IT Employment

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.

More on IT consulting

Handy checklists

Other lessons?

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?

About

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...

35 comments
lbranjord
lbranjord

Follow up is not optional - you are right about that! You need to constantly monitor each project and touch base just often enough to not bug anybody if you want the work flow to stay intact. If you don't show up on site, you are forgotten! Hire IT Consultants and Market-Beating Rates: Freelance Anything Consulting

drcurvin
drcurvin

The best way to avoid most of the perils described in this piece is to work on contracted projects to design and implement solutions - that is what IT Consultants do. If caught in the 'Tech Support' tar baby you will experience everything described in this piece. Be certain you have a product before you go to market.

TBone2k
TBone2k

You have to understand the client's business somewhat perhaps to understand their cost of having idle labour, but I found one of the easiest ways to get some things done was to be able to show the cost of *not* doing it. This is especially useful when you use terms like *when* things fail, not *if*.

bill9
bill9

Especially point 8 covers my worst cases working with clients, After doing a wonderfull job fixing their network they will call you saying the amount on the invoice looks fishy since it took you a short time to fix it.

richard
richard

Waaay back in the day this was our watch phrase; any system or subsystem we touched became "ours". Nothing's changed. If you even so much as logon to a customer system then you've pretty much become responsible for EVERYTHING on it! It's funny how the auto repair shop can get by with saying, "Oh, and the differential controller doohickey needs to be replaced. That will be another $500.00, please. Cash." And people just mutter and pay it.

joeller
joeller

Wow. I thought the issues we had with government were bad. But at least with their verbose persnicketty itemized contract requirements I never have to worry about doing the uncovered work. I merely state, "Sorry its illegal to do anything not covered by the contract and I have no desire to end up in jail like those guys in Newport RI." However, that does annoy me at times when My work is stopped because of something I could easily fix but am not allowed to because my contract doesn't cover it.

les
les

After chuckling quietly and tossing out quotes from this article for my wife as I was reading, I looked up at her and said "This is clearly written by someone who is as burned out as I am..." This industry has changed. Nearly everyone we've dealt with over the last 15 years has been touting "this will be great", "this is a great product you can sell", "this is a great new service you can offer", or "this change will improve _______ in all of these wonderful ways...", and the industry has gone steadily down-hill. I met with a competitor yesterday who came in to one of my small clients, who has a single server running all of their business systems, a month ago with a "look how cheap and how complete your service can be if you 'sign up for our program'" story and now they are serving the client. Currently, the client is down. They've been down for the past 11 days (out of the 30 they've been serviced by this company). This is 10 times as much downtime as they've experienced cumulatively over the past 7 years of working with my company. They are down because they had a server power supply die. Because I am looking at a personal career transition, I had offered up help to this new company for transitioning the client. Last Sunday, 8 days ago, the new tech company owner told me about the server being down. I told him that I have similar servers and parts standing on my shelf that could go in place and they were welcome to them, if they like. Thursday evening, I get an email from them saying "yeah... uh... do you have a power supply for that server?" In fact, I had two. I got a replacement power supply to him, and the server is still down now - 11 days after a power supply failure - because the guy was afraid to turn it on without getting the RAID array sent out to data recovery before he powered it up... after a 'power supply failure'. During our conversation, he described his service to me... "We have 'company X' do the 'monitoring', and 'company Y' does cloud backups. We use 'managed service W' for virus protection (I am sure you can fill in all of the blanks here...) and 'service Z' provides help desk and support. ???We move all of our clients over to Google Docs???, he told me. The only thing that the company does 'hands-on' is a biannual visit - calling it CIO services and Business planning. The rest is outsourced services. He also described to me that their approach is to go in and tell clients to ???take these devices off the network because we won't support them???. These are devices such as older machines, older laptops, NAS devices they don't know, firewalls they aren't familiar with (???all of 'their clients' use Watchguard because they are a Watchguard partner - anything else gets pitched upon their entry into the business), and yes,... their Exchange server,... because they "can't support that". Since when have business decisions been made based on 'our it people won't let us use Exchange because they can't support it'? I am also curious to see how this goes with this client when they remove Exchange, but continue using their large, and very customized, industry specific MS Dynamics GP solution that has functions that are integrated into that Exchange server... sort of a 'stay tuned' situation.... The guy had the server, sitting there on his 'bench' and he was clearly confused by it. He told me about how he had looked for the power supply on eBay, and it was universally over $300 (uh, yeah,??? but call Intel and they???ll send you one tomorrow as a recall replacement ??? nah,??? learn that for yourself on someone else???s time). Clearly, this guy has never built a computer, and probably never even sold one. He wouldn't know what to recommend except for 'this is cheaper than that'. As far as CIO services or Business Planning - not only wouldn't he have a clue about his clients' businesses... he wouldn't care. Proudly, he proclaimed to me ???We have one program and all of our clients are subscribed to that program???. Then, also proudly, he informed me ???It took us two years to develop our program.??? Yeah, the industry has changed alright. And nothing has changed for the better. Sure, I am a dinosaur.... Competing in today???s IT consulting/services world is a very different thing than it was way back when 'capabilities, experience, ability to solve problems creatively, effectively, and quickly were factors. The days of 'gaining an understanding of your clients' businesses in order to serve their needs better' are gone. They have been replaced with "You'll be getting fries with that... because we don't sell it without fries...???

Cicuta2011
Cicuta2011

Hey Erik...If you did not know all of the 10 tips you give before becoming a consultant I just don't know where you have been. All of the above is very well known by a well versed technical person.

PMC-CON
PMC-CON

Great article. Thanks for taking the time to write it all down; now I don't feel so bad.

misgateway
misgateway

This is more for home users, but how about "You replaced my hard drive last month, and yesterday my music stopped playing on Rhapsody! What did you do wrong?" Many times I've had customers unable to understand that two events are unrelated, and I am not responsible for everything that goes wrong on their computer just because I had the case open once a long time ago.

tooblessedtofail
tooblessedtofail

Thoroughly Good Read. I enjoyed this. Coming from an experienced Folk!

cybershooters
cybershooters

Actually doing this for a living, I have to say though that a common flaw with consultants is that they use the installation or whatever they're doing as on-the-job training because in reality it is new to them. The client ends up getting used as a guinea pig. When hiring a consultant I never use anyone who is a one-man operation unless it is something specifically I know they can do.

Vandy-SJ
Vandy-SJ

Boy do I relate to this article. All good points. On multi-tasking, we all multi-task at some level - whether its listening to music while driving, talking on the phone while cooking dinner, or troubleshooting a network problem while discussing other issues with the customer. Depending on the complexity of the problem I'm working on, I sometimes have to single-task and focus on that problem, then multi-task as I move on to the next problem. I think Point #2 is valid, but it varies in practice - it does not always work for everyone. Multi-tasking definitely helps in IT work. Thanks for the article.

jamjube
jamjube

I sure can relate -- Installed a platform. Then we were accused of providing horrible customer support. Reason???? The client never called to tell us they had a question. So, now it is my fault that the client did not call us when they needed Customer Support. Sheeesh ..

puppadave
puppadave

Fitst - A good list!!! Just an ole mans' rambling - - - In todays bis enviroment - EVERYONE wants to have a 175 percent return for every dollar invested - - burden is on th IT to provide quality plus service !!! You are expected to not only sovle the original problem but also any colateral/unrelated problems!!!

thefinisher
thefinisher

I agree multitasking is delusion, people who try to multitask usually do it poorly. However as aconsultant you have good judge when to leave a task and when a task is complete enough and not get tied up with one task for too long. You will be out of busness very quickly

Spiderkingdemon
Spiderkingdemon

In this case it doesn't mean doing two things at the same time. It means the ability to stop one complex task and move to another almost instantly. Good consultants can do this. Bad ones can't.

Organic53
Organic53

Humans do not and can not multitask. To proclaim that someone would not be a good consultant because they can not multitask is pure bunk. It simply means that you deliver garbage to a lot of folks, instead of quality to a few. If you do not (can not) multitask, do not despair, it is not an indicator that you can be a consultant. As put by one neurologist: "People can't multitask very well, and when people say they can, they're deluding themselves..."

Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

compliment... Most of that is survival pressure, coupled with the fact that users find it easy to point fingers at technology as being the cause of their lack of productivity.

devshop
devshop

I'm a ISV (Independent Software Vendor), and your top 10 are right on. My clients purchase my software, then make me their entire IT support staff for hardware and other issues. One thing I'll add to your list is the ability to log into users' computers remotely to solve problems and save on that travel time/expense. I use WebEx, which serves both that purpose and gives me the ability to do some online training without travel. Another good alternative is to ask the customer if you can setup a free LogMeIN account on their system(s) so you can access it remotely if you need to.

ronatola
ronatola

Great list. I had my own computer repair business ('The Computer Doctors') and had to give it up. My skin wasn't thick enough and I took everything personally. I wanted to make every customer 100% happy each and every time, and as your point #1 suggests, that is not always possible. I was eating into my profits by working longer on things and not charging more. I found a nice full-time corporate position 7.25 hrs per day that pays well with benefits and my wife practically forced me to take it, as she saw the effect it was having on me. Even tho the monetary potential of the 'computer doctors' was unlimited, the stress and long hours were factors I had to put into the equation. I'm happy now, only having one boss and set requirements to meet :)

Suresh Mukhi
Suresh Mukhi

I would take on per project jobs for programming. I would get asked all sorts of questions unrelated to programming such as instructions on MS Word, Excel. Troubleshoot hardware, I was even asked to fix the fax machine once! The advantage is that I got to learn. As a result of my learning, I was hired by one of my clients as they grew. I know work as the IT Director for one of my "former" clients.

bhaveshg
bhaveshg

Things become really very complex when people have expect more than their actual requirements. This is what IT Consultant job is like. Customer would expect everything from you whethere he needs or don't. Still, you love your job because what you do for them gives you satisfaction when you complete a project which haves them huge sum of $$$$$ - don't worry what you get.

fsfernandes
fsfernandes

Oh my God I cant believe this, each and everything which you have mentioned above is exactly what I have gone through, or going through after working in the industry for more than 20 years. But it is not easy to change the mindset and the best is to tune yourself or adapt yourself to the environment. regards Francisco Fernandes

christopher
christopher

Yep, never take it personally.. And If there is something wrong with a network or system, best to analyse what the problem could be on the way there. That way it becomes a quick fix.

jsargent
jsargent

Most of those are tactics are to put pressure on you as a consultant so don't take it personally.

ylto
ylto

I nodded my head on every one. As you hinted at in your article, smart consultants will learn to adapt their practices to overcome these issues. We for example have people order their own hardware. On the one hand we give up margin we could otherwise charge. On the other hand our clients know were not trying to gouge them on hardware, and we dont have to worry about that element of non payment or cash flow.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

You're on a site to fix a server or workstation, and there's something wrong with the voice mail system or networked copier, etc. Once you touch it, next time it hiccups it will be you that gets the first call. It's probably because I actually return calls or have quick solutions. But my rule generally is that if it's something I don't want to ever want any responsiblity for, I won't touch it. (Avoid fixing copiers!)

Suresh Mukhi
Suresh Mukhi

In the episode "Court Martial", Spock was able to find a bug in the video playback system by playing CHESS against the computer. Two totally unrelated systems, though running on the same computer.

belli_bettens
belli_bettens

As a Java consultant, when they ask me to develop a Java program: no problem. When they ask me if I can do it in C#: no problem, but then it will take longer because I have to learn the language (read: APIs). So this exactly illustrates #5: don't expect us to know it if we didn't say we know it. But of course you're right when you say that you hired a bad consultant if he doesn't know his core-competence.

apotheon
apotheon

It's odd you haven't realized that larger consultancies are just as bad (or worse) -- just bad in different ways. How long have you been dealing with consultants? They're human beings, and 98% of human beings suck. You need to get better at identifying the integrity and value of a human being in current context, and not just pretend that discriminating against whole classes of people in a manner not meaningfully correlated with the qualities you seek is going to somehow make things better for you.

Cmd_Line_Dino
Cmd_Line_Dino

To me your event stresses the importance of "10: Follow-up is not optional" and after the on-site visit a follow-up e-mail to the client mentioning how all is going well and there are no issues/questions. The e-mail becomes a record should a dispute arise in the future. Of course there are situations where the follow-up on-site is just not reasonable and yet as I and my buddies learned over the years... "There's never time to do it right, but there's always time to do it over" :-)

Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

Calling might result in a solution :) That makes it harder to blame the platform for reduced productivity...

apotheon
apotheon

The kind of multitasking humans don't do well (and it's not true they "cannot" -- just that they do not do it well) is the equivalent of parallel processing in a multicore computer. The kind of multitasking consultants need to be able to do is more like pre-emptive multitasking, which works even with a single-core single-CPU machine, where simple tasks are lined up in a priority queue so that needed progress can be made on multiple complex tasks over a given period of time, rather than having to complete all of the simple sub-tasks that make up one complex task before tackling any of the simple sub-tasks that make up another compex task. If people couldn't do that, they wouldn't be able to go for a walk, because they need to be able to keep track of where they are going, how multiple people around them are moving, and the conditions of their bodies themselves, sufficiently well to avoid getting lost, falling in a ditch, colliding with other people (or cars), or arrested for wandering into a restricted area (for some examples of possible problems). We keep track of all these different things going on while walking around by switching attention between different concerns in a constant series of context shifts, prioritized by immediacy, situational stability, and danger level. So, yeah -- people can multitask just fine, or a particular definition of "multitask". It's called "time management" when you want to avoid someone nitpicking based on a different definition of "multitask" than you are using.

Justin James
Justin James

I've got 3 customers, and that's it. One rolls off at the end of August. One wants me for 40/week, long term. Not much multitasking for me! :) But... that's rare. I also should add, I've very carefully selected my customers (yes, I select my customers, and I deliberately turn down TONS of work... and I charge a high rate to discourage those who are not serious), and the net result is that most of these problems are not an issue for me, thankfully. I've been around this block enough times to know where the potholes are... J.Ja