A satisfied client is a consultant's best reward. Okay, the paycheck is the best reward, but a happy client will keep you working and spread the word to potential new clients. Most consultants are honest hard-working professionals, but they often shun an important goal — that of providing great service without busting the client's piggy bank. You can do both, and most clients will appreciate you for it.
1: Let clients do what they can
My first suggestion isn't always the most well received, but I'm a huge advocate of allowing clients to fill-in where they can. Otherwise, they could lose confidence in you when they realize they spent money they didn't need to. And they will figure it out. Money in your pocket that could just as easily have stayed in the client's pocket isn't a great way to build a foundation of trust.
If a client has the expertise in-house, or they're willing to hire that expertise, bring those individuals on board and thank the client for pitching in. If working with in-house personnel requires a bit of training, provide it. Just be clear about expectations to protect your client and yourself. Creating a list and asking all parties to sign off isn't going overboard; it's a good idea.
2: Help clients downsize
If you're purchasing new computers, it might be time for some innovative change. Laptops and netbooks are cheaper than the standard desktop systems and most of them are sufficiently fast and powerful. Now, you probably don't want to give a data entry operator or technical developers a laptop, but for the more casual users, inexpensive laptops might be just the thing.
3: Check out VoIP
VoIP is less expensive than traditional landline service. Many of us have replaced our landlines at home with VoIP and cell phones. Why not extend those savings to business? It isn't a solution for every company, but if a client is small and phone service isn't critical to their business, it's worth comparing costs. If phone service isn't part of your contract, it can't hurt to mention the possible savings — you might pick up a new project.
4: Be honest
Nothing saps a budget like incompetence. Be prepared to turn down work you're not qualified to do, thinking you can learn the technology as you go. Even if you charge less, you'll cost your client more in the end. Instead, help your client find just the right expert. (Perhaps you'll get a finder's fee out of it.) Losing your client's confidence will be more costly than turning down the project.
5: Learn, network, and grow
Did you know that half of everything the 2010 Computer Science graduate has learned will be obsolete or out of fashion by graduation day? Field experience is great, but you should stay up to date in your specialization by attending technical events. Continue to stay abreast of changing technologies by reading periodicals outside your specialty. Join professional groups and associations to network with other experts who share your skills and interests.
By networking and continuing to learn, you'll become an industry expert who can meet your clients' needs by providing the best skills available. While hard to quantify, having the best skills and being current with other technologies will always save your clients money. Knowledge and a network of skilled professionals who have your back will make you an efficient and competent consultant — and your client will know that's money well spent.
Susan Sales Harkins is an IT consultant, specializing in desktop solutions. Previously, she was editor in chief for The Cobb Group, the world's largest publisher of technical journals.