I don't do IT consulting anymore, but many of my colleagues in the profession still do. I got out of the game a long time ago because I saw how the landscape was beginning to change. I also realized that my generalist expertise might be put to better use in other activities like writing books. I also prefer to interact with customers (readers) online instead of having them stare me in the face on their premises when something goes wrong with the solution I've implemented for them (or trying to fix something someone else has implemented).
Not everyone in the IT profession, however, has the self-discipline and gluteus maximus that can enable them to sit at the computer 14 hours a day writing books, articles, and whitepapers as I've now done for almost 20 years. And because I try to write about software as it's used in the real world, I've tried to keep in touch with colleagues who are down there in the trenches grinding out solutions to meet the needs of businesses large and small.
I recently talked with several of my more experienced colleagues doing consulting to find out if they had any hard-earned advice they could share with those who were just starting out in the game or had reached the point of being ready to quit from frustration. In this article I'm going to share some IT consulting tips we can learn from two of my colleagues, Andrew Baker the president of BrainWave Consulting, which provides Virtual CIO services for small- and medium-sized businesses, and Tony Gore the managing director of Aspen Enterprises, a small consultancy firm that has been operating in the UK since 1995 and has been involved in the formation and management of several large EU jointly funded collaborative projects.
Understand your customer's business
Having customers who remain loyal to you helps ensure the survival of your consulting business. In this regard, Andrew suggests that "If you want to add real value to your customers, and make it so that they have a hard time leaving you, then you need to do one thing: understand your customer’s business. If you know what each business owner is trying to accomplish -- and why -- then you will know what services to offer them, and when. You will be able to help them save money without skimping on necessary hardware, software, services or even staff."
Understanding your customer's business doesn't give you the right, however, to dictate what products they should buy or solutions they should implement. "Mind you," says Andrew, "your job isn’t to tell them how to run their business. That can come off very wrong to most people. Your job is to show that you understand, or are willing to learn, what they want to accomplish in their business, so that your recommendations for technology solutions can be seen as helping them more readily achieve their objectives." In other words, the customer comes first, not you.
Put your customers first and learn to agree to disagree with their decisions. "Your customers aren’t always going to agree with the direction you are trying to help them make, and that’s okay," says Andrew. "They have a business to run, and you have a business to run. Disagreements about direction will inevitably come, and there doesn’t have to be any hard feeling about it. The time you spend helping them to make the right investments and not purchase cheap equipment for the sake of saving money will ultimately pay off. Most customers will value the work you have put into their organization, and they will become more open to your recommendations over time. As their business grows, it is very likely that your own opportunities will also grow."
Understand the space the customer's business inhabits
Successful IT consulting in the small business space requires that you have a good understanding of the typical needs of small businesses. It's a mistake to think that a solution that might be ideal for a midsized business or enterprise would be equally appropriate for a small business. For instance, Andrew points out, "Small-business owners often have more flexibility in how quickly they can change direction, and if you can show them how they can get to their desired destination by implementing something that they don’t understand -- but which you do understand -- they will be more likely to support and follow your recommendations."
Wooing customers in the small business space is also more difficult than it used to be in earlier times. One tip Andrew suggests here is that "If you offer your customer small discounts for recommending your services to their friends or associates, you will see your own business grow as well. Just bear in mind that the procurement cycle for gaining new customers is quite a bit longer than even four or five years ago. It can take nine to 15 months to bring a new customer on board, even when you have stellar references and they are in dire need of services." So try to understand the special needs of the space a potential customer's business inhabits, and be patient in your attempts to woo new customers.
Be observant how the IT landscape is evolving
One thing I've learned over the years running my own successful IT content development business is that you need to have an entrepreneur's mindset. In other words, you need to be always looking over the horizon at what may be coming in the future. For example, print books are dying out while eBooks are steadily growing in market share, and we've had to adjust our business to these changes well in advance of their happening to stay ahead of the curve.
Tony has experienced something similar with regard to small-business IT consulting. "I saw that the evolution of IT had moved into ease of use and setup and that cloud-based stuff with Office 365, OneDrive for Business, and so on. Also the killing off of Microsoft’s Small Business Server (SBS) meant that many small businesses would be able to do more themselves and for less. This means that customers need you for fewer hours but they certainly don’t want to pay more, and they only need you for the more intractable problems. The result is you need to know more in order to earn less."
While knowing more to earn less sounds like a bad deal for an IT consultant, it can still have an upside. Tony points to the example of one company he migrated from SBS to Office 365. "They still call me for a lot of the difficult problems that no one else can solve,” he says. “There are times when the knowledge of how Microsoft's products have evolved over the years is an essential part in finding a solution to a problem they're experiencing." In other words, all that IT experience you've gained over the years can give you unique skills for troubleshooting difficult problems. That can be your payday as a consultant when you're finding it challenging trying to bring new customers on board for your business.
Be observant how the regulatory landscape is evolving
Tony also points out that an IT consultant needs to be an expert in more than just IT. You also need to know what's happening in the wider world your customers inhabit -- the world of governments, big business, and regulations. "The UK recently threw me a curve ball because the rest of my business was managing EU funded R&D projects and the Brexit vote killed off stuff in the pipeline,” Tony says. “Then the company I do some of this work for got bought, partly because of Brexit."
Playing "what if" is thus an important side of being a successful consultant. What if the government falls and another party is elected? What if a multinational buys out my biggest customer? What if the economy tanks? For prolonged success in any business venture, you need to focus on taking care of the downside. If you do that, the upside will pretty much take care of itself.
Educating your customers is essential
Finally, don't try to keep your customers under your control by playing the all-wise guru. Andrew suggests that "While it might seem like a good idea to keep your customers in the dark about what you do for them so that they have to rely upon you to do it, it is actually a whole lot more helpful to help them to become better corporate citizens in the technology arena. No, your goal isn’t to turn them into techies. You simply want them to be sufficiently educated about what they should or should not attempt with their technology so that they don’t undermine their own business objectives or create dozens of break/fix scenarios for you to clean up." As they say, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, but a lot of knowledge can keep you from getting a fat head.
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