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10 services your consulting firm should avoid offering

It may be tempting to build your business by offering to fulfill all your clients' needs. But be careful: Some services may turn out to be more than you can handle.

If you're a consultant, or you manage/own a consulting business, you know there is only so much you can do. Limited workforce, skill set, resources -- there's always something keeping you from stretching your reach to bring in more clients and bigger business.

Here's the thing. At some point, you may overreach and offer a service you wish you had never placed on the table in front of your clients. And you'll wish someone had stopped you from offering that service.

That's where this list comes in. Here are 10 services you might want to think carefully about offering.

1: Hosted Exchange

If you don't already have the technology in place for this, don't even go down that rabbit hole. It's one thing to support in-house Exchange or even help your clients with their third-party hosted Exchange. But offering to host Exchange services brings a torrent of possible issues, including failover, disaster recovery, and more headaches than you're probably prepared to handle. Unless you are ready to take on what might be your biggest headache of all time, you should avoid hosting Exchange services for your client. If, on the other hand, you have the hardware, the pipes, and the staff... have at it.

2: Laptop screen replacement

If you've ever tried this, you know how much of a challenge it can be. Not only is the actually replacement a chore, finding the right screen can be a headache as well. You can take two laptops -- same make and model -- and find two different screens inside. So unless you have a reliable source of screens, where you can order specific models, this is a task best left to the laptop manufacturers.

3: Hosted offsite backup

There are a plenty of options already in place for this, such as Carbonite and Mozy. Though not perfect, they do work, and a third party is responsible for the upkeep and management of the machines that handle the services. This fits nicely in the same category as hosted Exchange -- it's not a service you should be adding to your menu unless you know, with absolute assurance, that your staff and infrastructure can handle the load.

4: HIPAA compliance

HIPAA compliance is crucial for industries that are governed by that body. If a company fails a HIPAA compliance audit, it can get hit with some hefty fines. Don't be the company that audits the infrastructure only to find out you were the indirect cause of the organization's failure to pass the audit. If that happens, there's no guarantee that those hefty fines won't wind up weighing down your bank account.

5: Payment plans

At the end of the day, payment must be received. This is your bread and butter, and if your clients don't pay, you don't eat. One of the more frustrating issues consultants face is the client who's eager to upgrade and get working, reliable service -- but not so eager to pay the bill. This is slippery slope. I've seen IT bills upwards of one hundred thousand dollars. Of course, these types of bills are not the norm, and clients have signed off on figures like this. But typically, most clients will do everything they can to hold off on payment -- so some will ask about payment plans. This is never a good idea. Not only are you not getting your money in a timely fashion, you're involving a third party.

6: Video surveillance

This is another sticky wicket you probably don't want to get involved with. Video surveillance is an area best left to security companies. Why? One of the big issues is knowing you are on call 24/7 and that you are, ultimately, responsible for the equipment that provides human safety and protection. It's one thing to govern the protection of software. But to be responsible for the lives within a company? That is not something you want to be a part of in any way.

7: Smartphone support

I see two levels of smartphone support: You set up email on their phone or you troubleshoot broken hardware and/or account information. If you're okay with supporting the former, you must make sure your clients are aware that you do not, in any way, support the repairing of smartphone/tablet screens, mobile accounts, or management of mobile devices.

8: Printer repair

Printer repair is another loaded field where you could wind up spending more time/money than the hardware is worth. Not only that, but most consultants do not have the tools or the skills to truly repair printers. This is a service best farmed out to a printer repair specialist. Otherwise, you will have to stock tools and parts you may have trouble getting. Besides, you don't want to have to carry an inventory of toner and ink cartridges.

9: Home theater install/support

You might think this one has no place in the world of computer consultancy. But with the continued evolution of the television and streaming media, the area between black and white is becoming very gray. Do not give into the temptation. If you do, you'll wind up being asked to hang 72" high def televisions and risking damage to a client's home. Unless you're certified for this type of work, don't even attempt it.

10: Home network cabling

This is another no-no for consultancies that falls under the umbrella of "you break it, you fix it." Working in a business building can sometimes allow for a less-than-perfect run of cables and placement of termination points. But in a home, people want everything perfect. And running networking cables into finished walls is not something you want to be messing with. You also run the risk of damaging home furnishings. Stay out of the home as much as you can -- unless you're working on PCs and networking equipment. Have a favorite cabling specialist in your back pocket for these jobs.

Other services to avoid?

In the end, you might still offer some of these services. Just thoroughly vet the offering before you make it public. Be sure you can back up what you claim or you might find yourself with some unhappy clients. And never expand your business until you know, without a doubt, that you can handle the added workload.

Have you ever regretted offering certain services or overextending your reach? What other types of jobs would you add to this list?

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.

45 comments
Tony_Scarpelli
Tony_Scarpelli

Perhaps IT shop is more accurate. Strategic alliances brings up a good way to broaden your skills and offerings. In the gogo days of early 90s there was so much network installation and server management work that we subcontracted out most cable installations and phone systems. When things slowed down we brought it in house as we were used to offering it, knew the salient issues and obtained the skills. Likewise with internet hosting and email hosting. Likewise with programming and development. Again as other profit centers began to slow down we picked up the opportunities in break/fix and opened retail stores. That was some of the best profits we made in 20 years. As laptop computer sales approached workstations we saw the writing on the wall to keep those profits we needed to adapt. So we made a special effort to get certified by Toshiba to do that. About four or five years ago the same thing happened with Iphones, ipads and androids. If you didn't keep up you just saw your market share decline. We been doing this since Novel and Banyan vines. If you didn't have the ability and nature to quickly learn new things you just do not survive. You cannot be all things to all people but you definitely must be very much aware of where your bread is buttered and what is happening to that service and where your next loaf is going to be buttered. Adapt and survive. I think the author could have said it better by saying "stick to what you know" But "always be expanding what you know and where your customers are coming from."

Viktor_f
Viktor_f

Strange to read that consulting firm should even think about that.

sparent
sparent

I would also stay away from making cables from scratch. Between the extra hardware - crimpers, male/female ends, ... - and the time to put them together, it's just not worth it.

abouttown
abouttown

Hi Jack Great incites and I totally agree. As a consultant who got caught out! I now fully disclose my IT provider of choice and recommend them to my customers and encourage them to meet and put payment plans in place. Frees me up to do what I am good at. Keep up the good work Damien

BlackDiamondMike
BlackDiamondMike

This blog is boarderline ridiculous. In a nutshell it basically says : Don't offer any services you might have to be held accountable for if things dont go perfectly. Example-Don't offer HIPAA compliance because the issues that can go wrong if your client fails an audit? How about If you are going to offer HIPAA services...KNOW YOUR BUSINESS and then also have insurance or contracts that support any mishaps. A must have for almost all companies. Same goes for almost anything on this list...You just can't offer these services-that is correct, but each of these services are needed and if you choose your spaces and make sure you are competent , they all can also be lucrative spaces in which to help you clients. The Author is a Linux expert. I could just as easily say that one of the offerings you should avoid is consulting around Linux. I mean it is open source and certainly you dont want to get into a position where you have put a system into a client site that does not have normal support...right? WRONG. If you have expertise in Linux....you can certainly show value by implementing and supporting such systems. I would say that with the exception of offering payment plans (bad for your business) and laptop screen repair (only because it is a shrinking business) I disagree that any of the spaces on this list are things that you can make a blanket statement to avoid. A few of them I would say are outright silly. Video security is one of the fastest growing sectors showing no signs of slowing down (I am not in this space). Hosted offsite backup is a very large and growing space. Additionally, to state that you should not get into it because there are services like Mozy and Carbonite that work tells me the author does not really understand the business side of offsite backup. These services will not meet the goals of most organizations that have any data size at all. ALL IMHO.

JoeyD714
JoeyD714

You just mentioned 3 services that I do: 6: Video surveillance - I'm not on call 24/7, you make an appointment for me to install the equipment and if it breaks down you make an appointment for me to come and fix it. If someone dies it's not the cameras fault. The camera was just going to show you who killed him, not prevent it. 9: Home theater install - "youll wind up being asked to hang 72 high def televisions" Oh PLEASE ask me to mount some 72" TVs, I only charge $250 and will fish the AV cables through the wall via nice professional face plates and even install an AC outlet directly behind the TV so you see no wires. 10: Home network cabling - of course fishing wires through finished walls and ceilings aint easy, That's why you're paying me to do it for you instead of doing it yourself. Call me, I'll hook you up.

paradisewebdesigntx
paradisewebdesigntx

I made a huge boo boo of trying to do a "simple site transfer" for a company. I do small business web design and hosting, but thought "eh, why not try". The big problem was I am a WP and HTML guy, and the site was Joomla. The amount of Nameserver, DB, MySql, Javascript, css, and everything else errors that came up drove me nuts. And then they decided to blame me for the errors that already existed on their site before I moved it. Just because it sounds simple and you would like to know how to do it, does not mean you should do it.

Slayer_
Slayer_

Just don't even try, find a professional instead. It is ok to outsource this.

capeterson67
capeterson67

Some of those jobs are easy money for the IT contractor with the right set of skills. I grew up with a father who was a very skilled general construction contractor. I was a fair carpenter and finisher before I could drive. Installing a TV is a relaxing afternoon for me. Now I would add that I always guarantee my work and use the manufacturers warranty for any parts used but If the client wants to mount the TV on a wall I can see structural stress on or that I know has plumbing in it (possibly even pre-existing water damage) I won't guarantee all of the job. I have even built a portable video wall using 15 60 inch screens and a custom video server which I am immensely proud of. As for remote backups, I also offer FTP backup services to my larger clients. It is more expensive than the big boys' offerings but I offer something they don't: My service includes a free hour of service onsite to assist in the restoration process, which is quite often far more difficult than simply saving the data. It is however, something I have a lot of experience with. Work is quite often where you find it. The only real show stopper I see on that list is hosting Exchange. Even Microsoft Engineers who helped design the software come up blank occassionally when it starts behaving badly. I stay away from Exchange at all costs unless someone REALLY wants to make it worth my while. I think the more important thing to remember is to have an accurate assessment of your skill set in mind when considering a job. Do you really have the know-how to do it successfully and can you support it down the road if the customer asks

phil
phil

Like this list as it pretty much says what customers want but what specialists should be supplying. The customer however is not expected to know these specialists, trusted tech advisers are. I would much rather be focusing on high skill, higher profit work than messing with a laptop screen or a dirty old printer. Unless you have the parts and constant practice its unprofitable to work on these sort of jobs. If your organisation has cheap enough staff, enough cash to buy or keep up to date on supply of stock, enough skill training and most importantly enough customers to feed a specialisation, you can provide these kind of services. I've tried a few of these in the past and got burnt. I know people who can provide all the services mentioned, I resell most of them, those that don't have cash value immediately, get me work/reputation/contacts with the people we give the work too. Effectively I work as a hub and make it easier for customers. Nice article.

jk2001
jk2001

It's feasible to offer hosted services if you have four people and can work in shifts, and figure out vacations. The problem is, it's pretty expensive to bootstrap the business. AWS sounds like a good option, and at some point, if you need to make more profit, you can more staff and operate your own cloud. It seems to me like the real value add comes when you can customize the hosted service and improve the quality. Then other companies can resell your services. Offering a commodity service, like web hosting, seems like a dead end. You end up having to sell bundles of services, which will spread your skillset too thin, or basically force you into becoming a retailer. And if you're retailing, why are you bothering to operate infrastructure? It makes no sense.

sstehno
sstehno

The first company that I worked as a consultant always wanted to go the cheapest way. I made the mistake of doing things to save money but in the long run I should have purchased the correct equipment and charged the same rate that everyone else was charging. I will not cut corners on price of equipment or my services cost now. I bid jobs as fair as possible for me and the company that need the services. As an consultant you should always stay an arms length away so friendship does not enter in the price. I too agreed to purchase and install a TV for a client, it was not a success until I hired someone who only worked on TV installs. I am only a computer consultant now.

john.h.mccartney
john.h.mccartney

This is actually one of the focus points of my consulting business, computer security and HIPAA compliance for the small medical practice. I am very careful to make sure that they know I will not take them to compliance, nor are there any guarantees on my recommendations. What I do on the HIPAA side is to do an audit, prepare a Report of Findings, and provide recommendations on how to take care of the areas where there are issues. If they want _me_ to provide them with proper documents and procedures it is a _lot_ more money, and still no guarantee, because ultimately it is their responsibility to comply.

allan
allan

Video Security is a major profit center for us and fits well into our computer and network business. Our clients fully realize and understand that we are the software/hardware vendor and we don't fall into the issue of being responsible for lives.

circles122345
circles122345

Most of your words is true, and I guess it happens also to IT people. Ive been in 4 years working in Computer Technician in my place, different customers come sort of problem that Ive encounter with them. Like, replacing motherboard, Replacing OS and backup files etc..

torps
torps

Is another example...Just because they can doesn't mean they should....

cd613
cd613

concise, well thought through conversation / I cant add anything

TreePapa
TreePapa

I work for a major U.S. supermarket. Out of the 10 things listed above, I think we do Exchange, backup, smartphones, and HIPPA in-house (there may be consultants involved with HIPPA). All the rest are done by contractors and each contractor usually specializes in ONE of these items ... maybe two, but no more. As for home, I had a licensed electrician wire my house w/ CAT 5 (gigabtye ethernet for home didn't seem relevant 8 years ago), and if I were to have home theater installed, I would again go with a licensed contractor. Probably a home theater specialist. If something is worth hiring out, it is worth hiring the right professionals.

adpm.to
adpm.to

True indeed, but (especially for home theaters) the more you work, the more money you get and the more people you meet. Important especially for beginners and/or italians having no job :)

steamIngenious
steamIngenious

Though I disagree RE: hosted Exchange and Hosted Backup. If you know what you're doing setting up a business based on either is as easy and spinning up new AWS instances. Set up a monthly fee that covers the cost of EBS and/or Glacier plus the cost of staffing and a little more for profit and away you go...

mrbledso
mrbledso

No payment plans. However, we frequently work with third party leasing companies. We get our money up front. We partner with other vendors for Hosted Exchange and Remote Backpup. Let them be responsible for the equipment, redundancy, and backups. We frequently do laptop screen replacement, printer repairs (business printers not small inkjets), home theatre, and home networking. We also troubleshoot video surveillance systems to some extent. Small IT businesses tend to have their hands in many different areas to support their customers.

RaySirois
RaySirois

Got a call last week from a gentleman wanting to know if we serviced HP printers. The company I work for does not - but as he was also a "road warrior" and was looking for someone to work on a client's printer, I suggested that since the printer model (LaserJet 5000) was one with which I was familier, I might be able to help on THIS one. I asked what the specific problem with the printer was, and he told me his customer wanted someone to hold a service contract on the printer. I was literally floored to think that anyone could even imagine that a firm would actually agree to a service contract for a printer that was introduced in 2002. End of life, limited parts availability... even though the printer is a cinch to work on, a losing proposition no matter how you look at it. I suggested that the guy tell his customer to buy a new printer and get an extended warranty on it.

JD Farmakidis
JD Farmakidis

I can name a few companies who by Virtue of the fact that they did sell Hosting, Microsoft, put them in the ideal position to then customise SharePoint, Dynamics, and in my case I created a backup solution for a 3rd Party Exchange Service which I sell. Offering to Host Exchange is one of the only ways to retain SME customers, And SharePoint. Are you suggesting leaving the biggest group of prospects out of a consultant's business plan?

DJNafey
DJNafey

Tony_Scarpelli, I think that Jack's list is pretty sensible. I've changed laptop screens in the past but now prefer to pass that work on to a local laptop repair specialist - it's a job that looks really easy but every one seems to be different to the last and, if this isn't something that you do regularly, finding the right replacement screen may be a challenge. We're offering our own hosted services and I have to say that it's a good way to make great margins (whilst simultaneously getting your small business clients a better deal) without having to leave the office. But Jack is right - it takes a lot of planning and, if you don't have the right resources, it's likely to go wrong pretty quickly. My advice: Get your servers and DSL lines in place first and then see if you can run your own business across the Internet back into your hosted servers. If you get fed up with it being slow or unreliable, then you can guarantee that your clients will too!

rdmuller
rdmuller

Anything to do with ATT Uverse -- you will loose your shirt trying to get tech support for anything but the simplest issues with these folks. Horrible

Tony_Scarpelli
Tony_Scarpelli

Sorry Jack, have no idea where you came up with you list. Seems like a list of things you personally do not want to do but that has nothing to do with their ease of completion nor profitability. I do agree to stay away from payment plans unless you have a relationship with a finance company. We successfully exchange laptop screens and after you do a half dozen or so they are all pretty much the same. It is a nice profit center for us. The same is true of smart phone support. 15 minutes work and $89 profit. The fastest growing profit center in the last five years has been home theater and surround sound installation and support. If Bestbuy can do it, usually individual IT technicians can do it better.

rynosaur
rynosaur

This sounds like logic in the same vein as ignoring the horseless carriage market 100 years back. I could be biased--it just so happens that I and virtually everyone I know relies on their smartphone more than their PC.

jmbaynes
jmbaynes

I guess it all depends on the firm, but if you limit yourself in to many ways it just sounds like you don't want to work, and that isn't good. Of course many firms have a specialty, but many aren't so lucky to be able to turn down work. I find that by creating partnerships with the companies that do some of the no-no's above you can still earn a few dollars offering a product that is already tested and working, but you offer some of the front end basic support. People love being able to deal with one IT company and strategic partnerships can provide that.

thebaldguy
thebaldguy

Don't ever, ever, ever offer to repair a corrupted Windows system. I've lost my bony arse removing a problem and having fifteen others arise. OTOH, I have turned a few easy 100 dollar jobs offering to save documents and pictures, wiping/reinstalling Windows, and reinstalling software. Thanks to a USB hard drive interface and a Linux home PC, I usually get the whole job done in an hour or two (while I'm multitsasking). Never,ever try to fix a sick Windows system. You'll get filthy, and it annoys the pig. ;-)

mlevy
mlevy

We're already offing hosted email - via VMware Zimbra that does everything that Exchange does. Management overhead is 10% of Exchange, it's far less expensive, and most important, it works with Outlook in MAPI mode. We;re also hosting our own online backup. Both of these services were easy to set up and have been rock-solid in therms of relibility. When there is a problem, I can go to the server and correct it, rather then sit on hold with someone else.

capeterson67
capeterson67

You are quite right about business backup needs compared to consumer grade services. Much of business data is in fact databases, which can grow quite large and even more often require assistance to get back up and running.

capeterson67
capeterson67

I hate when your participation in something coincides with issues that have nothing to do with you. Similar to your case of pre-existing errors blamed on you: back in the mid 90's before I hung my own shingle, I worked for another consulting company. I was on a customer site just long enough to install an extra 128 megs of Ram. This particular server had not been restarted in a couple years. I did the all the due diligence and looked at the event logs, closed and compacted all the running databases...and shut down the server. I installed the RAM, closed the case back up and powered it on. The server would POST and show the increased RAM then show the windows NT screen forever, never completing the boot. Of course it was all my fault and I spent that night (Friday of course) undoing a poorly applied NT service pack in order to get it up and running again. God, NT was a wretched OS. Every Service Pack was like a game of Russian Roulette.

thebaldguy
thebaldguy

Back in 2002, printers were still made to last. I could (almost) see a business owner keeping a reliable old warrior alive, especially if it was beneficial tax-wise. But your point is well taken.

gechurch
gechurch

I don't think he's saying "don't sell hosted Exchange or SharePoint", he's saying "don't host the services youself". Office 365 is cheap. It's a professional service, it's spread across multiple locations, it's got big fat pipes, automated failover, redundant power sources, proper cooling, backup systems etc etc. Sure, anyone can put Exchange on a little old server in the corner and sell hosted Exchange for cheaper. It's all good until the power goes out to your building, or until the machine needs a new motherboard, or you realise the backups you've been religiously taking don't want to restore. It's not that you can't do it, it's that it takes a lot of resources to do it properly. And if you don't do it properly you're gambling your companies reputation. Remember too, he didn't say "don't ever do this". He said "think carefully before doing it".

gechurch
gechurch

I've vocally disagreed with many of Jack's article's, but in my opinion this is a good one. I agree with pretty much every item on the list. Most of them are: * Fiddly * Require a lot of investment in either infrastructure, or spare parts * Low profit margin * Have a higher level of risk than most other IT tasks

DJNafey
DJNafey

I don't know whether the phrase "Jack of all trades" translates well in the US but, here in the UK, we are burdened with IT firms that claim to be able to do everything ....and so they regularly disappoint and give us all a bad name. Sometimes we should all turn work down (or, better still, recommend a good specialist) so that we can maintain our reputation. Making sure that I do what I'm good at means that all of my new work comes from referrals from happy clients - I don't spend a dollar on advertising.

jk2001
jk2001

I work a regular job and part of that involved dealing with Exchange. It requires some maintenance, but the really hard thing is fixing it when it breaks. It normally takes hours, and even the better part of a day. "On the side" I've also had a hobby server, and that runs qmail and vpopmail; basically a typical Unix mail server. This also requires maintenance, but the main difference is, with some average sysadmin and scripting skills, you can fix most problems so they stop happening (or are managed). Overall, I'd say the hobby server's taken a lot less work, has had decent uptime, and has moved as much mail as the Exchange server, and has had more accounts and forwarding addresses on it -- over a hundred on Unix compared to around 25 on Exchange. It even ran mailing lists with between 5 and 15,000 addresses. And this is qmail, which can be pretty arcane. Postfix and Exim4 appear to be easier to run. Zimbra is built on top of Postfix. The main edge Exchange has is the calendaring.

thebaldguy
thebaldguy

I've had Evolution (on Linux) hooking up to Exchange in MAPI mode, it was sweet. But Microsoft would break it with Exchange updates on a regular basis. How safe are you from the Redmond thugs pulling the same crap on the client end?

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

Offering a Service Contract on it with everything that goes along with that is a completely different matter. The Printer Makers don't offer Service Contracts over 5 years and that's on the High End Stuff anything smaller and you're lucky to get any form of Service Contract and absolutely none after 5 years. If the actual Maker will not support something older than 5 years that's got to tell you something. ;) Col

jmbaynes
jmbaynes

I'm not saying take all work. But only working in one very niche speciality isn't an option for all IT Firms. Someone has to practice general it services, and have lots of partnerships with other speciality IT Firms. Just like there are General Primary Care Physicians, and there are specialist. Sometimes the Generalist can take on someone as a client, know they can't meet all of the clients needs, but work with a partner who can. Customers like having a single point of contact for IT, so even though no firm no matter how small or large can do it all; we can still keep and gain customers by working with specialist outside the firm.

jedmonds905
jedmonds905

I think most of us in the U.S. quote it as Jack of all trades, master of none. I try to keep in mind that most citizens of our fair country are quick on the draw when it comes to filing lawsuits and are careful of what we offer in terms of service. My wife has a client that has an older PC that's running slow and wanted to know if I could fix it. I told her to ask the client how old the system is. If it's more than five years old I told her to have her client to replace it. From my conversation with my wife, I picked up a vibe that it was probably a PC that was running Win 95/98 and that was manufactured in the mid-90's.