If putting out fires is your number-one drain, it's time to reassess your consulting strategy. You can't just show up when things break — although many clients may think that's the way to go. As a competent and ethical consultant, you must be proactive and keep things from breaking in the first place. You simply can't provide your client with the most efficient system if all you do is fix broken stuff. There are two problems with this type of arrangement:
- If stuff breaks a lot, they'll blame you, even though you're not really responsible. Eventually, they'll replace you with a full-time employee or a new consultant.
- As a consultant, your clients trust you to provide the best service, and merely fixing broken things doesn't cut it. You should strive to keep their system running smoothly, so that things don't break in the first place.
Now, if everything's running smoothly and nothing breaks, how do you make money? You put your clients on a flat-fee maintenance contract. They pay you $X every month to provide a number of services. Suddenly, you both have the same goal: to keep the system running smoothly. They have little-to-no downtime, and you actually work less.
Once you have that contract, your first order of business will be to permanently fix all those annoying things that keep breaking — no more shortcuts and band-aids. You must reduce those fix-it calls in order to make money on a flat-fee contract. Most likely, that will require new hardware and software, so be sure you make that part of the deal. Upfront, you make money upgrading the system. Then, you must be proactive about managing the system to reduce problems and, consequently, the amount of time you spend fixing problems.
Instead of fixing things, you'll still be around, performing routine maintenance and seeing to custom user needs as they crop up. In fact, with the right setup, a lot of maintenance can be performed remotely, reducing travel time and costs.
Your users will be more productive, your clients will be happy, and you'll be putting in fewer hours while still receiving a fat paycheck, which the client will be only too glad to sign. You'll have more free time to consult with new clients and to invest in training to keep up with changing technology.
A flat-fee maintenance contract is a win-win for both you and your clients.
Realistically, not every client is going to buy a flat-fee contract. Once enough of your clients have made the switch, let the fixer-uppers go.
Susan Sales Harkins is an IT consultant, specializing in desktop solutions. Previously, she was editor in chief for The Cobb Group, the world's largest publisher of technical journals.