Back in 2001 when the first IT business bubble popped, Tom Rodenhauser noted that potential clients were getting pickier about who they hired, and he offered a list of nine probing questions that clients might ask before signing you on. It’s interesting how history is repeating itself, although this time around it’s more than just the IT industry that’s in trouble. Because everyone is trying to cut expenses, the economic downturn may even prove beneficial to IT consultants, if you can demonstrate that your services will save money over other alternatives.

For smart clients, the decision to hire a consultant should come down to a risk/benefit analysis. Every question they ask you will likely be a more specific version of, “How can we be sure that engaging your services will buy us more than it costs?” In practice, most interviewers are not that focused, and they’ll probably wander into all sorts of vaguely related topics. But it helps if you pretend that the interviewer knows what they’re doing and form your answers within the framework of, “Here’s how I can benefit you.”

With that in mind, here are seven questions prospective clients might ask you (some of the questions are from Tom’s list), along with my thoughts on how to answer them.

  • How long have you been in business?
    If you’ve been consulting for nearly 18 years as I have, then you may feel confident about spitting that number out. But what they’re really asking is, “Are we going to get halfway through this project and have you disappear to Bhutan to ‘find yourself’?” Your answer needs to communicate your comfort and commitment to your business — no matter how long you’ve been at it. The answer they want to hear is, “I’ve been very successful so far, and I intend to be doing this for a long time.” An important part of that is, “I’m committed to keeping faith with my clients and finishing what I start.”
    There’s also a potential downside to longevity; for instance, they may wonder: Have you become stale? Do you know much about the latest techniques and technologies? If you’re an old hand like me, you need to reassure them about these points. If you’re a youngster, you might be able to use it to your advantage.
  • How many people are in your firm?
    Lots of consultants are scared to death to answer this truthfully. Why? Because they think that the real question here is about credibility — that clients think only big firms know what they’re doing. It may also go back to reliability: “If we’re in a ditch and we call, will somebody answer?” But bigger firms can often move more slowly and have issues with communication and dropping the ball. They might have a few really smart people on board mixed with a lot of mediocre employees. Consulting groups also need to charge more for the same quality of work, because everybody in the firm has to get paid. I’ve learned to proudly answer, “One. You’re hiring me for my expertise, and you’ll get me and only me.”
  • What related work have you done?
    Paraphrase: “Will you know what you’re doing, or are we going to have to pay for your education — both in your time spent and in the mistakes you’ll inevitably make in your first encounter with this technology?” The operative word here is “related” — what’s related? Just because you know the programming language and platform doesn’t mean that you automatically understand how to solve the problem at hand. Conversely, just because you’ll need to come up to speed on some specific technology doesn’t mean that you should discount your experience in the problem domain. Don’t be shy, but answer truthfully — you don’t want to hide the real answer until the project fails.
  • What is your reputation in the industry?
    They’re looking for assurances that you’re not a charlatan. You should have been working to answer this question long before the interview. Letters of reference come in handy here, especially if they include specific stories of how you helped your client in ways that nobody else could. If you have published material online that’s relevant (open source projects, blogging on the subject, etc.), provide links. You want to demonstrate that you are not only considered knowledgeable, but that you are also actively engaged with the community — it shows that your interest runs deeper than consulting fees.
  • Do you guarantee your work?
    Translation: “If we don’t like it when you’re done, will you fix it for us?” Answer this one carefully. If you give a 100% unconditional guarantee of satisfaction, you might end up “fixing things” for the rest of your life. The client is trying to eliminate an entire category of risk in the project, but you don’t want to take all that risk on yourself. Here’s my recommended response: “Revisions and unforeseen requirements are a fact of life in our industry, and I bill by the hour. I’ll continue to work with you until you are satisfied, but I don’t work for free. However, if a failure is due purely to negligence on my part, of course, I’ll make it good.”
  • Can you give us a firm estimate?
    Again, the client is trying to eliminate a risk — this time it’s the unknown cost of the project. My answer: “Sure, but it will cost you. If you want a fixed price, I’ll be forced to estimate very high in order to cover my risk. You’ll get the best value if we stick with an hourly rate and let the estimate be just that.”
  • Can you provide a detailed breakdown of hours and expenses?
    They want to make sure you won’t pad your hours, so they want to know exactly what you were doing when. The right answer is, “Yes, to any level of detail you require.” Then go one step further and say, “And I won’t initiate any new activity without your approval.” If they want to grant you broader decision-making powers, that’s up to them.

If you can minimize the perceived risks, you remove a client’s biggest objection to hiring you. But don’t get carried away with securing the engagement to the point where you take on too many of those risks yourself. It’s only good business if everyone’s happy when the project is complete — including you.

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