TechRepublic reader Sharnetta Seymour sent the following Ask Chip request:

I have been a full-time IT Specialist for the same company for 15 years and we are always at least 4 years behind in technology. I would like to start up my own consultant firm, however I definitely need to brush up on my IT troubleshooting skills for current pc issues that customers may have with their mobile device or pc/laptop. Two questions:

How do I find the best (free) troubleshooting tools and How To guides?

How do I determine what to charge for various IT trouble requests (i.e. training, virus removal, memory dump errors, hd backups, routine monthly pccleanup process to speed up pc, RAM install, hd install etc…

That sort of work isn’t my consulting specialty, so I’m going to lean on our community of readers to provide their usual insightful comments in the discussion below. Nevertheless, I think Google might be able to help us with the first question.

Seriously, though, I find search engines to be a great tool for locating the latest information about just about anything. However, you don’t want to treat the first answer you get as if it were a magic spell. Take the time to understand what you find, and to compare different results against each other. You’ll often find that an easy answer makes assumptions about your situation that don’t apply. You’ll also learn which sources tend to be more authoritative. On Unix and Linux systems, the man pages usually have the definitive answer — but beware of differences between the Linux distros or Unix versions. On Windows, MSDN is the official word, although it doesn’t always answer the question you asked. Open forums often have great answers, if you can find that one gem among all the responses from people who just like to hear themselves. An article on a site like TechRepublic has the advantage of authorship by someone who was paid to research it, as well as an editor’s review. It’s still not guaranteed to help you, but it’s less likely to lead you down a garden path.

Sharnetta’s second question may be more difficult to answer. A consultant’s ability to tune their prices to their market is an art form that improves with experience. It usually depends on your specific geographic market as well as your niche. The basic formula is simple: provide more value for the money than any other alternative your prospects could choose. The tricky part is in assessing and communicating the value you provide. For basic system maintenance and administration, you don’t typically want to charge more than your competition — until you develop a reputation for doing a much better job. If you can get into the business of selling peace of mind, then you won’t have trouble billing for it. Even in a tough economy, if it’s clear that you’re saving the client more money than they’re spending on you — for instance, by avoiding disasters — than they’ll be willing to pay. The trick is to communicate exactly what could happen if they try to cut corners to save a few bucks.

If someone else comes along with just as good a story but a lower pricetag, then they may steal your business. If that happens, then you must evaluate whether they’re able to deliver on their promises for less (in which case, you may be charging too much), or whether they’re over-promising. In the latter case, you may be able to warn your client, but be careful how you word that so it doesn’t come across as sour grapes. Sometimes you just have to let the client try it for themselves, then graciously accept them back into the fold and bind up their wounds after it all goes south. At that point, you may not even need to remind them of your relative value — but gratefully acknowledge any statements they make about it.

All this implies that you have acquired a decent knowledge of your competition. The more you know about what’s available, the better you’ll be able to create a story that outsells them. Don’t panic, though. Nobody knows everything about their market, and you can learn more about it as you go. Just keep your eye on it, and beware of fixed beliefs. Google can be your friend here, too. Search for your specialty and location, and see what comes up. Then work to get your site on that first page.

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If you have an IT consulting question, email it to me or use the “Contact” link by my picture at the end of one of my articles, and I’ll do my best to answer it. Read guidelines about submitting questions.