Consultants often work themselves out of a job. By introducing timesaving strategies, software, systems, and processes, a consultant’s job—by its very nature—is to create a self-sufficient client.

But a consultant also has to look out for “number one.” The trick for consultants is to balance the interests of the clients with their own career and business concerns.

We recently asked our IT consultant audience how to balance self-interest with client service. TechRepublic members responded with tales of clients who have taken advantage of their expertise and who didn’t appreciate their talents. Most members said, though, that even when clients don’t value quality work, keeping a balance between their own concerns and the needs of the client usually pays off in the long run. We’ve culled a sampling of our readers’ comments for you. Read on to find out if your attitudes match your fellow consultants’.

Give your two cents…

If you have something to say, join the discussion and tell us how you strike a balance between fulfilling your responsibilities as a consultant and giving your clients enough help so that they won’t need your services anymore.

Working yourself out of work pays off in the long run
Uma Maheswar Desu, a consultant-turned-sales-manager from New York, said he always tries to give the client the best value, regardless of their motives.

For instance, he said he once worked on a project where the client was happy with his performance until the two had a disagreement. From that point forward, the client insisted on being trained in every aspect of the project. Desu used his personal time to train the client, and after three months, the client fired him.

Desu said that the experience didn’t dissuade him from giving his future clients the best training he could offer. For example, he indicated that he doesn’t stretch out work for his benefit when a client can learn a task in a day’s time. Though his ethics have forced him to move from job to job often, “I never had any dearth of referrals,” he said.

Most members agreed that while offering great service can often result in the end of a client contract, in due course, quality work pays high dividends.

TechRepublic member Dr. Larry Castle, a consultant with Pegasus Asset Management, Inc., in Milton, FL,builds business continuity and disaster recovery plans for corporations. He said working himself out of work means that he’s fully accomplished his engagement. Lee Winston, an independent consultant from Houston, agreed and said consultants can’t expect to “get by milking individual clients.” If you try that, you can seriously damage your reputation.

“You have to keep the longer term issues—e.g., your reputation—in mind during every interaction with every client,” he said. “That’s how you become known as useful and valuable.”

While it may seem counterintuitive, member Dan L. Marks said his 30 years in the IT industry have taught him that those who attempt to keep themselves employed by a client by making themselves indispensable to a project will, in the long run, find it difficult to get and keep clients.

Marks is an independent software consultant and owner of Logos Systems in Cedar Rapids, IA. He said he has learned many valuable lessons through his own experience and by watching other consultants. Marks sent a few of his “lessons learned” in an e-mail to TechRepublic:

  • No consultant can cover all of the niches in the software industry.
  • There are only a finite number of employers/managers in any given niche of the software market.
  • Managers, in any area of the market, network. They have a good idea of who is doing what, with which consultants, and how a project is going.
  • If you leave a bad taste in a manager’s mouth, not only will your reputation be tarnished, but the bad experience will also be telegraphed to every other manager in his or her network.
  • When you put a client’s best interest first, you make the manager of that project look good and enhance his professional prestige and reputation. The manager will then communicate good things about your services to their network.

Clients need to make the best use of the consultant
Winston said it’s important that the clients be willing to take on responsibilities that he’s overqualified for, like simple administrative duties, to benefit from his time. Those clients are usually the ones who appreciate his abilities and can “take advantage of a shifted focus toward productivity enhancement and user training in other areas,” he said. “The trick is finding the clients who understand and appreciate this prospect, so I don’t get phased out and they get better use of my time and skills.”

Member Al Brana, consultant and president of Resonant Systems, Inc., in Palm Harbor, FL, agreed and said some clients just can’t bring themselves to learn from the consultant. He said a client he’s been working with for three years recently had a shift in management that changed his relationship with them.

“This new team has not shown any interest in learning or soliciting any advice from me,” he said. “They’re just wasting my time and their money. …I feel my time would be better spent looking for a client who could really use my expertise.”

Survival depends on successful project completion
Gerry Bourke, a business consultant with Bivans Enterprizes in Orlando, FL, said he became a consultant so that he could work on challenging projects with lots of different entities without “having the employee tag.” Therefore, his goal has always been to make himself redundant on every project by bringing the existing staff up to efficiency.

“My survival as a consultant relies on project completion both within time and budget, in my mind the budget being the estimated project cost and also the oft-hidden long-term management costs,” he said. “For each successful completion…I have found that the recall rate for new projects is high and the ‘boys club’ network of referral is extremely lucrative.”

Carl Galante, a software project manager and technical lead for Texas NCS Learn in Mesa, AZ, said it’s important to educate your clients because more capable customers are better able to see the next step or the service you offer that may help them accomplish their long-term goals. Besides, he said, “how long do you want to do the same thing yourself rather than train your client to do it and move on?”

Advice from the members
Two members provided advice to make sure your interests are served along with the client’s. Veloce said one way to ensure you aren’t taken advantage of is to carefully define the scope of work before being engaged on a contract.

“In practice, this often cannot happen up front as clients do not know what they want but should be possible to do as the project progresses and the scope becomes clear,” veloce said.

Galante urged consultants to continue their educations and stay on technology’s cutting edge so they’re always two steps ahead of their clients.

“If you are as good as you think you are, there will always be things you understand…that cannot be easily taught to the client,” he said. “You should make sure you are always moving forward so that remains true.”

Veloce also advised that consultants “lay all the cards on the table,” even if it means you’ll be put out of work.

“It’s the professional thing to do and gives assurance to the client that you have their interest at heart.”