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.
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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.