What’s the difference between a trainer, a coach, a consultant, and a mentor?

  • What’s the difference between a trainer, a coach, a consultant, and a mentor?

    What’s the difference between a trainer, a coach, a consultant, and a mentor?

    Perhaps, you’re considering a new strategy for your business, increasing your skills, or helping your team excel in a new project. But, where should you look for help? Should you hire a trainer, a consultant, a coach, or maybe a mentor?

    There are lots of options. In 2020, the global workplace help industry is estimated at over $500 billion. Definitions vary, but training is the largest at $370 billion(1), global consulting is also huge at $132 billion(2) to 250 billion(3), and coaching is the fast-growing new comer at almost $3 billion(4). With very different approaches, let’s start with some simple definitions.


    Trainers are experts who enable their clients

    Trainers build skills to enable you to solve the problem.

    Defining terms: Trainer, consultant, coach, and mentor

    Trainer – A trainer increases the learner’s skills by sharing business theories, then helping the learner apply tools to their business situation. Some trainers, like me, focus on a training category and are constantly reviewing research and tailoring their courses to enable the learner in their area of expertise. Other trainers focus on a particular methodology or industry. But watch out, some trainers have no expertise and just present canned training materials. Look for a trainer who is a true expert, with practical business experience plus academic credentials.


    Live online training also builds skills

    Online trainers aid memorization.

    Online Trainer – Online training, with automated testing software or prerecorded materials help build knowledge, rather than skills. Classic learn-and-recall training is ideal for this type of online training. For example, online language learning software is perfect for rehearsing vocabulary and spelling.

    Skills can also be developed in online training with a live instructor (sometimes called live online or virtual with a live instructor). If you’re trying to learn public speaking or cross-cultural communication; it’s not enough to know the theory, one must practice to develop these skills. Look for small group training courses that include interactive workshops.



    Consultants solve the problem for you.

    Consultant – A consultant focuses on the business problem or need. As an independent process or industry expert, a consultant investigates your business, target market, or competitor; then recommends strategies or processes. Like a part-time or short-term employee, the consultant may go beyond presenting the process, he may also help you implement it.

    Consultants and trainers may call themselves facilitators, which as they may feel comfortable leading meetings and workshops.


    Coaches may develop skills or life direction

    Coaches help you identify the problem.

    Coach – The classic definition of a coach is someone who demonstrates skills and drills, like a football coach. This definition is sometimes still used. For example, a presentation coach uses specially designed practice sessions to build public speaking skills and confidence.

    The life coaching industry adopted the word “coaching” to mean “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.”(5) In this definition, the focus is on the person, not the problem or the skill. Life coaches ask questions to help you find your direction. They are trained to help you discovery what you need to do and motivate you to do it. They avoid giving specific advise or skills training.


    Mentors share their experience & contacts.

    Mentor – A mentor is someone with experience, who is willing to help. Traditionally, a senior person mentors a junior person, but peer-to-peer mentoring is becoming more popular. Mentors may or may not have formal training (and may not charge a fee), but good mentors offer valuable practical advise and connections to help their mentee. They’re often helpful when changing companies, industries, or roles. Everybody is busy, so structured mentoring program help you find a good match, stick to a regular meeting schedule, and obtain specific desired results.

    Let’s take a look at four typical situations and how these experts can help.

    SITUATION 1: Stuck

    Jeremy feels stuck. He’s been in the same role for 5 years and is discouraged. He can’t seem to get a promotion and isn’t happy in his current role. He’s unsure whether to leave his job or to stay.

    Jeremy found a business-focused life coach. He met with his coach for an hour each month. The coach took Jeremy through a process to help him examine his own situation and desires. Jeremy decided to stay within the company but move back into R&D, where he was happier and more successful.

    SITUATION 2: International promotion

    Sally was just promoted to Global Business Manager. She is very excited about the new position. During her previous role, she traveled extensively and became comfortable with the business. But, in the new role, she has direct reports from other countries and responsibility for the global strategy.

    While Sally didn’t know she needed additional training, Holly, in HR, saw the gap in Sally’s international skills. Holly recommended an international leadership course with cross-cultural and virtual skills training to help Sally to recognize the impact international culture has on strategic decisions, labor relations, and management style. Sally signed-up for private online training with a live instructor so the course materials could be consolidated to her needs. During four 3-hour sessions over 4 months, she explained her specific situation and experiences; then the trainer provided theories, examples and tools to help her.  Sally learned to adjust her management style for the different regions and get the most out of her team.

    SITUATION 3: New company

    Marco is a high performing international sales director. He was just recruited from ABC company in France to XYZ company in the Netherlands. Marco has extensive experience and knows the business well, but he doesn’t know the people or the corporate culture at the new company.

    He believes that a mentor may help, but he’s at a very high level. So, he asks Paul, a colleague, to join him in a peer-to-peer mentoring program. Marco and Paul tell HR about their plans, and HR provides a simple mentor program structure that helps them facilitate monthly meetings. Paul helped Marco navigate the company and the local culture. Marco offered Paul an outside perspective to discuss his challenges. Both benefited from the arrangement.

    SITUATION 4: New market development

    After successfully growing business in the US, Ally was promoted to European Market Development Manager, with the responsibility to grow the company in Europe. While she knows the US markets and competitors, she doesn’t know anything about Europe markets or cultures. Ally works for a small company and doesn’t have the budget for a large consulting project. Her mentor suggests looking for a small firm.

    Ally found an independent market development trainer and consultant, with reasonable rates, who understands US and Europe markets. Using a process suggested by the consultant, they designed a project using Ally’s business knowledge and the consultant’s European market development expertise. They developed the go-to-market strategy, the European sales presentation, and Ally’s international sales skills. Ally obtains over 100 new clients in just 18 months.

    Find the right expert for your needs

    In summary, all these roles are valuable, and there is someone specializing in almost every area imaginable. The key is to choose a true expert, with the experience, academic credentials, and passion that matches your needs. Experts often call themselves by more than one title, and definitions vary, but here is a short summary to narrow your search:

    • (Live or Live Online) Trainer – to give you tools and to build skills; to enable you to solve your business problems
    • Classic academic or on-line automated trainer – to build knowledge and awareness
    • Consultant – to analyze and recommend options to you
    • Coach – a) to provide skills and drills, OR b) to find the problem that needs solved; to help you get unstuck
    • Mentor – to receive experienced advise and access to networks

    All of the above are services from people. Finding the person with the right expertise, and the ability to deliver that expertise, is not always easy. Large firms tend to cover broad categories and use teams with highly experienced consultants along side inexperienced new employees. Specialized small firms and independents may provide highly-experienced and custom support for a much lower price. In either case, it comes down to finding the right person, which may require a detailed search.⊗


    Kimberly VanLandingham is the CEO, a strategist and trainer for European Market Link Sarl. She facilitates live and online training courses in cross-cultural communications, international public speaking, and cross-border growth. Kimberly has over 20 years experience leading business growth at the DuPont company, has a masters in Cross-Cultural Communications, and is on the board of SIETAR Switzerland (Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research).



    (1)  Statista.com (Nov. 4, 2020) “Size of the Global Workplace Training Market.” Retrieved on January 2, 2021 from https://www.statista.com/statistics/738399/size-of-the-global-workplace-training-market/#:~:text=Since%20the%20great%20recession%2C%20when%20the%20global%20workplace,size%20of%20370.3%20billion%20U.S.%20dollars%20in%202019.

    (2) Statista.com (Nov. 4, 2020) “Global Management Consulting Market.” Retrieved on January 2, 2021 from https://www.statista.com/statistics/466460/global-management-consulting-market-size-by-sector/

    (3) Consultancy.uk (n.d.) “Consultancy Market.” Retrieved on January 2, 2021 from https://www.consultancy.uk/consulting-industry/consulting-market

    (4) “ICF Global Coaching Study – Executive Summary.” (2020) Retrieved on January 2, 2021 from https://coachfederation.org/app/uploads/2020/09/FINAL_ICF_GCS2020_ExecutiveSummary.pdf

    (5) International Coaching Federation. (n.d.). “What is coaching?” Retrieved on January 2, 2021 from https://www.icf-cf.com/What-is-Coaching

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