While growth opportunities exist for independent consultants, recessionary environments require that IT professionals carefully plan investments, resources, and initiatives. Intuit’s financial software application sales, for example, are performing well despite the economic downturn. But it doesn’t necessarily make sense for an IT consultancy to dedicate its entire focus to becoming a QuickBooks shop just because that segment is showing some life. Instead, it may make more sense to add those skills as an additional, complementary competency. Nor should IT consultants make rash decisions concerning other aspects of their business.

Here are actions IT consultants can implement to survive downturns and better manage financial storms.

#1: Focus on the client

When the economy sours, client satisfaction becomes paramount. Forging long-term relationships with clients, in which their specific needs and objectives come first, will help you stand a much better chance of prospering.

Even when PC and server shipments drop, businesses and charities still upgrade and replace older equipment and add new systems and software. By earning clients’ trust, you become a business partner during good times and bad.

When listening to clients’ needs, truly listen. If a client suggests he needs to update a CRM platform, refine a database, or smooth e-mail communications, don’t interpret that as the client saying he needs three new 64-bit servers loaded with quad-core CPUs to power the corresponding back end. Instead, the client is saying he has a problem that needs fixing. Remember that it may be possible to leverage existing equipment and systems, tweak network or firewall settings, or maybe just upgrade software applications, as opposed to replacing the entire infrastructure.

#2: Market your business at all times

People can’t hire you if they don’t know what you do. While it sounds simple, it’s amazing how often businesses miss opportunities to promote themselves.

For example, do you ever use a restaurant’s pen to sign the credit card receipt for dinner? Why do the pens waiters and waitresses hand you so often promote an insurance office or bank instead of their own establishment?

To brand yourself, always carry business cards and put professional logos on your vehicles. Visit local EmbroidMe and SIGNARAMA franchises for help promoting your business, whether you need signs, decals, briefcases and attaches, clothing, or more.

#3: Treat yourself as a client

Ask yourself what advice you’d give your organization if you were hired to help solve its problems. Really… you should try it.

Would you recommend continuing to run Exchange, SQL Server, your test software environments, Remote Web Workplace, Outlook Web Access, file and print services, your company’s Web site, your organization’s SharePoint site, and Intranet, fax services, and more on your aging Pentium-powered server with 1 GB RAM? Or would you tell the client there’s nothing you can do to help until they upgrade their dangerously obsolete equipment?

#4: Leverage your investments

Be reasonable with expenses and ensure any investment has a direct tie to fueling existing business, generating new revenue, or reducing operating costs.

If you don’t know the exact return a significant new hardware, software, or systems investment will provide, sit down with trusted employees and/or advisors to review the expense. The toughest recession since the 1930s is no time to overextend the company’s finances, but it’s also no reason to forego carefully considered investments that can better position your organization for growth and success.

#5: Maintain your skills

Sure, maintaining your skills is easier said than done, but it’s critical to your success.

New technologies — including new Linux distributions and Microsoft server and desktop operating system platforms — will prove critical to the success of your consulting and contracting organization. Many clients will request information on such new releases, and these new systems could be the best fit for solving a variety of clients’ issues. Thus, it’s essential that you become familiar with the features and capabilities of new technologies. It’s also important that you learn the limitations, bugs, and workarounds inherent in all new systems.

There are a variety of sources to help maintain your knowledge, but you should start by researching vendor options.

Microsoft offers partners the Microsoft Action Pack Subscription (MAPS) program, which provides registered partners with internal-use, full-version software. Consultants can load new operating systems and applications on test machines to obtain first-hand experience installing, configuring, and troubleshooting important new products. In addition, Microsoft includes sales and marketing materials and tools in MAPS.

Training providers can prove helpful, too. If your personality is better matched to learning new material in a structured classroom environment, check out technology training classes in your area. You’re likely to find local colleges, technical schools, and other training providers who offer targeted instruction. New Horizons and ITT Technical Institute are two options.

Computer-based training is another option. Several respected companies, including CBT Nuggets, PrepLogic, and SkillSoft, offer products to help you train at your own pace.

#6: Keep your regular rates

Deflation is more often associated with an economic depression, as opposed to a recession. IT consultants have very real costs associated with their businesses (computers, fleet leases, Internet connectivity, mobile phones, accounting services, electricity, office rent, etc.). Don’t panic and lower rates. If your organization doesn’t cover its costs of conducting business, it cannot survive tough economies. Committing to client satisfaction, marketing creatively, and guarding expenses are among the best methods any organization can employ to succeed.

#7: Strengthen vendor relationships

You shouldn’t underestimate the importance of strong vendor relationships, particularly those providing general IT support and services. Consultants receive a serious competitive advantage when they can customize systems, fulfill orders quickly, and receive attractive pricing or discounted support services.

Vendors are much more likely to negotiate discounts and package deals during periods of recession, too. Strong long-term vendor relationships are just as important as long-term client relationships. Without flexible vendor relationships (which are built over time), you’ll find options for assisting their clients limited.

That’s not to say you should just start taking vendors to lunch. Instead, you should take time to contact sales representatives and vendor account executives to learn what’s new in the pipeline, what promotions and pricing strategies are becoming more important for the vendor, and what trends the vendor is noticing and/or tracking. By knowing a vendor’s needs and by becoming more familiar with important vendors’ products, services, and challenges, you can learn how a vendor’s products or services (and any unique benefits and advantages) might best address and solve clients’ needs.

#8: Choose niches carefully

IT consultants often target a specific niche, such as physicians’ offices, manufacturing firms, or energy companies. Software developers may not have a choice; the platform they develop may be so specialized that’s their only real outlet.

But if you have a choice, you should consider expanding your market focus to include multiple vertical industries. By targeting clients across a variety of industries, you can better insulate yourselffrom the effects of economic recession. Many Windows consultants, for example, are finding their services remain in demand. That’s a common factor, after all; dentists, physicians, manufacturing firms, and restaurants all are among those segments largely using Windows.

While not all consultants can target multiple industries, those who can should — now more so than ever.

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