Top 10 Tips for Aspiring IT Consultants
So you're thinking about becoming an IT consultant. That's exciting stuff! But before you jump right into it, thanks to our awesome social media community and rock star trainers, we've got some tips for you.
10. Test the waters. Bottom line, starting an IT consulting firm from scratch will be hard. Before you leave your current job, think about starting small—like on the side— to make sure full-blown IT consulting is really something you want to do. A part-time approach can help you land a client or two before you decide to go for it full time. Starting small will help make the uphill battle seem less steep.
9. Make a business plan. While this may be the most tedious step of starting your own consulting firm, you need to make sure you're considering all aspects of the business. Many people start a business because they have a passion for the job, but no idea how to actually run a company. A business plan forces you to look at the big, long-term picture. Are you going to be full time or part time? Should you start an LLC or sole proprietorship? Do you need to provide medical insurance? What accounting practices will you implement? A lot of this info will be required if you need to go to a financial institution for capital.
8. Learn to plan. If you've never been good at planning, it might be a good idea to take a project management course. When bidding for a job, you need to be able to determine project scopes, potential issues, and of course prepare for the unknown. Another thing to note: When you go into business for yourself, you're not only doing the IT work; you're also in charge of the sales, accounting, marketing, and coffee making. Time management goes hand-in-hand with planning.
7. Become a salesperson and customer service rep. Being in business for yourself means you always have to have your sales hat on. Listen to understand your clients' needs, don't just listen to respond. Put yourself in their shoes. Don't just shove your services at them; try to solve their problems. Remember that just because you speak tech, doesn't mean they do. Simplify the IT jargon, while making sure you're not talking down to them. Addressing their issues and meeting their needs in a considerate manner will only help you in the long run. Exceed their expectations, and they will continue to come to you for help.
6. Be a networker. As CBT Nuggets trainer Chris Ward says, "Make it a point to know others." Networking is key for two reasons. First, and likely most obvious, is potential clients. Clients could be busting down your doors one day, and the next, your phone may not ring at all.
"Find events and conferences in your area that you can attend. Talk to your friends, and family, and former co-workers about ways you can get involved," says CBT Nuggets trainer Ben Finkel, "You always want to have new work and clients in the pipeline." The other, possibly less obvious advantage to networking, is that it gives you backup options. What if a potential client approaches you with a job requiring expertise in voice technology, but you specialize in storage? You want to be able to recommend someone who can complete the job. The client will appreciate your honesty and integrity, and hopefully come back to you when they have a need you can fill. Plus, the likelihood that the other consultant recommends you in return is pretty high. It's the same reason you ask your plumber for recommendations about electricians… they know people.
5. Determine pricing. Money is a touchy subject, but it's crucial. Trainer Scott Morris has some great advice about rate management: "Figure out what your rate is going to be. Account for the number of hours you are actually going to work (be realistic, not hopeful) and remember that you are also paying for your 'admin time.' So the rate may SEEM really high, but when you average it out, it's not so much so!" Another thing to consider is discounting. "It's OK to offer discounts to customers," Scott says," but always BILL at your actual rate, then list a discount. Never put the lower number down as your 'rate.' That sets bad expectations for future work when you'd like to get your rates back up to where they should be."
Trainer Ben Finkel also shared some great advice. "Coming in a few dollars cheaper might seem like a good way to hook a client, but you need to be willing to set your rate at market value and justify it," he said. "Don't be afraid to tell someone 'No, I can't lower my rate any more than this.' You can always offer discounts, but raising rates on existing clients is a tough thing to do. If a potential customer is really uncomfortable with it, then find other creative ways to engage in smaller contracts or statements of work so that you can demonstrate your capability and assure them that your work is worth it." Overall, price will only be an issue if you do not provide the value to go along with it.
4. Brush up on your soft skills. We talk about soft skills a lot around here, and for good reason. They're extremely important. Some of the other tips we've mentioned in this post could be considered soft skills, but don't stop with those. Tech people aren't exactly known for interpersonal communication skills, but if you're considering a career as an IT consultant, communicating effectively will be key. If you can't build a relationship and rapport with a client, your knowledge or certification level won't matter.
3. Diversify. It's important to have a base knowledge in a variety of different areas. A client needs you to configure multi-node Hadoop cluster? You'd better have a working knowledge of Ubuntu Linux. You're planning on managing a production-ready virtual datacenter atop VMware vSphere v5.5 for a client? You'll need to be familiar with the basic installation of Windows Server 2012. As a consultant, the more skills you have in your arsenal, the more needs you can meet for more clients.
2. Be an expert. We realize we just advised you to diversify, so this may seem counterintuitive, however, it's smart to master one skill. What's your passion? Indulge in it. Do you see a particular need in your market not being met? Do that. Whatever the field, learn everything there is to know about it — and gain a reputation for being an expert. This is also a great way to get (positive) notoriety and get recommended by other IT pros (see tip 6).
1. Never stop learning. In tech, the only constant is change. Trainer Keith Barker summed it up perfectly: "As for emerging technologies, I think the only thing that will change is everything." For the overall success of your IT consulting business, there is no rest when it comes to keeping up with the latest trends, topics, and software updates. Complacency will get you nowhere, and fast. To quote trainer Jim Anthony, "To be good at IT, you have to want to learn."
Just remember that working as an IT consultant is very different than working as a SysAdmin in an internal IT department for a company. You can (and will) be in a variety of different situations, from helping a client with zero knowledge about IT, to simply supporting a client who doesn't have time. No matter the situation, you're an expert, an authority, a trusted advisor, and you're there to help.
Even if you follow all of these tips, it's inevitable that you'll feel incompetent at times when you first get started. And that's OK! It will get easier. Remember, if IT consulting were easy… everyone would be doing it.
Already an IT consultant? What tips would you add to our list?