Technology consulting is a challenge, particularly when inheriting a new client so hot and bothered with the old IT partner they can't be in the same room without coming to blows. That's always fun.
Critical issues (Exchange has failed, backups don't work, the accountant can't print payroll checks, a customer database is corrupt, etc.) arise, and your firm steps in to help, but wait: no administrator account credentials are available. You can't log in to even begin troubleshooting an issue.
It gets better: The previous IT firm is no longer answering calls from this client and, when you finally get through to someone at the consultancy, they want to know where their outstanding $14,743 is the client is holding up as part of a contentious dispute.
As we say in my office, you need to suck it up, sunshine. IT consulting isn't for the timid. But there are steps all IT consultancies can take to smooth over transitions, regardless of the reason for the service provider change.
1: Provide all documentation
When completing work for a client, you should provide complete documentation. It doesn't need to be fancy — even passing them a simple Word document will suffice. The documentation should include WAN IP addresses and LAN IP addresses for critical networks and systems, such as servers, routers, access points, and similar equipment. The most important information you should provide the client is administrator usernames and passwords.
Legally, when a bill is in dispute, who knows? But ethically and morally, it's the client's systems and data. This information is really their "property," if you will. Besides, your office has bigger problems if its business strategy is to retain clients by withholding critical network information. The kinds of consultancies that do that are the ones whose clients are calling my office and asking that we get an engineer onsite to help them sever the relationship and instead become our client.
2: Play peacemaker
You'll find yourself caught in the middle between a new client who says they've already paid money to another tech firm to solve a problem, and the other tech firm that swears it did everything in its power to help this short-sighted, overly demanding, technology-investment-neglecting client. Sometimes the client is right; sometimes the old IT firm is right. Oftentimes, both make good cases.
Your job as the new consultant inheriting the current mess is to help the client maximize its technology investment and efficiencies and improve operations and productivity, all without sacrificing best business practices. That means you must adopt the role of peacemaker between the two warring parties.
My advice is don't be quick to cast blame. Maybe the old IT provider was handcuffed because an underpowered server is all the client was willing to purchase. Or maybe the reason network issues persist is the old IT firm was too stupid to determine they'd deployed two competing DHCP servers on the same network.
If the previous IT provider sold the client equipment the client needed, encourage the client to promptly pay the overdue bill. If the old IT provider, however, failed to meet HIPAA standards or satisfy other project requirements, document those failures to help the client fairly settle an outstanding balance.
The point is you don't know all of the details, so you need to be diplomatic, patient, and willing to listen. The more you listen to both sides, and the more information you collect, the better your office will be able to make peace, isolate issues to their fundamental causes, and ultimately implement solutions.
3: Respect the spurned
Because the two parties are often no longer talking, you'll likely need to contact the old IT firm. By explaining your predicament and admitting the current client has some "issues" (assuming that's true), it will win trust between your two offices, in which case a spirit of cooperation can build a bridge and help your firm pick up where they left off.
If the previous IT group did a good job, share that with the client. Then, make sure the old IT firm, upon whom you're likely still dependent for administrative logins, background proprietary knowledge transfer, and other potentially unique and esoteric information, knows you've put in the good word. Don't underestimate the importance of this step. For larger projects, I even try to take the old IT provider to lunch on our dime as a gesture of goodwill.
Be aware, however, that if you throw the other group under the bus from the start you're only hurting yourself. Don't expect the old firm to then provide any assistance logging in to a router it deployed, troubleshooting a legacy SAN, or making sense of a virtualized server farm. Your office will be on its own and may have to wipe router configurations and rebuild VPNs from scratch.
You should consider that the other consultants probably tried hard to address the client's issues — sometimes personality conflicts arise, and occasionally relationships go south. Consultants with five to ten years of full-time consulting experience typically learn, over time, that the old consulting group wasn't as ignorant as they thought; often the client is responsible for the client's own issues. Keeping that in mind can help turn other competing tech firms into allies instead of enemies.
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.