Networking optimize

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

About

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...

10 comments
tbmay
tbmay

My personal opinion.... Some customers are trying to set you up to take full responsibility for all their problems by hiring you to do something small in the first place. "He touched it once, so he owns it. I'll control him with guilt trips, and string him along with possible work we might do in the future." As long as they think they can successfully pull that off, why would they put a dime in to investing in their systems? Cynical? Maybe. But I've fallen in to the trap in the past I've noticed lots of others have of being someone's free help desk because I did some minimal thing for them once. Newsflash....people are not honest. Maybe it's subconscious on their part. Maybe it's intentional. I don't know. From the perspective of my own ability to make a living, it doesn't matter. So....the questions we have to ask are: 1. Can these people be brought to a point of seeing the value in maintaining their I.T. systems? 2. Is it worth your time and heart-ache if they don't, but still feel entitled to your making everything right for them for free...or "all-but" free? I finally decided on a clear answer to number 2. No. As far as number 1, I don't want to paint every business owner with the same brush; however, people with no understanding of your skills rarely value them. Bottom line, I'm making it clear that the only way I'm assuming any responsibility for their systems is if they have an agreement with me that makes me more or less a part-time employee. Otherwise, their downtime is my opportunity to make money. And it's insult to injury from their perspective. I HATE that model of business, it puts us at odds, and it all but guarantees I'm going to eventually have to deliver bad news, and demand payment for it. I've tried to get customers to hire me to just take care of everything, and they just simply don't want to do it. They see it much like an insurance policy when they are cash strapped. The service industry in general is a tough one work in.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

"I can understand your putting off upgrades, especially in this economy, but if you want to move forward now we're going to need to take some pretty big steps."

Erik Eckel
Erik Eckel

Tbmay, these are great and thoughtful comments. Thanks for sharing. I agree, if a client doesn't see the value of following best business practices, paying for required upgrades, etc., long term the relationship may well turn sour. Instead of part time employee I believe the client really needs to view the IT consultant as a partner, not just someone to complain to when their nine-year old Windows 2000 server with a failing RAID array fails to provide reliable service.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

...of your reply to their request? "Sure, I'll have an offer ready by then and then" or "Sure, when can I come look at the systems/specs/whatever so I can prepare an offer?" Some people will have the nerve to ask for a freebie, and then that's up to you and your feeling whether and how you accept it, but some will not have the nerve to do other than claim they intended to pay for the service all along. Backing out will threaten loss of face. It also underlines that you are not in fact acting under an existing agreement or contract - you will make an offer, and they will accept or decline. They then will have the option of finding someone else, but they know they'll have to pay the other ones too, and they don't know the quality they'll get. It's an interesting dilemma you outline; either they pay you for their downtime, or they pay you for their up-time... either way they feel bad about it. I wonder if there's a way to handle that problem. Maybe something can be achieved by comparing to SaaS products; Service as a Service - if there was a program which would keep their systems healthier and their efficiency from degrading over time, would they prefer to use a yearly/monthly plan or a pay-per-use plan?

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Some people, though luckily not all, may see the you and we to mismatch, seeing it to underline that their expense is another's (the consultant's) opportunity. That's a thought it's best to leave uninvoked. For some clients it might be better to highlight the risk instead; "I can understand your putting off upgrades, especially in this economy, but it will be costly to let the systems start to fail before upgrading."

tbmay
tbmay

Permission to use? ;)

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Though I haven't followed you with a fine-toothed comb, I feel that your writing is much improved lately.

tbmay
tbmay

....than mine has been though. Even if they follow through, they still resent it though. You nailed it in your last paragraph. When I started my business I was excited. My credibility with my former employer and co-workers was outstanding, and I, in fact WE, thought because there was a need, the business would flourish. Consumer Behavior 101: People don't want to buy what they need. They buy what they want.

tbmay
tbmay

Very useful.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

that's another potential road over this chasm, and it ties in with the offer-approach : Most people want to be seen as upstanding, lantern-jawed, fair-dealing icons of trustworthiness. Even if they also want to get stuff without paying for it. It's tricky, but with mannerism it's possible to appeal to this "positive" self-image, rather than the more egotistical one. The trick lies in presenting your expectations in ways that point to a (non-existent) atmosphere of fair and honest dealing between the two of you. A bond which may have no actual basis in fact, but by presenting that it exists, they may feel themselves wish that it did. They may find that it feels good to be the Big Shot who deals each one their fair award. Even better than being the Sneaky Fox who gets each one to do more than they're paid for. Then again, some people have no such positive needs, which in itself is useful to know, eh?