Your first day on a new site is often like a new employee's — you do almost nothing. Neither you nor your client can afford to waste time, but it happens just the same.
The main problem is communication (or lack thereof). You don't know the company's routine and personnel, and the client and users don't know what you need from them. Realistically, you can't expect to walk through the door and go straight to work on the first day. But with a little planning and cooperation from your client, that first day can still be productive.
Note: These tips are based on an entry in our IT Consultant blog.
1: Learn about the company
Your client may think that, as "the expert," you already have all the answers, but you can't do your best work in a vacuum. To avoid creating solutions that create more problems and to provide the best service possible, you need a view of the big picture. Request a copy of the client's mission statement and goals. If possible, procure a copy of the employee manual. You'll also want the company to make full disclosure of all IT manuals and policies that affect your project.
2: Set clear and realistic expectations
Make sure your new client understands that you'll spend the first few days of your contract exploring the company's facility, getting to know key personnel, and researching the project. Clients often expect consultants to have immediate answers, but that's unrealistic. You need time to assess the project and explore possible solutions. It's also helpful to provide the client with feedback at the end of your first day. A simple list of who you met with and what you plan to do the next day or two can prevent unrealistic expectations and instill confidence on the part of your client.
3: Know your inside contacts
Ideally, you'll have at least a few days after signing the contract before you actually put your services into action. Use that time to meet with or call the person you'll work with the most in-house. If it's the head honcho, you've got your work cut out for you, as that person can be rather impatient once the deal is made. "Talk to my assistant about that" might not get you the information you need. One way or another, you've got to make contact with someone inside who can help you organize that first day — you can't do it alone. You'll also need a list of all users, their contact information, their functions within the company, and their relationship to your project.
4: Make sure key personnel will be available
Determine who you want to meet with on that first day and ask them to arrange their schedules accordingly. Work through your in-house contact or contact individuals directly. If you run into obstacles, such as key personnel being on vacation, consider postponing your start day. Remember, you client won't think to check on these details. Postponing your start date because key personnel aren't available is preferable to billing a client for wasted time.
5: Conduct a technical equipment check ahead of time
Check on meeting rooms, telephone lines, and other equipment you might need, such as a computer, projector, and video or audio conferencing. Not every client will have everything you need, so once you know what's available, you can adapt or bring your own equipment. You'll need the cooperation of your in-house contact to schedule meeting rooms and equipment so there are no surprises. Arrive early if necessary to arrange the room and equipment. Even if someone in-house agrees to do this for you, get there early enough to make sure everything is in place and that all the equipment works.
Bonus tip: Have a backup plan
Remember all that documentation you requested the client provide — mission statements, manuals, and so on? Take those with you that first day. Despite your best efforts, if your plans fall through, you can spend the day perusing those documents.
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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.