IT consultants are in some ways like doctors. For instance, when clients need you, they often need immediate assistance. Also, crises might arise with little to no warning. This is a bad combination for taking time off, but don't despair -- you can and should do it.
In order to feel comfortable about taking a vacation, the key is to plan ahead. The following four-step approach has proven to be a successful strategy for me.
1: Preemptive strikes
Your IT consultancy's clients who favor specific engineers and technicians (especially those clients who find substitute staff unacceptable) should be told in advance that their preferred technician will be unavailable. While this may sound like enabling behavior, it's a fact of life. Letting these clients know the engineer will be out permits the client to prepare a list of items that can be scheduled or addressed before the consultant takes time off. And, if a crisis arises while the technician is out of the office, the client won't be caught by surprise.
2: Impeccable communication
When you do take time off, it's critical that customers know you're unavailable; this means you must update (at the minimum): cell phone voice mail, office phone voice mail, and email. Voice mail messages must be updated to tell inform clients that you're unavailable until a specific date. Out of office messages must be configured, too, for distributing the same message. Both voice mail and out of office notifications should instruct clients how to obtain assistance in the interim.
3: Strategic blackouts
Once your vacation begins, you must have the discipline to not check email or voice mail. Consultants who return messages while on vacation send a clear message: You can reach me even when I'm unavailable. Ultimately, that means you're not on vacation, just out of the office. It's difficult to unwind that way, and it's important to have quality time off from your stressful consulting work. So don't underestimate the importance of disconnecting, at least for a couple of days on average every quarter. As long as clients know how to obtain assistance in your absence, everything should be fine.
4: Supplementary air support
IT consultancies in which only one engineer possesses specific skills (such as SQL administration, Cisco routing, or development expertise) require coverage when that technician is unavailable. Just as doctors typically partner with other physicians to provide on-call support, IT consultants must ensure another practitioner is available to step in if a principal or employee with special skills is unavailable.
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.