Many consulting practices have been built by developing a specific solution for one client or building a few solutions for clients in a specific industry, which then become the basis for a product or service with wide appeal across that industry. This usually occurs by chance. For example, a consultant gets hired by one pharmaceutical company and then another; soon she's developed industry expertise, and she incrementally creates a unique product or service that fits the entire vertical. Sometimes it occurs on purpose. For example, a high-tech company realizes that its innovative new product isn't very useful without a sophisticated service offering to help the client plan and install it, and so a solution is developed and then taken to market.
Combining elements for a pre-built IT solution
Pre-built IT solutions can be broad and horizontal, or narrowly vertical, or focused on a specific technology rather than a vertical industry.
When we talk about a pre-built IT solution, what do we mean? Typically, we're discussing a combination of elements (usually hardware, software, and services) that deliver a capability to a client in a consistent and disciplined manner. For example, a "packaged" tax write-up solution for an accounting firm could include the servers, desktops, printers, and scanners required to host the solution; the tax write-up software and its associated maintenance and upgrade services; and the assessment, planning, and implementation services required to get it all up and running. It also often includes the user training and operational support required to keep the solution running. A complete solution in this scenario would include the following:
- Solution architecture
- Sample proposal and scope of work
- Sample project plan
- Resource roles and responsibilities plan
- Materials list
- Hardware and software maintenance contracts
- Support process
- Training and knowledge transfer plan
Clearly, the development of a solution is not a trivial task, and consultants who have deep familiarity with the particular industry or technology they're targeting are much more likely to have the experience required to navigate all of these components.
Pros and cons of reusable solutions
The creation of reusable (and re-saleable) solutions has some advantages, as well as some pitfalls, for IT consultants. The advantages may be fairly obvious, but the pitfalls may not be as evident. Here's a look at both.
Consultants can learn-by-doing while working on billable projects for clients, and then can take the fruits of that labor and use them as the basis for a solution that benefits the entire vertical market. The better you do at the basics of scoping, planning, and documenting your activities on every project, the more likely you are to have the basic elements required for a solution, such as pre-written project plans, proposals, and resource and materials lists.
You can also utilize good knowledge management techniques for building solutions, such as capturing the experiences, tips, tricks, and traps that accompany our engagements so they can be incorporated into the solutions we create. It's especially important to carefully observe and record the customer's support needs and experience. Savvy customers are conscious of the need for strong after-sale support, and smart solution providers create an ongoing revenue stream by attaching continuous services to their solution sales.Pitfalls You need to be conscious of the potential for conflict of interest. The solution you create (for pay) for a specific client should belong to that client subject to the terms of your agreement; also, the inside information you glean as trusted counselors to the client are private and privileged. Any product or service you create must honor the confidentiality of the client's inner workings and cannot be a direct copy of the solution you created for the client (unless the client agrees).
The biggest pitfall is in our own perception. I've observed many IT consultants make the same error when developing solutions: They think they can take the uncertainty and variability out of the consulting relationship. They try so hard to build the perfect solutions (with all the components pre-built and ready-to-wear) that they convince themselves customers will accept a one-size-fits-all solution. While developing pre-built components that can be reused and resold (sort of like a library of C+ functions) can be a great boon to your consulting business, you must never forget that advising clients is a custom business. Each client, culture, industry, and scenario is different, and you tread in dangerous waters if you try to fit the client to the solution rather than the other way around.
Watch out for these traps
By all means, use your deep technical or vertical knowledge to create a solution that brings all the elements together for a clean, crisp engagement that doesn't have to be invented from scratch every time. Just be sure not to fall into these traps: prescribing before diagnosis or changing your mission from serving the client to selling your packaged solution.Get weekly consulting tips in your inbox TechRepublic's IT Consultant newsletter, delivered each Monday, offers tips on how to attract customers, build your business, and increase your technical skills in order to get the job done. Automatically sign up today!
Rick Freedman is the author of three books on IT consulting, including "The IT Consultant." Rick is an independent consultant and trainer, working, through his company Consulting Strategies Inc., to help agile teams and organizations understand agile practices and migrate successfully.