With companies maintaining an ever-tightening grip on their IT dollars, it’s getting harder to generate income as a consultant. But that doesn’t mean you should throw in the towel. Working as a consultant right now may demand more from your bank of “soft” skills than your knowledge of a particular database or how comfortable you are with XML. I often use four strategies to encourage companies to part with their money and give me business.
Customers are more likely to hire someone they know
Periodically, I call my old clients to see how things are going. I ask how their systems are going and whether they have had any problems recently. If appropriate, I suggest catching up over lunch or coffee.
This contact serves many purposes. First and most obviously, it allows you to determine whether the clients have any immediate work with which you can help.
Second, it keeps you fresh in the mind of the clients and gives them the sense that you care about their business and the work you’ve done for them. Third, if anyone else they do business with asks for a recommendation, you’ll be the first person they remember.
How often you call your old clients depends on the business you’re in and the services you’re providing. After the implementation of a major system, I start worrying if I haven’t heard from the client in more than a month. With clients for whom I’ve done small amounts of work, I normally touch base every quarter. It’s also useful to either call or e-mail your old clients when you move offices or your contact details change.
You may feel awkward calling your clients because, although you may have a genuine interest in how they are going, the chief motivation for the call is to generate income. Remember two points in this regard.
First, there is no shame in actively seeking work. If the clients have no work for you, they’ll tell you. You’re not misleading them in any way; you're only informing them of your availability.
Second, in my experience, clients have never complained about a 10-minute call from a contractor whom they haven’t spoken to for a few months. They do appreciate the call and quite often will have a problem and not realize you can assist them. Call your old clients, and at least one will ask, “Do you know anything about….” Even if it’s an area you have limited knowledge in, it allows you to recommend an expert and gain even more esteem in the clients' eyes.
Maintain contacts with other contractors
Maintaining contact with other good contractors can be useful in winning new business. When you have a client who requires services that you cannot provide, having a network of other contractors allows you to source the skills the client needs. This raises your profile with the client and the additional contractor. A word of warning: Make sure you have a good business relationship with the other contractor. The last thing you want is a good client stolen from you.
For instance, I received a call a few weeks ago from a contractor I had maintained sporadic contact with but hadn’t worked with for a few years. This contractor was looking for a Linux expert with firewall experience and had recalled that I used to work with Linux systems. Although I had moved away from Linux, I was able to recommend someone who could provide the services the contractor needed.
A few days later, I followed up to ensure everything had gone well, which it had. I also made sure I e-mailed a copy of my current resume to the contractor to outline my skill sets for future work.
Always keep an eye out for that next job
In the meeting places of contractors, you’ll always hear stories about clients who do things badly. The client may have a poorly configured network or an inefficient business process or any of a thousand things that are begging for improvement.
At the end of the day, if a client is doing something wrong, the only person you should tell is the client. If your client is doing something that is costing it money and you can fix it, draw up (on your own time) a business case to eliminate the problem and present it to the client.
If you can establish that the money spent on you will lead to savings that will pay your bill many times over, the client will likely take you up on the offer. Even if the solution to the problem is small and you won’t make much money from the deal, it may be worth your time if only to cement the relationship with the client.
Let the client sweat the small stuff
Nothing motivates a client more toward cutting off contractors than having to bring them in for every small thing that goes awry. If you’re in a position where you’re fixing problems on a client site that you know could be handled internally with a couple of days of training, put your hand up and offer to give this training.
Although it may seem counterintuitive to the idea of generating income, this strategy will work for the long term. It’s far better to get a couple of days of full-time training money and establish yourself as the person to come to when the client needs training than to milk a company dry with little jobs and be seen as little more than a short-term necessary evil.
For small jobs, there will always be someone else out there who can undercut you. If you empower clients to handle the small jobs themselves, this gives you a layer of protection from losing the clients to many of the other contractors who can provide little else. Along with being the person the clients will look to for training, you’ll be the one they come to when a really interesting job comes up.
Recently, I trained a client on how to generate reports from its database. Prior to this, I was the person that the client brought in to make these reports, but its allocated budget for reports was limited and, at best, it was going to be a short-term relationship. By training the client to generate the reports itself, I established that I was an expert in the field and demonstrated my ability to train its staff. The client is now approaching me for additional work where it has allocated funds.
At the end of the day, the funds for external contractors are limited. If you’re going to generate billable hours, you’ll need to demonstrate to the client that you provide both good service and good value.
For the long term, you’ll need to establish good working relationships with your clients. This involves taking an active interest in their businesses and always trying to do the right thing by them. The more you view clients and other contractors as people you can work with for mutual benefit and not simply a source of income, the more you’ll guarantee your success.