Documentation is one of the single most important tools you can have for the job. It's also one of the easiest aspects of the job. But when it's not there, the job can be an absolute nightmare. As a consultant, you have to make a choice: Do you rely on the client to retain documentation or do you retain it yourself? If you retain the documentation, a few simple steps will help ensure that it's as efficient and useful as possible.
1: Be consistent
This one is crucial, and you need to put it into place at the very start. Instead of being random or chaotic with documentation, create one or more templates for documentation and use them religiously. I prefer creating one document for important credentials and separate documents for network mapping, contracts, misc notes, and contact information. Even within those different documents, I always make sure I follow through with consistency; otherwise, I'll be digging around for the information, which is nothing but a waste of time.
2: Use .txt instead of .doc
You never know what you're going to have available to view your documentation. So instead of using .doc (or .docx) files to create the documentation, use .txt files so you can view them on nearly anything. This will also make your life easier if your documentation is on a network and you don't want to count on Microsoft Word to be consistent and reliable opening those documents. Besides, a .txt viewer is going to open more quickly than Word ,which is especially important when you're in a serious time crunch.
3: Use Dropbox
You're not always going to be sitting at the machine housing your documentation. Even if you place your documentation on a server within your network, you don't want to have to jump through the hoops of RDP'ing into your network just to view client documentation. Instead, use a tool like Dropbox to keep your documentation synced on a machine you carry around. (You can also access your Dropbox account from anywhere.) Just make sure the account is secured with a challenging password!
4: Separate clients into folders
Don't have just a single folder containing a bunch of documents for clients. If you manage your documentation this way, you'll spend a lot of time searching for the information you need.Use a little common sense with your organization and separate clients into individual subfolders under the main Documentation folder. This way, getting to that particular client documentation will be fast and easy.
Don't let documentation updates get out of hand. If you forget once, you'll forget again. And nothing is worse than changing a domain administrator account password, not documenting it, and then needing it. As soon as you change an important piece of a client's network or credentials, change it in the documentation. Do NOT depend upon your memory for this. You never know when something is going to sidetrack you. Not only will this cause you an enormous headache, it will also make you look bad in front of your clients. Make a habit of updating documentation quickly (even on the job site).
Remember, your clients are your bread and butter. When you work with less-than-efficient speed, you're costing them money they probably don't want to spend. By making your documentation as efficient as possible, you save yourself time and headaches and (in the end) your clients' money. We all know, saving clients some money is one of the best ways to ensure client retention.
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 jackwallen.com.