6 Critical Communication Skills for IT Contractors
When the economy is down, it can be a seller's market for professionals with technology skills. In the freelancing world, there can be a lot of competition from IT contractors in other parts of the world — who tend to charge significantly less for their work.
Still, it takes more than just hardcore technical skills to get ahead in the world of contracting. All things being equal, employers also want to hire contractors who are a pleasure to work with and contribute more than just code and bytes.
This is where it is essential to possess soft skills. Here are the six critical communication skills you must have.
Public Relations Skills
If you are a contractor, then it is also your job to promote your experience and abilities. You must develop and market your brand.
As an IT pro, this skill may feel foreign. Yet, you need the contracts to pour in if you want to make money. The only way to ensure that happens is through public relations and marketing. The good news is, if you find this isn't your forte, you can get better at it with more experience.
Remember, as an IT contractor, you are always dependent upon the recommendations and referrals of your clients to help build new business opportunities. As such, every job you have carries with it the possibility of more jobs, which means you always have to be "on" when you're working. Make good impressions, be patient, represent yourself well, and always – always – have business cards handy to give to prospective new clients.
Your ability to build rapport and demonstrate your expertise will directly correlate to your client base. Constantly work to be your own best public relations representative.
When you work in IT, you might find that you are often asked to solve a wide swath of problems. Like a doctor or lawyer, you will be asked a lot of questions from helping a client with a computer, to software challenges, or network issues — All. Day. Long.
As a result, it is imperative to know how to resolve technical problems. You must be willing to research, analyze, and get to work developing a solution.
Yet, this is more than just being reactive. You need to be proactive. You need to be able to anticipate problems and prepare solutions that will meet or exceed your client's expectations.
As an IT contractor, the problem solving you conduct may not live exclusively in the IT space. The problems you work to solve may force you to navigate unfamiliar workplace politics, tricky personnel challenges, or insufficient resource funding.
How you address these non-technical problems will have a profound impact on your business and ability to provide viable IT solutions.
When you work in IT, you will have consistent human interaction. Whether you manage a team or are implementing security measures, you must understand how to interact well with others.
Practice active listening skills when you interact with colleagues and clients by being fully present and engaged. Listen carefully as you actively encourage others with verbal cues (say things like, "Uh-huh," "That's interesting," or "I see.") throughout the discussion.
Be aware of your nonverbal communication, including intentionally (but not in a creepy way) maintaining eye contact. Choose to stand or sit in a welcoming, open way (try to avoid crossing your arms or standing over someone as you talk with them).
Restate what you hear your colleagues and clients sharing with you in your own words to show that you understand them. You might be surprised at how much clarity you can get from this critical communication tactic.
Listening well helps ensure that you have a clear understanding of the challenges or issues you're hired to address, which in turn, equips you to offer better, more robust solutions.
You must work with a group of people to produce products that help an organization run more effectively. As more people get involved, there will be disagreements and the need to come to a consensus.
IT contractors must understand how to find common ground so that projects can move forward in an agreeable way. This means a necessary disappearance of egos to benefit the greater good.
Choose to see the work you do as a contracted IT pro as an opportunity to negotiate. Your clients will have a certain set of expectations that you will have the chance to align with your own expectations.
Remember the Fast, Good, or Cheap Triangle (or just wear this t-shirt to your next meeting – just kidding; see our above comments about public relations and skip the t-shirt). Your clients have choices when it comes to the work you can provide them: the work can be fast, good, or cheap – and they can choose two.
Good + Fast = Expensive
Good + Cheap = Slow
Fast + Cheap = Inferior results
With this in mind, now you can start negotiating. When most organizations hire an IT contractor, they will naturally want your work done well, as quickly as possible. It's your job to help them have realistic expectations of you and your work.
Become a Technology Translator
Working in IT, you will be familiar with terms that only apply to your specialization or industry. Those who work in another field will often have no idea what you're talking about.
This is why it is crucial to become proficient at explaining complex terms and language to anyone who has zero experience in the IT field.
Part of being an IT contractor is turning yourself into a technology translator. Your job will be to bridge the gap between end users and the technological solutions you offer. So, avoid industry acronyms or jargon whenever possible. If you must use insider terms, be prepared with thoughtful definitions and explanations to help your clients understand what you're doing and why it's necessary.
IT is often intimidating to those who work on its periphery, or completely outside the IT space. Your ability to explain complex IT concepts in simple, relatable terms will help you navigate your experience working with a huge variety of clients and ultimately close the understanding gap.
You might have worked in IT for decades, but it takes patience to understand that most people don't have your skills, background, or experience. So, an important soft skill to have is the ability to stay calm even in frustrating situations or when you are required to answer the same questions over and over again. This will be common to your average work day.
Practice patience in your work with your clients as you explain what you do and how you do it, and they will love you for it.
Be a Team Player
As with any field, you need to work well with others. There just isn't any way to get around this.
There will be large projects, with several team members. You must learn how to take criticism and direction well. You must also learn how to perform your end of the task well and on time.
As an IT contractor, you are joining a team – if only briefly – to produce a predetermined outcome. Your success will, at least in some small part, be determined by how well you work with the team.
Though you may not be a permanent addition to the organization, you inevitably will have a group of people with whom you work in order to deliver your final product or service. Anyone you interact with at your client organization is part of your team, whether it's an HR representative, the VP for product development, or full-time programmers. Each of these folks wants and needs you to be successful.
Employers are definitely going to hire you for your technical skills. But, soft skills are crucial to developing a strong standing of credibility as an IT contractor. With these critical skills for communication on your side, you can build an IT empire that clients are going to notice.