I regard my research habits—or doing my homework—as the source of success in both my consulting and my writing careers. Just as everyone wants a doctor, lawyer, or accountant that keeps abreast of the current developments in her field of expertise, so it is also with a consultant. Continuing education is a fundamental requirement for entry into these fields, and the folks who gravitate to them usually engage in research out of sincere interest and passion for the field.

I spend a lot of time—even on weekends—surfing the Web and perusing a bottomless stack of trade magazines and manuals to learn as much as I can about my clients and my industry. All the best consultants I know do the same. In this column, I’ll explain why it’s so important to conduct the appropriate research before engaging a client, and I’ll offer my tips for a fruitful research endeavor.

Don’t go in without a clue
Virtually every great consultant I know, once they learn of a deal or a project on the horizon, will start a research program. From educating themselves about the prospect’s industry to researching the company to exploring the IT applications in use in that market segment, these experienced advisors have learned that doing their homework is the best way to cinch the deal and to develop solutions that satisfy. In every aspect of the consulting process—from initial meeting to final delivery—research and homework make the difference between success and failure.

When I work with IT services firms nationwide, however, I find that many consultants treat homework as I did as a young boy—they just simply don’t do it. When I go on sales calls with them, I’m aghast that they don’t know the prospect’s business or industry, company history, share price, or any other substantive information about the company or the client. The technical consultant may have gathered some basic qualifying information like, “They’ve got Cisco routers and are running Solaris 7,” but he hasn’t looked at the Sun Web site for Solaris background information or searched for case studies in the prospect’s industry. The strategic consultant hasn’t taken a peek around the Web to see what innovative things others in the prospect’s industry are doing with technology. The mindset is often “We’ll find out when we get there,” but I often sense annoyance from clients who have to bring consultants up to speed on basic information that is publicly available. My personal experience is that, with a couple of hours of research, I can glean an overall grasp of the central issues in the client’s industry and company, and I can use that knowledge to develop fruitful communications (and trust) when I’m with the client.

Tips on conducting research
So how do you develop a research methodology that will help you achieve your goals? First of all, you need to think about your personal research style. I like to have a broad overview of business and technology trends, so I regularly read a foundation set of magazines such as Fortune, Information Week, CIO, and The Standard. Then I use the Web (and great research sites like TechRepublic) to dig more deeply into areas specifically related to my current or upcoming projects. Other folks I know subscribe to trade magazines in their client’s industry, such as Pharmaceutical Executive or Automotive Week. Still others focus on cultivating personal contacts to get the latest information on an industry. Whatever style works for you, start to think about the projects that are in your pipeline as research projects as well.

When I use the Web to do my homework on a client or prospect, I follow this path:

  1. Start with Northern Light, the best search engine for researchers. Perform a search on the client company. The results are delivered in categories, which makes skimming through to the pertinent information much easier. This provides a broad overview of the resources available on a specific client.
  2. Use business research sites like Hoover’s Online, CorporateInformation, and CompaniesOnline to conduct basic research on the client’s industry and on the specific company.
  3. Use public records, such as SEC filings, to gather more detailed information about the company. Publicly traded companies must report their business condition to the SEC, and the annual 10-K and quarterly 10-Q reports give the unvarnished truth about each company’s prospects and challenges.
  4. For publicly traded companies, use an investment site like multex.com or even Yahoo! Finance to see how the investment community views the company. Is the share price going up or down? Are they rated at the top or the bottom of their industry? Click through to some of the research reports available to get a flavor of the issues facing your client’s company.
  5. Look at the prospect’s Web site. This should be obvious, but many consultants I coach don’t even take this step. Is the site fresh or stale? Is there an annual report that can tell you more about how the company views itself? Is there a team listing that may give you some background on the prospect as an individual, such as where they went to school and their work history?

I also use other tools, such as the LibWeb server, a gateway to academic and public libraries around the world, and the InfoTrac periodical database, which is available at many public library Web sites. Using InfoTrac to search for a company name, for instance, will usually yield any articles written about that company in both trade publications and general business magazines. You should also visit the Web sites of IT vendors, such as Microsoft or Sun, where you will often find case studies or success stories that are pertinent to the IT concerns of your clients.

With a little creativity, consultants can turn research into an illuminating experience that deepens their understanding of both technical and business trends. The opportunity to expand my technical and business understanding is the reason I love consulting, and the chance to do some in-depth learning while expanding my value to the client is one of the joys of this business.

Rick Freedman is the founder of Consulting Strategies Inc., a training firm that advises and mentors IT professional services firms in fundamental IT project management and consulting skills. He is author of The IT Consultant: A Commonsense Framework for Managing the Client Relationshipand two upcoming works: The e-Consultant and Building the IT Consulting Practice, both scheduled for publication later this year.

How do you research clients before you begin an engagement? What are your best sources for information about your clients and their needs? Post a comment below or send us a note.