CXO

Boost your IT consulting business with your friends' help

Mixing business and friendship can have its benefits -- if you set appropriate limits. Here are the potential upsides and downsides of taking on new business based on a friend's recommendation.

 TechRepublic member IT.Consultant recently asked about how to get past the need for recruiters to find new business as a consultant.  

Why do companies use recruiters? It certainly isn't because they enjoy paying their fee — although they consider the fee a reasonable expense for qualifying the candidates for the position. The recruiter acts as a crude form of recommendation. But a much more reliable form of recommendation comes from individuals who know someone personally.

Benefits

I bet 90% of all new business I've taken in over the years has been the result of a personal recommendation. A manager will express the need to find someone who can help with technology XYZ, and a fellow employee will say, "I have a friend who knows all about that, and he does consulting." The manager calls me up, we talk for a few minutes, I e-mail her my standard contract, and the deal is on.

Contrast that with how that might have gone, sans friend. If I managed to contact the company at all, they wouldn't have known me from Dogbert. My résumé, rather than impressing them, would come across as a massive hard sell. If the company decided to invest time in interviewing me, they'd probably never feel satisfied that they had asked all the right questions. Both of us would be constantly looking for opportunities to prove or disprove that I am what I claim to be.

Friends on the inside can be helpful after you've landed the contract too. No matter how well you execute your client's requirements, and no matter how clearly those requirements are spelled out, a very large part of consulting success lies in navigating interpersonal relationships. Especially when you're working remotely, a personal friend on site can keep you updated on those developments. They can also represent your interests in your absence to some degree.

Pitfalls

But nothing in life is free and that also goes for friendships. Maintaining a friendship, especially a remote one, often requires a little quid pro quo. Some free help here and there to boost a friend's career can go a long way. Unfortunately, some clients abuse that benefit by saying, "Oh, you're Chip's friend, so call him up and ask him how to handle ABC..." and expecting not to have to pay for this advice. It can be awkward and difficult to know where to draw the line and say to a friend, "I'd love to help you with this, but I'll have to insist that your employer pay me for my time."

Even more uncomfortable is when your friend wants to leave your client's employ. Naturally, you want to give your friend a recommendation, but what will your client think if it appears that you're helping them lose an employee? How much of your relationship with the client has depended on having a friend on the inside? You're about to find out.

Even more volatile than a friendship is having a romantic interest at your client's office. It's generally not a good idea at all. While it's going on, your client has to weigh your motivations relative to that relationship. When it's over, there can be hell to pay — and it truly is a distraction. I've only made that mistake a couple — um, actually... let me see... oh, yeah, there was that one... carry the two... uh, too many times, OK? Fortunately, the last time was 13 years ago, and she is now my wife. I was also lucky (or had good enough instincts) to avoid dating anyone who worked on the same project team as me; it would have added a lot of stress to an already potentially stressful relationship.

Set limits

Interpersonal relationships are the most powerful factors in a business relationship, and they can easily get out of control. But if you employ them wisely and set appropriate limits, they can boost your success as a consultant — besides being rewarding in themselves.

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About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

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