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10 resolutions to help grow your consulting business in 2011

The start of a new year is a good time to take stock and establish goals for improvement. Jack Wallen suggests some measures to help your consultancy thrive in the months to come.

The New Year has arrived, and many people have been making resolutions they most likely will keep for only a few weeks or at best, months. That doesn't have to be you. For your consulting business, you need to make resolutions you can keep -- especially ones that will help increase your business. But how? There is always something new to try that can help build your business. Here are a few possibilities.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Go social

Let's face it: The "networking" of today is all about social networking. This means Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. You and your business need a presence on these sites to expand into markets you wouldn't reach otherwise. One outstanding trick is to offer special deals via Twitter. Post something like, "The next person who responds to this tweet gets 15% off their next visit." Just make sure you let the winner know this does not include the cost of any hardware or software.

2: Include open source and Linux

As much as the media and Microsoft do not want to admit it, Linux adoption is going to continue increasing. So you should start picking up Linux and open source skills. Even if you don't focus on the Linux operating system, you can add LibreOffice, Apache, Samba, or a number of other open source technologies to your toolkit. The more you add, the more powerful and marketable you will be.

3: Focus on mobile platforms

If you add mobile platforms to your toolkit, your business will boom. Anyone who knows anything about the IT industry knows the future is mobile. This means you are going to be taking on more and more clients who have mobile help needs. This does not just mean iOS. You need to know Android as well as Blackberry. Of course, knowing the Android OS means you'll need a solid understanding of the different Android platforms: Droid, Samsung, HTC, etc. All of the Android platforms are fundamentally similar, with the biggest differences being at the "desktop" level.

4: Learn a new skill that will increase your clients

If you are a small shop, you might want to consider adding something like Web site design. If you are a larger shop, you could add virtualization or cloud computing. Regardless of your size, the important thing is to diversify your toolkit. This goes along with knowing the mobile platform or open source, but you want this to be something that goes beyond what you already do. If you are primarily a desktop service, add a level of server work. If you are a server-specific shop, add some desktop work. Whatever it takes to add business and success to your bottom line.

5: Spend a few dollars on traditional advertising

The beginning of the fiscal year (regardless of whether that's the beginning of the calendar year) is a great time to run an advertising campaign, no matter the size. This could consist of a run of fliers you can hand out at shopping malls or plaster cars or mailboxes with. Or you might buy a small advertising slot on your local newspaper's Web site. Yes, you'll have to incur the cost up front, but prospective clients (who may not have known about you before) will become aware of your presence. You should recover the cost of that campaign fairly quickly.

6: Offer specials for referrals

Word of mouth is the best source of advertising. Why? Because new clients are being referred to you by satisfied customers, so those new clients will have positive expectations for your work. For customers you trust to give positive references, offer discounts for every referral they make that results in a new client. This will perpetuate itself, as those clients learn that sending you referrals benefits them as well.

7: Get (and stay) better organized

Most of us could stand a little improvement in this area. Let this be the year you successfully become an organizational machine! The more organized you are, the more efficient your work will be. The more efficient your work is, the more work you can do. Finally -- the more work you can do, the more money you will make. If you aren't motivated by that, just think how happy your clients will be when they see how organized you are.

8: Reevaluate the tools you use

The firm I work for recently reevaluated the anti-virus solution we deploy and made a fairly big change away from the tool we had used for years. This decision was based not only on issues we had experienced with the software in the past, but also with advancements by other companies. You should never just assume the products you use are the best for the job. Always be on the lookout for newer, better tools.

9: Get a new certification

Although it seems that certifications are so very 90s, they're still valuable business-enhancing tools. But instead of adding onto your MCSE, consider a Cisco or network security certification to broaden your horizons and your marketability. The Cisco certification may be a bigger challenge than you're used to, but it will certainly be worth it in the long run. You could also consider a RHCE (Red Hat Certified Engineer) or Ubuntu Professional Certification.

10: Hand out your business cards more often

If people don't know about your business, they won't call you. One of the easiest ways to get your name (and number) out there is to distribute business cards. You can do this in many ways. Hand them out at network meetings, pin them to the corkboards at coffee shops... anything you can do to get those cards into the hands of the public. Always have a stack of cards with you (in your purse or wallet) in case you overhear someone talking about computer or network problems. Then, hand them a card with a smile.

Resolutions that work

What was the one key resolution you made in the past that helped your business the most? Share your thoughts with your fellow TechRepublic members.

Additional resources

About

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

19 comments
GregMiliates
GregMiliates

I have done NO traditional advertising for my consulting business, and it's continued to grow steadily since I started it over 4 1/2 years ago (I was able to quit my day job to pursue consulting full-time after about 15 months). Traditional advertising best fits businesses that are more general rather than niche focused. For niche businesses, more effective marketing strategies focus on SEO for your website (I currently have about 50% of my business from clients who found me from a Google search), as well as other targeted channels, such as forums specific to your niche--especially ones which potential clients frequent. There's no cost to answer questions on forums, and you demonstrate your expertise and professionality in your postings as a marketing tactic--along with helping others. Aside from minimal website costs (you can get a professional website for under $100, and I show how in my free ebook, available on my blog: http://www.StartMyConsultingBusiness.com), my only marketing costs have been business cards (which I rarely use, since all my clients are out of state and I rarely travel) and brochures (which had zero impact on generating business). One other marketing tactic that I've paid for is annual holiday treats for my top clients (typically about 12-15 clients per year get this from me). I send them a thank-you note with a box of specialty toffee, and my clients seem to love it. While it may not directly lead to new or more business, it helps cement those business relationships and lets my clients know that I appreciate their business.

gechurch
gechurch

Overall I found this to be a fair article. Most of the points I agree with, but the real trick is not identifying them but doing them. That said, I actually disagree with a couple of points. I don't think any consulting firm that wants to be taken seriously should be using twitter or facebook. And I don't think any consulting firm would get good results by doing so. The demographic is just wrong. Business leaders aren't out there reading 15 word twitter posts are they? My perception is that it's largely teenage kids doing that. Even if business people were out there, there's no pay-off for them signing up to your posts. All the value here is for the company, not for the potential readers, so it will never work. Twitter in particular I see as very unprofessional. Proper grammar and spelling is discouraged by the short format. The #1 rule for a consulting company should be "don't do anything that will lower our reputation". To add to that, I have found the old school forms of communication - telephone and particularly face-to-face are more appreciated now than ever. This is precisely because so much communication happens over the Internet and through email these days. These new forms of communication are hugely convenient, which means you show very little effort by using them. I find people are very pleasantly surprised when a computer guy actually makes the effort to come and meet in person, instead of shooting off an email. I make the effort to do this, and attribute a large amount of my success to this. Similarly, in an old job that was essentially tech support in a school, I used RDP/VNC very little, despite having remote access to every machine. I preferred to do things in person (the school wasn't big - about 600 students - so it was a small enough campus to make this possible). I often fixed other problems or inefficiencies for staff members that never would have been unearthed remotely. People were very appreciative of this, and I have picked up quite a bit of work in subsequent jobs from staff members that have tracked me down. I also disagree with #6 (although nowhere near as strongly as #1). Word-of-mouth is so effective because the referrer gets nothing in return. There is nothing in it for them, so they have no reason to lie or mislead. The second you start rewarding referrals, you will start getting false ones. You've turned your referrer into a salesman, and the people being referred will start looking for the snake oil (whether it exists or not). I work for a small consulting company, and we have doubled in size in the last year or so, purely off referrals. We have never ever advertised in the ten years the company has existed. We have an excellent reputation now and regularly receive referrals. Too many in fact - the main problems our company has are too do with growing too quickly; getting staff trained up to our way of doing things, keeping the standards high as new people come in, finding the time to train people etc. We actually did try rewarding referrals once. We all manage ourselves in this company, but for a period we had a manager/sales guy. He decided to offer free hours in return for referrals. He talked to a potential new client about some work and mentioned the referral program. On the spot the client came up with ten "friends" he would refer us too, which would have netted him 100 hours work for free. You can imagine the quality of those referrals - this was before he had even met a consultant/computer guy! Thankfully the manager was sacked soon after, and the A good reputation takes time to build, so I concede that this may be a good option for relatively new companies. Even if the referrals are false, you will probably still pick up new clients or at least get your foot in the door. Once you've done that, the client will see the quality of your work and it you're any good you can stop "paying" people for referrals - they will gladly give them for free.

gechurch
gechurch

Accidently hit Post half way through comment. Ignore this and read comment below.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

"If you add mobile platforms to your toolkit, your business will boom"... Izzat so? Underwrite here, here and here, please...

LewSauder
LewSauder

Nice list Jack. Most of these are about getting the word out and getting noticed. I would recommend that consultants (whether individuals or firms) combine them in a consolidated marketing strategy. Although #6 (Offer specials for referrals) touches on it, I would also suggest a focus on existing customers. Work to delight them and identify their areas of need to gain additional work from them. Lew Sauder, Author, Consulting 101: 101 Tips For Success in Consulting (www.Consulting101Book.com)

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

2: Include open source and Linux 3: Focus on mobile platforms The IT industry is wider than just hardware and operating systems. Many of us have little to no involvement with OS or platforms. They're just black boxes that someone else makes work! In fact, if you are consulting (rather than contracting) chances are you won't be involved in the actual hardware. And to make matters worse, many of us have been involved in Open source and Linux for years. Not to mention those of us who've been involved in Mobile already.

kevaburg
kevaburg

This one is perfect for getting that crucial first contact with a potential client without having to book an official meeting. It is important that you do it yourself so it means time out of the office but the personal touch means a great deal to people that will in effect trust you with a great deal in the long run.

ComputerSuperheroes
ComputerSuperheroes

gechurch, I agree. Like doing business "trades" is also a bad idea, giving out time or discounts for referral or blatantly promoting a reward system for referrals cheapens the process and often leaves one party eventually feeling as if they are being taken advantage of. However, after 10 years of growth primarily by referral, I would add that you can encourage it. Simply remembering to ask your client to refer you to people they know - especially when they have just finished complementing you - can crank up your returns exponentially. Also, even though we don't tell anyone that they'll be rewarded for their referrals, but we do it anyway - once the contract is signed. However, we do not give them hours or discounts on services, but send them thank-you gifts instead. We work closely with a local gift basket company who hand-delivers wonderful baskets to customers in our service area. The baskets are also customized with plenty of our trade-show swag, too so when it's set down in the employee lunch room, everyone knows who it came from and our name is spread even further. It has a longer, deeper and more wide-spread impact than simply giving a discount on the next invoice.

jamey123
jamey123

Step 11: Spam as many related blogs to up you google ranking and self promote. Ha ha. Really, I don't mind hearing from someone that put the effort into writing a book about the subject... Good or not. Great list jack!

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

your authoring history may have a place in your profile. I don't think it belongs, with an url no less, in your responses. So I pressed the button. If you post the same without the link, it's ok.

aharper
aharper

...but I don't object to others focusing on these. We are a Linux shop and supporting Open Source is what we do. If we didn't, including Open Source would be a good move. A focus on mobile platforms is also a good plan, but what is meant by this? Should a shop become proficient at replacing glass on popular smartphones and tablets? Should a programmer become familiar with IOS and Android? Should applications become more useable on a smaller screen? Yes to all. To be blunt, due to our involvement in these things, our new year's resolutions have to do with widening our scope and service area, maintaining customer satisfaction, and hiring more employees.

kevaburg
kevaburg

If your consulting firm doesn't deal with OSs then it is naturally a moot point, but open-source and Linux is aboutmore than operating systems and that is why I for one support that suggestion. Providing support for cheaper alternatives is a climate where business has to be done on a shoestring budget has to be a priority for any competitive consultant. Your second point, is also moot if you have a consultancy that doesn't deal with mobile computing. Having said that, I know of no consulting companies with no involvement whatsoever in mobile computing. Whether it be GPS parcel tracking for distribution companies or a mobile worker that needs to view company emails wherever that person is is relatively irrelevant. These two points are for me key to the future of modern business activity and under no circumstances shuold they be discounted.

smary45
smary45

It is important that you do it yourself so it means time out of the office but the personal touch means a great deal to people that will in effect trust you with a great deal in the long run.

gechurch
gechurch

We sound very similar to your company - ten years old, never advertised. We get all our work through referrals. We have never actually asked for this (we plan to do some marketing etc but every time we put someone new on, they seem to get consumed by the workload and never have time to try to expand!). I do agree with asking for referrals. When done right there is nothing taccy or unprofessional about it. As you say - do it when everything is running great, or you've just fixed a big problem (big in their eyes - not yours). I have also asked some of our higher-profile clients to give us written referrals which we use on our web site and copy to potential clients if they ask. We don't normally reward the client doing the referring. In fact, they rarely tell us they even did it. The exception is for people in complementary industries. We have people in accounting firms and printer providers that often refer their clients to us when talk of computers come up. We've picked up some great clients this way, and generally thank the client with a bottle of wine or chocolates. We again haven't asked these people to do the referral, so we do this before a contract is signed. The thing we appreciate is that the person is recommending us - whether the client signs or not takes nothing away from the fact that they referred us. We also hand out chocolates and cards to all our clients at Christmas time. It's amazing - you can work until 5am to get their webmail back up and running and some clients will say nothing. Give them $10 worth of chocolates and a card and they'll gush with appreciation! Anyway, thanks for your comments. And I do like your idea of branded presents.

kevaburg
kevaburg

Am I not allowed to voice an opinion that is the result of over 10 years worth of consulting and having my own business without being accused of plagiarising? I have won and lost customers based on this particular statement and so feel somewhat qualified to state it and write it as presented. When you have a problem with what is written then please submit a reference proving plagiarism. If not, then your petty, insignificant and unqualified opinion means nothing. Or have you read that somewhere before as well?

kevaburg
kevaburg

But when people lack an ability to write in full words or sentences in a way that can interpreted the way it was meant, then any interpretation could be deemed right! My irritation was most certainly not aimed at you!

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

That was just one possible decoding of that abbreviation, assuming it's an abbreviation. I have no idea what it meant, nor why it was accompanied with a cut-n-paste of what you said. Maybe it means "what he said" or maybe Brilliant Phantastic O... hm... something beginning with O? Ballistic Perfect Ordonnance? Bloody Pertinent Observation? So, sorry to have potentially lead you astray, I did try to express my shared confusion in the body of that reply, but I often get the subtleties slightly off.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

I dunno... maybe it's like those discussions that has title "IF" and text "if"... I usually just assume it's a message from an Al Qaeda cell to home base.