Tech & Work

10 things I wish I'd known before becoming an IT consultant

Careful research, thoughtful planning, and honest self-assessment can help you make a successful leap into the IT consultant role. But the realities of the job will still surprise you.

Before opening an IT consultancy, I did my homework. I interviewed lifelong consultants. I read books. I even took personality tests to confirm that my psychological constitution matched the challenges I'd face as an entrepreneur owning and operating my own business.

Some lessons, though, you just have to learn yourself. If you're a technology consultant, or if you're considering branching out on your own, take a few tips from my experience of supporting hundreds of companies of all shapes and sizes. Here are 10 things I'd wish I'd known before becoming an IT consultant.

1: Some people are never happy

You probably already know that some people just aren't wired for optimism or happiness. That's all fine and good, you may think. But the problem for you, as an IT consultant, is that these unhappy people may never be satisfied with the services you provide, the equipment you deploy, or the rates you charge. The first few times you encounter such clients, properly and efficiently diagnose and repair their technology failures, and promptly forward a reasonable invoice for the work — only to be told your work is unacceptable — may leave you feeling perplexed. Don't let it. Such clients will never be satisfied, regardless of who performs the work and how. Avoid such shenanigans by insisting clients sign well-written estimates up front that explain project and payment terms.

2: Not all IT pros make good consultants

Some technology professionals prefer to focus on just a few projects at a time, working uninterrupted on a task until it is complete and maintaining expertise in a few core areas. Those IT pros don't make good consultants. Unfortunately, the nature of consulting requires consultants to support a vast range of clients operating numerous and different business models at unpredictable times of day, while leveraging a tremendous variety of hardware, software, and network technologies. Consultants are the ultimate multitaskers who must thrive on the numerous and ceaseless challenges, fires, and crises that arise when supporting a broad client base.

3: Some clients never intend to pay

Over time, it's become clear that some owners and managers simply resent having to leverage technology to operate their businesses and organizations. They don't want to pay for hardware. They don't believe they should have to pay for software. And they're not keen on paying for a consultant's expertise, knowledge, and time. But that doesn't stop them from asking for systems and software and demanding assistance! I've learned never to deliver hardware without having first received payment for the equipment, and the same is true for software. As for services, it's best to receive deposits from clients until the client demonstrates a reliable payment history.

4: Vendors abandon you

Vendors, especially when working to sign your consulting firm as an authorized reseller of their products, act like they're your best friend. They take you to lunch, send you free products, and shower your office with promotional materials. They may even help customize sales estimates and quotes. But when the rubber meets the road, the product's been sold to a client, and the technology doesn't work as advertised, you may well find yourself speaking to a self-employed support desk technician working out of a Cold War-era flat in eastern Europe — and that's if the vendor's even willing to answer your call. In other words, while there are exceptions, vendor-provided technical support usually isn't very good, especially for complex technical issues. Your best bet is to develop considerable skill and expertise with a few critical products in each product category (switches, routers, servers, email platforms, backup software, antivirus, etc.) and try to explain to clients why those are the platforms you repeatedly recommend.

5: Clients expect a know-it-all

Clients don't differentiate technologies. They don't appreciate differences between routers and switches, databases and applications, and systems administration and software development. This is especially true in smaller businesses. Nor is it unusual for a client to call a technology consultant for assistance troubleshooting a stalled email server and expect the responding technician to also expertly troubleshoot and repair a seven-year old digital video recorder, a failed PBX phone system whose manufacturer long ago went bankrupt, and a closed-circuit television system that integrates with a legacy access control system for which documentation never existed.

6: And one more thing...

Technology consultants increasingly serve as the de facto IT staff for small and midsize organizations. Salaried IT staff members are frequently eliminated as organizations struggle to contain costs. As a result, when a consultant shows up to eliminate a virus infection or install a software application, end users starved for support almost always pelt the technician with additional service requests. My consulting office has learned that the phenomenon is so widespread, we schedule additional time for engineers to complete ancillary unplanned tasks when responding to clients who don't have in-house technical support. It's the only method we've found effective for ensuring that we can make the next scheduled appointment on time.

7: Immediate service, but 60-day payment terms

We're a microwave society. Everyone's expectations are immediate. No one wants to wait. And it's understandable. Small and medium-size businesses struggle to remain competitive, profitable, and relevant. When systems fail, email stops flowing, or printers don't work, operations seize. The technology consultant is expected to correct issues immediately. The expectations include making new laptops, desktops, network equipment, and servers materialize instantly. Consultants, to be successful long-term, must learn to stock equipment and software that clients typically require. The only drawback to consulting is that clients typically don't expect to have to pay as quickly as their needs are met. Most clients require 45 to 60 days to pay invoices, in my experience. So it's important that consultancies manage cash flows accordingly.

8: Clients only remember what didn't work

Unfortunately, human nature is such that we often don't remember the days that go well. Instead, what often stands out are the trials, tribulations, and tragedies. A consultant's clients are much the same. If a client suffers a hard disk failure on a critical system, you might get lucky and have an appropriate system with which to immediately replace the failed machine. You might get lucky and find that, even though the disk failure corrupted Windows, you're still able to migrate email, documents, spreadsheets, financial data, and applications, as well as printers, from the failed system to the new computer. But forget to migrate the client's iTunes and that's all the client will remember: "You're the computer guy who forgot to transfer their music. How hard is that? Duh." Grow thick skin if you intend to make it as a consultant. You'll need it. Oh, and migration checklists work well, too.

9: You're almost always working

Once you're labeled as a consultant, it's hard to escape the industry. I can't go anywhere without being asked computer questions. I receive computer questions everywhere, including at parties, family gatherings, church, the gym, restaurants, airports, and doctors' and dentists' offices (as a patient!). Because my consultancy wraps its vehicles with vinyl decals announcing the organization's name, I've even been asked complex computer questions by volunteers collecting for charity at stoplights. Consultants must embrace the "geekiness" and develop enthusiasm for those having tech interest and questions. Otherwise, I fear consultants will become bitter and resent the relentless intrusion on their personal lives.

10: Follow-up is not optional

Everyone knows follow-up is an important part of customer service. It's a critical component, though, for consultants. Because consultants aren't on site with clients every day, consultants must circle back to ensure that new servers, desktops, laptops, routers, and other software and equipment are working as the client requires. Frequently, clients believe a feature or component was forgotten or doesn't work, only to find out it's because they weren't aware how to trigger the new functionality on a new system. Only by stopping on site and physically reviewing operations can consultants truly follow up well. While a quick email is a tempting solution, consultants will find quick pop-in visits almost always welcomed, and needed, by clients.

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What things have surprised you about working as an IT consultant? Has the job lived up to your expectations or have there been some disappointments along the way?


Erik Eckel owns and operates two technology companies. As a managing partner with Louisville Geek, he works daily as an IT consultant to assist small businesses in overcoming technology challenges and maximizing IT investments. He is also president o...

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