Same conversation, different client

Don't be blase when dealing with clients' major system upgrades. It may be just another day on the job for you, but for the client it's personal.

The volatile economy is prompting many businesses to delay important systems, network, and software upgrades. That's understandable. However, hardware, applications, and network equipment still possess finite service lives and, when neglected too long, critical platforms fail. As one of my business partners likes to say, hope alone isn't a sustainable business strategy.

For technology consultants, this means an increase in encounters with frustrated clients who held off on system upgrades for too long and now must make significant and typically disruptive upgrades quickly. To make matters worse, best business practices, such as properly licensed servers, professional antivirus, and sound backup strategies, have been overlooked, too.

It's similar to a physician meeting a 60-year-old sedentary patient who has been eating a high cholesterol diet and smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for 40 years asking why they aren't feeling energetic and healthy. But while a physician can't build a new body, IT consultants can architect new networks and systems.

Even though you or another consultant has probably diagnosed the same obsolescence and fundamental failures that led to current issues numerous times and seen almost identical circumstances in the past, remember that the client hasn't been in this situation before. Each client is unique and doesn't understand or respect that the issues they are experiencing may be similar to those other businesses or organizations are encountering. To a client, it's personal.

The most important and sometimes overlooked key to success in this situation is patience, especially when you're answering the client's most basic of technology questions. This can be a challenge for some technology professionals, who are often stereotyped as socially challenged and intolerant of those unable to memorize esoteric facts, such as IP addresses and system prompt command switches. Consultancies will be best served dispatching the most seasoned and professional staff to review a client's troublesome systems and present recommendations for correcting neglect and other fundamental issues.

For instance, a technically brilliant though socially awkward engineer might take one look at a medical client's network and say, "Yeah, I'm not surprised you're having trouble incorporating your cloud-based CRM app. I can't believe you can even get your business on the 'net using that crappy Linksy router. What the #$@%! were you thinking? And connecting six-year-old Dell Dimensions with P4s running XP? #$!@!! man, I'm surprised you've stayed in business as long as you have." (Okay, let's hope he at least wouldn't curse.)

You must develop constructive methods of repeatedly advising clients how to correct these issues while maximizing the tech investments clients must make. The client instead needs to hear, "Yes, I can imagine users are experiencing difficulty leveraging your business' new CRM investments. If we could upgrade these desktops, which exceed intended lifecycles, with business-grade machines and drop in a commercial-grade router to harden your network and better meet HIPAA intrusion auditing recommendations, that'll make quite a difference. The time staff saves with the new PCs, leveraging the CRM app and waiting for screens to load can be better used, ultimately, treating patients." You better believe the client would notice the difference between the approaches and would respond better to this one.

The next time you catch yourself breezing through highly technical details to the client, remind yourself that each client is unique. You should tactfully explain that systems and infrastructure can't be neglected for years without having to pay the piper and requires that their business objectives and benefits be directly matched to any recommended IT upgrades. The simple act of you being patient can go a long way to cementing a long-term relationship with the client.

Also read: Tips on delivering bad news to clients


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 o...

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