A colleague recently asked me to keep an eye open for any IT consulting engagements that I might be able to throw his way. I don’t mind obliging him because I have plenty of work to keep me busy, and I know that he would do an excellent job on any task to which he set his phenomenal mind. So, even though I regularly turn away potential business, why haven’t I found any work that would be right for my colleague?

The short answer is that he’s just too good. Many of the same reasons why I refuse consulting engagements for myself apply to him as well. Typically, these prospects want a consultant to provide a service that doesn’t lie within my area of expertise — so either they won’t be willing to pay my usual rate, or they’re likely to be disappointed with what they get for that rate. If I were truly interested to expand into that area of expertise, I might offer the client a reduced rate (or maybe a higher rate), but usually it’s something rather mundane that doesn’t interest me.

Granted, if I were really hungry for business (which, with the direction our economy seems to be taking, may happen someday), I’d be tempted to take anything I could get — just like I did in my early days of consulting. One time I took an engagement to figure out a problem a local realtor was having with their accounting system. I had previously managed the development of an accounting software package for CPAs, so I thought this would be a slam dunk project even though it only paid $40 an hour. As it turned out, the accounting package (which I’d never heard of before) was specifically designed for realtors, and the documentation was sadly lacking. I fouled it up worse than it had been before. I ended up having to cry “uncle” and restore their data from backup to get them back to where they were prior to my arrival. Of course I didn’t bill them, but what a waste of time for both of us.

I had one other experience like that before I finally realized that there’s such a thing as business you just shouldn’t take. When you stray well outside your area of expertise, you have very little to offer your client beyond your naive ingenuity. Even if you have no other business available, taking on an engagement like that will only use up your time on something you may not be able to collect on and probably tick off your client in the process.

So how do you align your abilities so that they meet the client needs that are available to you? I can think of at least two approaches, which are:

  • Broaden your horizons: Try to learn more about a lot of things. If you have many areas of knowledge, it provides a measure of career insurance because when someone asks, “Can you do XYZ?” you’re much more likely to be able to say, “Oh yeah, I know all about that.”
    Caution: Be careful not to spread yourself too thin — you can end up with a cursory knowledge about a lot of things but master none of them. Your rate and your clients’ satisfaction with your work will suffer as a result.
  • Deepen your expertise: Choose the area in which you want to become an expert, and then make yourself one. Unlike in previous generations, all the information you need is out there at your googletips — you simply need to commit to learning the topic deeply and participating in public discussions about it. This helps grow your potential client footprint because, when you build your reputation as an expert, clients start hunting for you (instead of the other way around).
    Caution: Be sure your niche has enough demand and won’t be obsolete soon. Even if you can bill $300 an hour for your services, it’s not much help if there aren’t enough clients out there to keep you moderately busy. It should also be something you can be passionate about.

Although these two approaches seem to be in conflict, a balanced combination of the two probably works best. If you have a deep knowledge and experience in a niche, this will drive business that pays very handsomely. On the other hand, you will be able to offer complete solutions (what engagement ever stays neatly within one domain?) and attract a larger potential client base if you have a broad knowledge of related areas.

Since you can’t learn all there is to know about everything, the real trick is in finding the right mix for you.

Get weekly consulting tips in your inbox
TechRepublic’s IT Consultant newsletter, delivered each Monday, offers tips on how to attract customers, build your business, and increase your technical skills in order to get the job done.
Automatically sign up today!