You may be one of the best IT consultants in town, but if no one knows about you, it's impossible to ever be successful. So how exactly do you build a reputation?
The obvious (and most simplistic) answer is to do good work. You should also: be honest and responsible; solve actual problems instead of imagined ones; look out for your client's best interests; and complete each job. Every time you follow these basic tenets of being a good IT consultant, your reputation improves.
As the Billie Holiday song "God Bless The Child" goes, them that's got shall get -- but what if you're one of them that's not? Here are six strategies that can give your IT consulting career a leg up.
#1: Word of mouthMost of my clients learned about me by word of mouth; this is the oldest and, in my opinion, the most effective channel. Think about all the people who know about your abilities: former employers, former coworkers, classmates from college, and current and former clients. Ask some of them if they'll give you a recommendation, or if they know anyone who is looking for an IT consultant. (Do not cold call or spam people you don't know, or send uninvited copies of your resume without a recommendation from someone the client already knows. It's a waste of time.)
A number of readers of the TechRepublic IT Consultant blog consider themselves "jacks-of-all-trades," but the continuation of that saying holds a lot of truth: "master of none." You may cultivate a reputation for being the go-to guy or gal to fix any problem that comes up, but you can only take that role so far. To really drive up your demand, become an expert in one specific area. You should select a topic/field that you're passionate about because you need to immerse yourself in it day and night. Ideally, you want to know practically everything you can about the topic and be able to contribute your innovations, while maintaining a good general knowledge of all related fields.
#3: Web site
You must have an Internet presence -- you're in IT for crying out loud. When potential clients search online to find authoritative help, you want them to be able to find you. Web sites that are updated frequently (such as blogs) tend to get a better search engine ranking. Blogs are great for another reason: You can establish a level of authority on a specific topic by researching and frequently writing about it. If people who are considered authorities in your field start linking to you, this enhances your authority.
Read blogs and forums that discuss your specialty (and related topics) and comment frequently. Link to them from your blog, and make sure you pingback or trackback so that your thoughts get included in the conversation. The more you think about and discuss your specialty with others in the field, you'll build a better reputation -- and rightly so, because you will have learned a lot in the process.
#5: Free samples
If you really want to convince people of your worth, post examples of your work on your Web site. This doesn't apply very well to networking or security consultants, but it really works for software. If people learn something from your site, and they use it, like it, and marvel at the simple elegance of its design, they'll probably want to hire you for related projects in the future.
The ultimate level of reputation you can achieve is to be the person who helped create the technology the client wants to use. While this may disqualify some potential clients because they can't afford your price, it's a nice problem to have. Believe me, there will be plenty of other clients who can't get enough of you. Insider status used to be extremely difficult to achieve in packaged software -- it still is for proprietary software, where you basically have to be an employee or a long-term contractor to gain that experience. If you get involved in an open-source project, you can easily become an insider on one of the products that drive development these days. Pick your product well, though, because you'll be spending a lot of time working with it.
How do you build your reputation?
These methods have worked well for me, but I bet there are many more strategies for building your reputation than those I listed. What tips would you add to my list?
Tips on improving your reputation
If you already have a reputation, but it could use some sprucing up, check out these must-read TechRepublic resources.
Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant blog, he also contributes to [Geeks Are Sexy] Technology News and his two personal blogs, Chip's Quips and Chip's Tips for Developers.