Last year when 18-year-old Tyler Dikman received national recognition for his Tampa, FL, consulting firm, which earned more than $1 million in gross sales, the focus was on the high school diploma he had just earned.

Dikman, who started his home-based business, CoolTronics, by selling and setting up a computer and printer for a neighbor, said that his ability to talk to clients—not his technical experience—set him apart from other consultants.

While Dikman’s experience may be atypical of how a consultant can rise to the top—earning a partnership with Dell, regular radio appearances, and even a speaking engagement at Comdex last year—one point is not lost: The foundation of this young man’s success is rooted in serving a residential customer base.

“I literally got started by going down the street on my scooter, offering to fix computers in the neighborhood,” said Dikman, who began his venture when he was 15.

It may not cram your pockets with cash, give way to major corporate contracts, or earn you extraordinary industry acclaim, but helping a home user e-mail distant friends, free a PC from a virus, or connect disparate computers is the type of technical relief desperately needed by the neophyte.

Providing consumer or residential consulting services as part or all of a technical consulting business is not for everyone. High levels of customer service ability, sensitivity, patience, attention to detail, and salesmanship are needed to serve this market. But expanding to consumers provides an additional revenue stream and can help in building additional commercial clients.

Several consumer consultants offered their advice on which elements must be considered in the residential consulting market.

First impressions
While you may have several occasions to impress the commercial client during a series of meetings or via correspondence, the consumer client makes decisions based on talking with you for just a few moments, said Aaron Woodin of PC Ventures Computer Consulting in White Plains, NY.

Woodin, who spent seven years at a commercial help desk before going full-time last year with his business, said that when a potential customer calls, he’s polite, patient, and refrains from using jargon.

“I’ve had customers tell me that the reason I was hired was because as soon as I picked up the phone, they liked the way I sounded,” he said.

Consumers are fickle, and don’t always make hiring decisions based on the same criteria as commercial clients. They want to hire someone who puts them at ease, can translate technical concepts into layman’s terms, is trustworthy, and appears qualified.

Attention to customer service
Besides a personable attitude, convenience, cost, and time are what guides most consumers’ spending. A brief evaluation of their computer needs is essential, so that you can give an accurate price estimate.

The most common questions asked, usually over the phone, include:

  • What type of computer and operating system are you using?
  • For troubleshooting: What types of error messages are occurring? Describe what is happening (or not) to your computer.
  • For hardware setups: What do you wish to be the end result?
  • In the case of software training: What are you hoping to learn? Why?
  • What kind of Internet connection do you have?
  • What is your level of computer experience?
  • What is the best time of day to schedule a visit?

Personal contact over the phone, not e-mail, said Mac consultant Michelle Dollinger of MacMoxie in New York, is the best way for her to work with potential customers, so she can explain what services she can provide for their money.

“It’s such a better opportunity. When I get people on the phone, I can explain, ‘I am familiar with that problem,’ or ‘we can streamline this or that,'” said Dollinger. “But when I just e-mail my rates back, they never call.”

Once Dollinger schedules a session with a customer, she sends a confirmation e-mail a day or so in advance that lists her understanding of what the computing needs are, which services she will be providing, her cancellation policy, and the payment structure. This helps the customer to know what to expect and how the process will work.

Both Dollinger and Woodin make themselves available during nonbusiness hours as a benefit to their customers. “My ads say I am available 24/7, and I am,” Woodin said. “I’ve been called pretty late at night sometimes. And even then, I shake off the grogginess and do my best to help the client.”

Attention to detail also includes arriving prepared. Consultants say they bring along extra Ethernet cables, power cords and adapters, networking cards, extra memory, a CD burner, and antivirus apps, updates, and patches when possible to assure they have equipment and information on hand. “That’s why I don’t have to go back to places very often,” Dollinger said.

New rate and billing practices
The biggest difference between commercial and consumer consulting is the hourly rate. Most consultants charge between $50 and $90 per hour for home training, troubleshooting, or hardware or software fixes. The bonus is that payment is usually received on completion of the service, so there are far fewer unpaid invoices to chase.

An hourly minimum is not uncommon; Dollinger charges a two-hour minimum for training and a one-hour minimum for troubleshooting and hardware fixes. Woodin bills by the quarter hour so that customers know he is conscientious of their time and money.

Working with a residential customer can also mean a shift in how you accept payments. Besides checks and cash, Steven Taylor, president of Taylor-Made Training in New York, also accepts credit cards as an option, meaning fewer defaulted payments.

From consumers to commercial clients
The other side of consumer consulting’s typically lower hourly rate is that satisfied customers can introduce new business consulting opportunities, where the rates can be between 10 and 50 percent higher depending on the job, and can consist of more hours or longer-term contracts.

One satisfied customer, who hired Dikman’s firm to network several home computers and set up a new PC, led to an engagement installing high-speed Internet service, a network, and security features to the customer’s medical business.

Dikman’s commercial fee is about 18 percent higher than his residential hourly rate, and because of the higher pay and longer hours, the business customers—which account for a third of the company’s client base—make up half of the company’s revenues.

“The consumers are so important because they are the ones who refer us to the businesses,” Dikman said. “Or the consumers are the ones who own the businesses and tell us to come over to the office and fix a computer while we’re at it.”

Change in marketing strategy
Finding consumer customers requires a shift in marketing strategy. While word of mouth garners the greatest number of new clients for any consulting firm, a consistent consumer advertising effort can help introduce your company to the new market. Finding out what they read, where they shop, and what they buy can help you tailor your message and decide where to locate it.

For example, regular print ads that Taylor buys in the New York Times and Yellow Pages lend credibility to his services and keep him visible.

Monthly visits to the downtown Apple retail store in Manhattan, where Dollinger drops off brochures and business cards, has consistently earned her a solid client base from the store’s referrals. A retail partnership between Woodin and a local electronics repair shop, where he has posted a storefront sign and his information, has netted him three referrals.

Respect for individual privacy
Making customers comfortable with your presence in their home and sometimes even in their bedroom, where computers are often located, is a priority, said Woodin. He arrives neatly dressed, always offers to remove his shoes at the front door, and is extremely polite and deferential to the client.

“All those things are small, but they add up to a big picture. And in any business, getting the details right is what counts ultimately,” he said.

Respect for an individual or a family’s privacy is also a top concern, and consultants handle everything from unpleasant or tense situations to personal discussions and arguments the same way: with no comment, or an offer to remove one’s self from the situation. For instance, late one evening a customer of Woodin’s called in a panic because his PC had locked up. When Woodin arrived, it was clear the customer’s drive was unrecoverable, and that the data, most of which belonged to his wife, had not been backed up. She was so angry that she could barely speak to her husband or Woodin.

When conflicts occur, he usually asks the customer if there is a better time when he could return. “In other peoples’ homes, you are privy to things their neighbors or close friends wouldn’t see,” he noted.

Surprising types of files and file names also crop up, and the approach is the same, said Dollinger. “People keep things on their home computer that they wouldn’t at work. I often come across files that are sensitive, and I just don’t comment.”