It's fair for clients to expect IT consultants to support a number of technologies, but you shouldn't have to cover them all in the same contract. You know what I'm talking about — the client where every piece of hardware and software is different. There's no standardization on hardware, software, or even the network. It's a mix-and-match Tupperware party, but none of the lids fit.
When you're on their clock, every problem takes too long to troubleshoot and resolve, regardless of your credentials and experience. It isn't your fault, but the client complains when you hang around too long — they don't pay you to "look stuff up," they pay you to fix stuff.
The best gift you can give yourself and, ultimately, your client is the gift of standardization; talking them into the process is often (okay, always) a hard sell. Initially, standardization takes time and money. It can be difficult to convince a client that they will save money in the end. If your fees are typical — from $135 to $300 an hour — your client is already spending a lot of money just on you and that doesn't count production downtime.
If it sounds like I'm trying to talk you out of work, I'm not. If you can talk this client into standardizing equipment and software, they're going to use your services to make all that happen. Depending on the company's budget, standardization could take months or even a few years. Afterward, they'll want you around for general maintenance and upgrades. You'll make money, and your client will save money in higher productivity. It's one of those economic enigmas that's hard to quantify, but it's real nonetheless.
Start by auditing all the equipment: model, operating system, software, current service packs, and so on. If you repair equipment, help the client organize their purchase and warranty records. You should do this to save you time on calls, even if the client decides not to standardize right now.
After helping your client determine their hardware and software needs, you should inform them that they can save a lot of money by purchasing new equipment all at once (this is a deal that you would broker). Few businesses will have the budget to do this. You might advise them to lease new equipment, but you'll need the company's bean counter to weigh in on that kind of decision. Just let them know it's an option and offer to do the research. For the right company, leasing can help them acquire the latest and greatest technology quickly while spreading the cost over the lease period. A few years later, they can trade it all in and start over (with your input).
More likely, you'll help this client decide on the hardware and software that gets the job done and allows for reasonable growth, while meeting their unrealistic budget. As money allows, you'll help them purchase and install new equipment and software. You might even get in some training dollars.
In the meantime, you'll have to maintain their Tupperware mess, but eventually, the balance will shift, and you'll be called less and less to stomp out their little fires — but, you'll still be sending them bills. When the head honchos see how smoothly things are running, they'll want you to consult on standardizing policy to keep their shop standardized. It's an endless loop, and you just wrote yourself in. You're still working, and your client is happy, which is perhaps the best prize of all. Happy clients are your best public relations tool — they will send you new business much quicker than standard advertising. Word of mouth works.
Standardizing is good for everyone, if you can just get the client to do it.
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Susan Sales Harkins is an IT consultant, specializing in desktop solutions. Previously, she was editor in chief for The Cobb Group, the world's largest publisher of technical journals.