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Six tips for solving tough client problems

Stumped by a client's challenging technology problem? IT consultant Erik Eckel says following these six steps can help you solve even the most obscure issues.

There's no way an IT consultant can know everything clients demand. For instance, consider what my office has been asked to troubleshoot in just the past week: Cisco routers, SonicWALLs, MPLS interconnections, VoIP platforms, malware removal, Mac OS X, Windows servers, Linux servers, Exchange, SQL, SSL certificates, QuickBooks, proprietary third-party custom apps, and more. And yet, a consultant can never just punt -- successful consultants must prove capable of finding solutions.

So what can you do when clients invariably present challenges that your office is not immediately equipped to resolve? I find that following these six steps helps me solve even the most obscure issues.

1: Tell the truth

IT consultants should never pull their punches. If you're stumped about how to fix an IT problem, tell the client. No reasonable client should expect a technology partner to be able to solve every possible computer, network, cabling, telecommunications, server, software, and gadget problem.

2: Contact the vendor

I've occasionally been surprised to find my team an hour or two deep in attempting to solve a strange application issue, only to learn we never called the vendor. You should always begin troubleshooting errors by contacting the vendor when possible. Even if a support contract isn't in place, I've found that technical staff is often willing to help point us in the right direction. Sometimes the solution is to renew a technical support contract, too, and let the vendor install an upgrade that eliminates the error in question. You never know if you don't try.

3: Build a Rolodex

While physical Rolodexes are largely an antiquated accessory, the concept remains as strong as ever. It's critical that IT consultants build a strong Rolodex. Come across a Medisoft expert? Keep his name, number, and email address handy. Met an Access programmer? Add her contact information to your Contacts list. You never know when you're going to need to reach out to someone with such specialized expertise.

4: Maintain the Rolodex

I recommend periodically touching base with third parties who provide specialized services. For instance, you might occasionally take Act experts, QuickBooks certified professionals, developers, and others out to lunch, and learn how their business is going and what challenges they're facing. When the time comes that you need their skills, the relationship will be fresh (at least more fresh than the last time you saw them at a technical conference two years ago), and the two of you can hopefully get up to speed more quickly when knocking out a new project. Also, you might send some clients their way, and they may be able to return the favor.

5: Reach out to the technical community

When encountering a technology challenge for which your office isn't equipped to address, or when battling strange errors or issues that are proving maddening to track down, tap your IT brethren for help. Post notes (with as much detail as possible) on the online boards of technical sites such as TechRepublic's Forums. I've always been pleasantly surprised as to how much time and effort other technology professionals take to help one another solve issues, no matter how obscure.

6: Google it

Sometimes the answer you need is out there -- it's just really difficult to find. Google the issue (be sure to choose your keywords carefully), and dig deep into the results. I've found critical tips or actual answers 20-30 pages deep within a Google search before. Occasionally patience is required to slog through pages and pages of hits in an attempt to find the information you require. While you're eating lunch at your desk, it might be worth your time to search Google.

Related IT consultant posts on TechRepublic

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...

7 comments
jgirizarry
jgirizarry

Document everything: troubleshoot steps, results and resolution for future references.

theoctagon911
theoctagon911

Greetings; Nice article. I would like to add something please. A good consultant must be able to tell the client at a minimum what the problem is, even if they do not know how to fix it. However as you say, at least knowing what the problem is, someone somewhere out there will either have had this problem before, OR will be the one that has to physically fix it. All it takes is some dedicated research and a lot of reading. This makes the skills of isolating and identifying a problem a top priority in the skill box. Without methodical and thorough analysis of each unique situation, a solution would be impossible to find except for dumb luck. In a wrap, I would like to add a seventh item to your list: Isolate/Identify. Even if its placing it down to a particular application, module or card. At least you can save face and possibly earn competency points with your client by being able to tell them what the problem is. Between your honesty and the problems identity, a client is more prone to keep you heading up the project to its conclusion instead of bringing in the replacements.

ian
ian

even if you are a sole entity. You know how long a project should take and you probably know at what time you will reach a certain stage. If you are getting behind schedule, escalate to the owner, the vendor, a colleague, someone. The longer you take, the more frustrated you become and the less you can think straight. Get help. Keep a log as you work including every action taken, whether it was right or wrong. If the action was not the right one, learned from it. What did the action do, how did you recover from it, etc. It isn't just a case of knowing what to do, it's also a case of knowing what not to do - and WHY not to do it. Use a digital recorder from the oment you get onsite or start a project. If you work to a script or procedure, you only need record deviations from the procedure. I did this for twenty years in corporate BCP/DRP and continue to do so a consultant. It makes life so much easier when billing the client and creates a record for your database.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I often use Google as the first plan of attack. It's fast and it's free. But if I don't find a good lead on the answer pretty quickly, then I look at more time-consuming alternatives.

tbmay
tbmay

It's the new ones where this comes up. I'm honest with them. I'm a unix specialist but I support many Windows desktops. I will probably be able to get you a solution or solve your problems, but my rates are the same whether I'm doing something generally routine...aka malware removal...or I'm doing something I haven't specifically done before. I might discount the bill a bit if I think this is something I'll do again and I'll benefit from the research and digging; however, the client knows they're hiring me to solve a problem I may not have seen before. In fact, how do you get around solving problems you haven't seen before in IT? Nah. I'm a problem solver...not a "know-it-all"...if that's not what they want, they need to hire someone else. There's no shortage of people who will tell them the lies the want to hear. ;)

spawnywhippet
spawnywhippet

999,999 times out of a million I will use google and resolve the problem. The one time I call the vendor I will waste hours on the phone explaining the issue to script jockeys then finally get an escalation days or even weeks later, which may or may not fix the problem.