What’s the difference? Coach vs Consultant vs Mentor vs Trainer.

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Have you looked for one-to-one help with your business and got confused by all the different titles out there? 

Or are you a service provider and don’t know what to call yourself?

Yep, I’ve been there. On both fronts! 

Even a visit to Googleland doesn’t help. For instance, the online dictionary definition of ‘coach’ refers only to coaching in the context of sports. Not helpful for us small business owners and entrepreneurs.

(Unless you’re a sports coach or you need one…)

We mix up the terms coach, consultant, mentor and trainer

One person might call themselves a coach, but really what they’re doing is training. Another might be a consultant but they’ve labelled their service as mentorship.

I’m half business coach, half marketing consultant but some might call me a mentor.

There isn’t common terminology.

Universal agreement on terminology

Having a universal agreement on what to expect from each role would not only help business owners make purchase decisions, but it’d help service providers decide what to call themselves!

So I thought I’d have a bash at defining them all.

Then all we have to do is get everyone in the world to read my blog and agree to stick to these parameters. Simples!

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See what you think, and let me know whether you agree with my descriptions or not.

Definitions of coaching, consulting, mentoring and training

Here’s a quick overview of each. Fear not, I’ll go into more detail further down the page.

Coach: Someone who asks intelligent questions to encourage the coachee to come up with their own solutions wherever possible. Gently enabling them to stretch their boundaries and improve in the agreed area of work.

Consultant: Someone with formal qualifications in the topic and/ or direct experience carrying out that work for other companies. The consultant’s role is as an advisor and problem solver.

Mentor: Someone has been in a similar situation to you, who can advise on what course of action they took and how it worked out.  You learn from their experience.

Trainer: A professional who is teaching you a specific skill. The trainer will have pre-prepared materials and more than one person can be trained at once.

For all roles, establishing what the goals are of the work together is absolutely key. If someone starts working with you but doesn’t ask you about your objectives, run for the hills!

Mentoring, coaching, training and consulting

Here’s how I see the four roles and how they compare to each other.


Glossary of terms

  • Service provider: The Coach, Consultant, Trainer or Mentor.
  • Client: Person paying them for their help.
  • High client input: The service provider will adapt their approach depending on what the client says and how they feel. The focus is more on the client leading the direction.
  • Low client input: The suggested approach is driven by the service provider. You’ll be expected to follow their advice more closely with less variation. For example a trainer will probably be teaching you pre-agreed topics with prepared materials.
  • One to one: When a service provider works directly with the client with no-one else on the call or at the meetings.
  • One to many: The service provider speaks to a group of people. It could be a small handful of people. It could be a hundred or more. This means you’ll get less direct attention from the service provider than if it were just you and her/ him.
  • Prescriptive advice: When advice is given with the understanding that it should be followed to the letter with little or no variation.
  • Non-prescriptive advice: The advice varies much more depending on the situation and the people involved.

1. Coaching

The way I use the word ‘coach’ is based on my experiences of being coached.

The focus is on you, the business owner, to drive the progress. In other words, it’s a ‘high client input’ activity as mentioned in my diagram.

Coaching is generally done on a one to one basis. I’ve tried to coach several people on a call before, it’s not ideal! Coaching involves deep exploration into your motivations and goals. This takes time and focus. It can get very personal too and most people prefer this process to be private.

Coaching implies a non-prescriptive approach. In other words, you wouldn’t expect a coach to tell you exactly what to do and for you to follow their advice no-questions-asked. 

There are two types of coaching; directive and non-directive approaches. More often than not, you’ll get a mixture of the two. But it’s a good idea to get clear on which type of coach you’d prefer and make sure you’re getting what you want.

Non-directive coaching

This is when the coach refrains from giving any specific advice and relies solely on their ability to draw out the solutions from you.

People who go through coaching accreditation are encouraged to be purely non-directive. Or they don’t pass their exams.

Directive coaching

Directive coaching is when the coach uses their own experience to advise their client on what their next steps should be.

I don’t know any coaches who are exclusively directive. That would be more mentorship or training, not coaching.

I can see that a pure non-directive coaching approach can work, but if I have a client who is in a very similar pickle that I have previous experience of being pickled in, I’ll tell them what I did to become de-pickled. It’d be cruel not to!

Should a coach be accredited or not?

There’s a debate constantly raging about whether someone must be accredited (to have passed coaching exams) to call themselves coach.

This is a tricky one to call.

Not least because accreditation boards are not created equal. Accreditation doesn’t guarantee quality.

There are marketing experts who don’t have marketing qualifications or experience of carrying out marketing on behalf of other people. If their marketing knowledge is based on their own path to success they may nevertheless have huge value to share. (See Mentor section below)

Since you don’t have to pass exams to call yourself a consultant, mentor, trainer or even expert, I have to side with the looser usage of the word coach; you can be a good coach even if you’re not accredited.

However; buyer beware!

There are unscrupulous people out there. Just because someone has a snazzy title and glowing recommendations, doesn’t mean they’re the real deal. Do your homework and do some digging.

For the record: I am not an accredited coach. My qualifications are in marketing and business. I do however use a coaching approach when working with clients. I try and draw out your own ideas whenever possible. 

Pros of working with a coach

  • Increased self confidence. A good coach will enable you to come up with your own solutions and encourage you to deliver on them.
  • Therefore you get brilliant accountability and support.

Cons of working with a coach

  • It’s very difficult to compare coaches. It’s often a leap of faith when you choose to work with one. Pick one that you ‘click’ with, who shares your values, who you think you’ll get along with and who has the right background for your needs. 

Things to check for

If it’s important to you that the coach is accredited then check that they’re qualified!

Read my blog for more detail on what you can expect from a marketing coach and how to pick the one that’s best for you.

2. Consulting

Consulting draws on the consultant’s experience and training to find solutions to problems when you can’t see a clear way through for yourself.

Generally speaking, consultants work with larger companies. They have the reputation of being more expensive, because the results can be huge in monetary terms.

A good consultant relies on their in-depth knowledge of the subject and how it applies to your objectives. Their role is advisory and the advice is tailored to your business.

Their objectivity is almost as valuable as their knowledge. 

On my one-to-one programmes, I’m half coach, half consultant. Problems that seem unfathomable to you, are easy for me to spot. Partly because I’m looking with fresh eyes, and partly because I’ve got oodles of marketing experience.

Pros of working with a consultant

  • Having an objective pair of eyes on your business.
  • Consultants are easier to compare than coaches. 
  • Great for solving specific problems.

Cons of working with a consultant

  • You need to be absolutely certain of what you’re bringing in the consultant for, otherwise it could be a costly but pointless exercise. The consultant will need a clear brief.

Things to check for

You’re hiring a consultant to be a high level expert that’s relevant to the issue you’re having in your business. So check that they’re qualified and experienced in the relevant subjects.

3. Mentoring

Confession time; I am prone to the odd rant about people with no marketing training, or experience of doing marketing for other people, saying that they’re marketing experts.

They come at it from the point of view of ‘I did XYZ and I got this result. You do the same thing and you’ll get the same result’.

I worry about this because marketing is all about getting clear on:

  • Your objectives and how to achieve them
  • Your customers and how to reach them
  • Your offers and how to promote them (and whether you have the right offers at the right price in the first place)

In short, working out how you want to run YOUR business, which is probably different to the person giving the prescriptive advice.

However, as I mellow with age, I’d now categorise this approach as mentorship. It’s a valuable approach and can be the best choice for some people who have similar business models and backgrounds as the mentor. 

In fact, I offer mentoring services; I mentor fellow ex-corporate marketers and I have a SME marketing mentorship programme where I mentor employees in businesses who’ve recruited a junior marketer but don’t have any senior members of staff for him/ her to learn marketing from.

Pros of working with a mentor

  • You get to learn from someone else’s mistakes.
  • You can earn yourself a valuable ally. 

Cons of working with a mentor

  • There’s a risk that, if the mentor’s suggested approach doesn’t work for you, it might feel like it’s the fault of your implementation rather than an indication that a different way is needed for you. This is more of a risk on group programmes where it’s ‘my way or the highway’.

Things to check for

Check that the mentor has the experiences that you’d most benefit from learning from and that you’d get on well together.

4. Training

Training is a type of teaching. Usually in a formalised, preplanned way. In other words, the trainer will have materials that they want to take you through. Perhaps there’ll even be a test at the end. More often than not, training is one-to-many.

Pros of taking part in training

  • You know what you’re getting. It should be clear what you’re signing up for, and what the learning outcomes will be.
  • When you have a specific knowledge gap to fill, you can easily search for it or ask around for recommendations for good courses.
  • It can be a lower-priced option.

Cons of taking part in training

  • Training doesn’t usually have the accountability factor that the other options have. 

Things to check for

If you’re hiring someone to deliver training either on your behalf or to your employees, have a look at their background and qualifications. Have they delivered training before? Have they got any training qualifications? Some of the best training programmes I’ve been have been delivered by ex-teachers. They know how to teach!

Do they cross over?

In short, yes. Most coaches will do a bit of mentoring. Most Mentors will do a bit of training. Most trainers will adapt their approach to their clients. Most Consultants will try and impart some skills and knowledge as part of what they do.

As for me, I’m mostly a marketing consultant but the coaching element of what I do is so important that I’ve settled on marketing coach.

If you want to know more about the differences between a marketing coach and a marketing consultant and which would be right for you, read this blog