IT consultants have a lot on their plates. Successful technology consultants must maintain their technical aptitude and proficiency, as well as add accounting, business development, collections, advertising, marketing, PR, product and service development, HR management, and myriad other challenges to their task lists.
The responsibilities and pressures can prove so overwhelming that many consultants return to corporate IT. But those technology professionals and organizations seeking to secure long-term success as consultants can be best served following counterintuitive advice from 37signals' founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, who write in their best-seller Rework that simplifying services and processes and saying no to customer requests may prove the best business strategy.
The 37signals partners note that, as original customers began to outgrow the company's initial offerings, they wanted 37signals to change their products to mirror the customers' newfound requirements. 37signals said no.
According to Fried and Hansson in ReWork: "We'd rather our customers grow out of our products eventually than never be able to grow into them in the first place." In other words, adding service or product complexities to satisfy a minority of customers doesn't make sense, as you can alienate the very base that grew (and sustains) your business.
IT consultants should consider the same philosophy. Instead of becoming too absorbed in multi-tiered managed services plans plagued with complicated pricing structures, sticking to simple break/fix project pricing and basic monthly service contracts will likely prove best for most clients. Further, providing assistance during regular business hours on non-holiday weekdays will accommodate most clients; struggling to staff third-shift support teams for a handful of clients requiring 24x7x365 service could break the bank, if not the will, of smaller IT consultancies. Stick to the basics and keep swinging with the date that got you to the dance.
There's a temptation, especially among technically-astute consultants, to implement incredibly complex CRM, accounting, and ticketing systems, yet the additional layers of complexity only waste valuable time and resources.
In ReWork, the authors note that: "When things aren't working, the natural inclination is to throw more at the problem. More people, time and money. All that ends up doing is making the problem bigger. The right way to go is the opposite direction: Cut back." Again, it's counter-intuitive, but reducing complexity and simplifying processes can work well for IT consultants.
When reviewing your organization's ticketing, billing, dispatch, and service delivery processes, you should ask some of the recommended questions from ReWork, which include:
- Why are you doing this?
- What problem are you solving?
- Is the action you're taking actually useful?
- Is the step really adding value?
- Is there an easier way?
- What else could you be doing with the time?
When our clients wanted an easy way to let us know they needed help, we were tempted to implement a complex CRM system capable of tracking every possible interaction with clients. We could track every last phone call, lunch date, and follow up. There might be a time and place for that, but that time isn't now. A simple, open source ticketing system with few frills proved to be a better investment.
Someday we might get to work on that all encompassing CRM platform, but now we have an accessible ticketing system clients can use to let us know, quickly, that the printer in accounting needed to complete payroll is down. The client doesn't want us to remember that his daughter Chloe's birthday is in April -- he wants his accountant's printer fixed quickly and without having to pick up the phone (the ticketing system enables service requests via a simple email message). And even better, if it's a tricky repair that another engineer navigated seven months ago, the ticketing system will record the actual steps completed, thereby accelerating repair the next time the same issue occurs.
We also used to struggle when moving completed tasks to actual invoices. The ticketing system is a natural plug-in to QuickBooks. Now we can list ticket numbers on an invoice, and all details regarding a service request are now recorded long-term in a central repository. This is a better way of solving multiple problems simultaneously, and it adds value and frees time for more profitable endeavors, like closing additional tickets.
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Erik Eckel owns and operates two technology companies. As a managing partner with Louisville Geek, he works daily as an IT consultant to assist small businesses in overcoming technology challenges and maximizing IT investments. He is also president of Eckel Media Corp., a communications company specializing in public relations and technical authoring projects.