IT consultants need more than technical knowledge and experience -- they need to make sure they're on the same page with their clients. Jack Wallen suggests some ways to make that happen.
It can be frustrating when you and your clients are at odds with one another. It happens for many reasons and when it does, you run the risk of losing the client. Obviously, consultants aren't in the business of LOSING clients. The goal is to make them as happy as possible. But there are times when meeting a client half way becomes more than a challenge. The best way to nip this in the bud? Make sure you and your clients are always on the same page.
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1: Educate your clients
Let's face it. The less your clients know, the more they're going to need you. But this train of thought can cause some sticky situations. When your client is calling you about every little thing, you're faced with, "Do I bill them for these 10 minutes on the phone or not?" This situation can be prevented with a little education. For example, if your client doesn't want to pay the small fee for a spyware application that will do auto updates and scheduled scanning, make sure you instruct them how to run the updates and how often they should manually run the scan. This will save you from having to constantly rid their machines of malware and spyware... thus reducing those 10- to 15-minute phone calls. It will also go a long way toward keeping clients happy because they won't be having to pay for your service all the time. And a happy client is a referring client!
2: Explain things to your clients
I have seen this many times. A previous consultant on a job will completely neglect to inform the client about what they're doing on a job. Some less-than-trustworthy consultants assume that keeping clients in the dark is the best way to keep them keeping your lights on. It's not. Keeping clients in the dark only causes them to second-guess the work you have done, as well as your skills and your ability to run a reliable business. Always tell the client what you're going to do and what you wound up doing on a job. Making sure they know what was wrong will help prevent it from happening again.
3: Take control of documentation
Documentation should be a two-way street. It's not. Documenting jobs -- and this means passwords, usernames, addresses, etc. -- will inevitably fall in your lap. You're going to have clients who NEVER can remember their usernames and passwords. Retain the documentation so you can refer to it and keep those clients happily working. The day you tell a client it is their job to retain their passwords (even though it actually is) is the day you lose sight of the bigger picture.
4: Be respectful toward nontechnical users
Have you ever gone to an auto mechanic and been told why your car was doing what it was doing... and you had absolutely NO idea what the mechanic was talking about? This is how your clients feel when you try to explain to them what is going on. Always remember that your clients are coming at this from a completely different vantage point. More than likely, they know next to nothing about how their computers work. They just know when they don't work. Treating your clients as if they are idiots for not knowing something is like when an auto mechanic rolls his eyes because you don't understand the air:fuel ratio that's causing your turbo to fail.
Don't talk to your clients as if they were children just because they don't understand that their DNS servers are keeping them from getting online or that using out-of-date antivirus definitions is the reason they're constantly getting virus infections on their PCs. Treat those clients with respect, no matter how little they know about the technology you often take for granted.
5: Bill consistently and professionally
Billing keeps the lights on in the shop. It has to be done and your clients have to pay. The most important aspect about billing is consistency. Don't just send an email with your bill detailed inline. Make sure your billing is done professionally. If you have QuickBooks, you can use its built-in tools to create invoices and then email the generated PDF as an attachment. This will have your logo and all the detailed information about the job listed for the client. And details are key. Make sure every job you do has as much information on the billing statement as possible. Leave no holes or questions open in your billing. Be complete. Be thorough.
6: Be accessible
You have to be available to your clients. If a client calls and you do not respond within a decent amount of time, that client is going to lose faith in you. Make sure you have a standard setup for return calls and follow-ups. You don't want clients getting upset and heading off to your competition. Give your clients the means to contact you: Business phone, business email, text (if you allow it), and (especially) a help desk system.
7: Know your clients
This is one of the more challenging aspects of being a consultant. You need to know your clients. When you know them, you will know how to deal with them. I have certain clients I have to treat in certain ways -- it's just a part of life. I have some clients I will do anything for. With other clients, I will do only what they ask. I have clients who have certain protocols for jobs and clients who are more like pals when I arrive. Treating everyone as if they are the same entity will cause you more headaches than you can imagine. Take the time to get to know a client. Find out their quirks, what is important to them, and what they are willing to spend money on. When your clients know that you know them, you will see eye to eye much more often.
8: Know when to say you don't know
There are times when you can BS your way out of a situation. There are times when learning on the job is okay. But when you simply have no idea how to resolve an issue or how to approach a problem, it's time to say "no." If you don't, and you get yourself caught knee deep in the muck and mire of failure, your clients will have plenty of ammunition to fire at your head. If you don't know how to solve a problem, tell your client so and tell them you will see if you can figure it out. Let them know your efforts to solve the puzzle will not be on their time, and a solution will be found. Your other option? Outsource that job. Regardless of how you deal with it, make sure you are completely honest with your client so there will be no ugly outcome.
9: Resolve the situation
Sometimes, you do a job, but whatever you do fails to resolve the issue. When this happens, your client is certain to call. In some cases, that client is not going to be happy. If this isn't the first time this has happened (especially on this particular job), that client is most certainly not going to be happy. The best way to resolve this situation is to, well, resolve the situation. Hit the job from a fresh angle, research what you did, search forums for alternative solutions... whatever you have to do. Ultimately, you are in a contractual agreement that says you are going to resolve your client's issues. When you do not (or cannot) resolve those issues, the client will be justifiably upset.
Remember, from your client's perspective, they're paying a LOT of money for your services. They pay you to make something work that should "just work." If they have to continually pay you to get something working, you are going to lose them (and possibly other clients, thanks to word of mouth). I have heard of consultants who leave pieces of jobs hanging to keep the cash flow flowing. This is not only bad business, it is unethical. See your job through to completion.
10: Know when to let go
There may be clients you just can't see eye to eye with. Maybe there are personality issues, maybe a job went wrong and the client can't seem to forgive you. Regardless of the reason, you need to know when a consultant-client relationship simply will not work. It will be far better for your business not to string that client along (for fear of losing business) than to keep an unhappy client around. The longer you retain such clients, the more likely you are to develop a bad reputation. And the last thing you need is word getting around that you can't be trusted, that your work is subpar, or whatever gripe that client has. When you see a relationship isn't going to work out, end it professionally. Refer the client to someone who can help them. Do whatever it takes to leave as much of that bridge unburned as possible. There may be a time when that client, based on your professionalism, will refer another client to you.
Keeping it copacetic
The quest to make your clients happy requires a tricky balance. Not only are you charged with getting the job done, you must do so in such a way that you and your clients start and finish on the same page. Making sure you and your clients see eye to eye on as many levels as possible will make for a far richer relationship for both parties. Have you come across a situation where you and your client didn't see eye to eye? If so, how did you resolve it? Or if you couldn't resolve it, what was the outcome?