking. Why? The answers differ depending on the consultants we ask but one thing about their responses is consistent; their answers are never very good.

Typically they range from the well-used “I have no time” or “I’m too busy with clients” to the more accurate “I have no interest in networking” or “I am not comfortable with networking.” And therein lies what we see as an easily correctable problem that challenges many consultants.

Typically we find the issues surrounding a consultant’s avoidance and lack of networking to be more about not knowing how to network rather than not having sufficient opportunities. The consultants we work with are constantly engaged in events and activities that are rife with networking opportunities, yet most are not taking advantage of these situations to offer assistance to potential clients.

In addition to being a consultant, let’s say you are also a golfer, tennis player, or musician. When you engage in non- consulting activities with others, you may be in a potential networking situation. Perhaps you attend school functions for your children or are involved in civic organizations? Maybe you are a member of town, city or local government organizations? These too can and should be networking opportunities.

A definition of networking is: networking opportunity exists when you and at least one other person are present regardless of the location, time of day or type of event. Recognizing that you have an opportunity to network and appropriately handling the situation makes all the difference as to whether the outcome is positive, negative, or “same old.” At its best, networking is about helping people not about selling to people.

When meeting someone for the first time a common conversation starter is to ask what they do for a living. The other person will typically ask what we do as well. When someone asks what you do… how do you answer? Many consultants we work with normally answer by saying “I’m a consultant,” which although true, is a bit vague and does not accurately answer the question – “What do you do?”

At a recent training session I asked over a dozen professionals to answer the “What do you do?” question. As expected, the typical answer was some variation of their title or the professional service provided.”

While truthful, did these respondents correctly or adequately answer the question? I’m afraid that answer clearly was “No!” And here’s why.

Let’s say you were to ask your hairstylist what they did for a living? Would they respond by saying they are a licensed cosmetologist? Perhaps, but more than likely they would probably say (after looking at you funny), “I’m a hairstylist,” because that is in fact what they do — they style hair.

In a networking situation, we are most successful when we help others, so it is very important to clearly communicate what it is we do. This more precisely conveys the knowledge and skills we bring to the table.

A few years back, post Hurricane Sandy, I had a coaching session with a new attorney client, who was trying to grow his practice. He shared with me that he recognized the importance of networking but that he had experienced little success with it. Upon further inquiry he told me he and his spouse enjoyed a very active social life, had a diverse circle of friends, and attended many functions that provided good networking opportunities. So I asked him to explain a typical, recent networking situation.

He told me that he had recently attended an evening get together and amidst the usual cocktails and finger foods the “What do you do for a living?” question came up. I then asked him “What do you?” and he proudly announced that he was a “litigator.” He also shared that very often when he responds with that answer others simply say “Oh,” the conversation stalls in its tracks, and people slowly drift away toward other conversations.

I asked him if he had a litigation specialty or specific practice area and he explained, “Yes, I represent people in coverage matters against their insurance company.”

Intrigued, I asked him what the others in his conversations told him, and how they conveyed their various occupations. I asked him if he knew what these others did for a living and he said, “Sure!” I then asked him if these others knew what he did for a living. He said, “Of course, I always tell them what I do.” Pressing my point, I asked if anyone ever asked him what a litigator does or if he ever asked them if they knew what a litigator does. If not, I asked him what made him so sure they knew what he actually did.

It began to dawn on him that he was telling people what he “was” and not what he “did”—a significant distinction. If I am able to clearly discern what you do because I already know something about your occupation, for example you are a dentist, a police officer, or an accountant, then I have a good idea of what you do and how you can help me.

But how can a litigator, environmental consultant, or property and risk engineers help me? In our coaching session, I discussed the importance of being clear about what you do, so that others can “see” how you can help them and how they can help you as well. In certain networking situations a short story works very well. To this “litigator’s” advantage, he had a great story to tell.

In the weeks after Super Storm Sandy hit the east coast, homeowners throughout the hardest hit areas were challenged to get their homes cleaned, repaired, and back to normal. Insurance companies were inundated with claims from homeowners who were without water, power, or even shelter for long periods of time.

Homeowners quickly became very familiar with the “fine print” as many claims were denied by insurers as perils not covered under the scope of the standard HO-3 policy (the most commonly purchased homeowners insurance policy) and moreover that flood insurance was open to interpretation.

The guidance that our “litigator” provided to his clients was instrumental in helping many affected homeowners navigate the complexities of insurance claims in the aftermath of the storm’s devastation.

The litigator and I worked together to craft and refine a short story (aka “an elevator pitch”) about what he actually did for a living, and not what he was. After preparing and refining several iterations, the next step was committing it to memory, and then working on ways to make his story natural and conversational. The objective was to be able to tell someone “what he did” in a way that would be simple, clear, and provide insight about what he offered and how he could help.

This was not an easy undertaking for the attorney; he needed to rethink everything he had become accustomed to doing. It required putting aside his armored shield title of litigator—of which he was most proud. This was a cherished role he worked long and hard to achieve and he continually honed his skills through practice and good work to keep them sharp. Putting this aside was not an easy transition for him.

Our session was productive and we closed with an understanding that it would require continued practice to develop his ability to relate what he did and not what he was when meeting new people. His assignment was to work on and develop this new skill before going to the next cocktail party or networking event. Once he was ready, he would try it on for size and put this new skill to work when the next opportunity arose.

At our next coaching session, this client started the meeting with a “You Rock!” I asked him what happened and he ecstatically explained that he had done just as we discussed and practiced—a lot.

He went to a gathering and the usual occurred—he was asked the “What do you do for a living” question just as he had been many times before. Only this time he handled it differently.

When someone asked him what he did, he answered by saying: “I am an attorney who specializes in helping homeowners who are having problems with getting their insurance company to pay their claim. Very often homeowners don’t know their way around their policy and need help from me to get reimbursed for all they are entitled to receive.”

He smiled and said it was magic. Not only did people stay around and share their own situations but further engaged in conversation by asking questions and discussing coverage situations. One guest brought over a friend who had an urgent need for legal help in this area. At least one meeting came of it and another attendee shared her situation and became a potential client as well.

Many of our consulting clients have similar stories. When asked, they tell the enquirer, “I’m a consultant,” and the conversation slows to a crawl since the other person does not know what to do next.

Perhaps a better answer is “I inspect properties to help companies assess any potential risks to their plant or people” instead of property and risk consultant. Another may be “I work with clients to assure the materials they need for manufacturing come from multiple sources and arrive on time” instead of supply chain consultant.

A final idea could be “I am an investigator who goes back in time to identify the insurance company providing coverage to a client 50 years ago…” instead of forensic investigator. These are all good examples of telling someone what you do.

So the next time someone asks you what you do for a living—for your own benefit and for the benefit of those around you—please answer their question.


Bill Taylor is president of Corporate Ladders, a business development consulting and coaching firm specializing in top line revenue growth for consultants and their firms. You can reach him via e-mail at wbtaylor@corporateladders.com.