When you make the leap from working for the man to working as an IT consultant, it can be a big adjustment. Depending on the type of small business IT consulting services you offer, one of the biggest changes may be working at client sites.
The transition from the office to the field can take some getting used to, especially if you’re not aware of the potential pitfalls. We spoke to several IT consultants to get their take on what to expect – and how to act – when you're out in the field.
Clients Expect You to Dress the Part
First impressions matter and they start the moment you walk through the door. While the stereotypical IT uniform is jeans, a t-shirt, and a hoodie, according to Business Insider, that won't fly when you're meeting clients. So before you start booking appointments, you might need to spruce up your wardrobe.
"A lot of IT people wear jeans and t-shirts," says
Soaring Eagle Database Consulting
(@SoaringEagleDBA). But Garbus says that's a mistake. "You want to wear slacks and a button-down, at least. When you walk into a new client site, you want to look the part."
"I don't think there's an expectation that you're going to be in a suit and tie unless you're in that type of market, but you do want to make sure that you dress professionally for your community, for your region, and the industries that you serve," says
chief information officer at IT consulting firm
So ditch the dorm style, and embrace the business casual look. Not only will it convey an air of professionalism, but you'll also blend in more with the staff at the offices where you're working.
Your Clients May Be Intimidated by You
It can be easy to forget that tech talk is a different language for many of your clients. They may even feel embarrassed by what they don't understand, so try to put them at ease when discussing details that might be over their heads.
"If you're explaining something to a client and you're not sure if the client understands, be sure to say something like, 'Am I explaining this well enough? I'm not always good at explaining things,'" says
J. J. Micro LLC IT Consulting
(@JJMicroLLC). "This allows a client to feel more comfortable asking additional questions because you're implying the problem is on the consultant's end, not the client's end."
Also be aware that when you're working on someone's computer, you're in their personal space. Be respectful of that, and do what you can to make them feel comfortable.
"People tend to be humbled by their computer, so when you're there to help, they feel slightly helpless," says Buono. "Lightening the mood by having those personal conversations is often helpful. You may be sitting at someone's desk for half an hour while you're working on an issue, and you're going to see pictures of their loved ones. Sometimes you can say something like, 'Hey is that your granddaughter?' and it sparks a conversation, and people tend to like that."
You Will Face Unexpected Roadblocks
When a client calls you to their site, it's because they have a problem. But if your client isn't very tech-savvy, they might not even know how to explain what the problem actually is. So you need to be prepared to spend extra time doing detective work. You should also know that your clients won't always be ready for you when you arrive.
"The thing that I've found to be the most frequent blocker when walking into a new client's office is security," says Garbus. "Depending on the type of client site, sometimes I've been there for a day and half before I can actually connect to the system."
Garbus recommends explaining to clients what you need them to do in advance to prepare for your visit so that when you show up you can get right to work. For more tips on engaging with clients, check out "How IT Consultants Can Boost Business by Building Client Relationships."
You Will Get Inundated with Questions
You're going to work for a variety of clients. Some may have at least one IT person, but smaller offices may not have anyone with IT chops. In those cases, employees hungry for tech help may pounce on you.
"You do sometimes get swamped with questions," says Garbus. "My advice on how to handle that is just offer to let everybody ask their questions at once, so that it's not a constant interruption."
If you know this is going to be an issue, it's a good idea to have someone at the office serve as a gatekeeper for these "one-off" questions.
"We recommend there be a focal person on site," says Buono. "We ask them to take all of the issues, compile them in a single list, and then prioritize them so that we know what to hit first when we get on site."
These unexpected requests are why it's a good idea to give yourself a buffer when scheduling your appointments.
"Always be prepared for people with issues to come out of the woodwork when you show up on-site," says Jacobsen. "You need to add extra time to your schedule for these types of issues. A consultant might schedule 30 minutes to replace a backup drive and then find that three different people have been dealing with strange issues that they haven't bothered to call about. This could add another 30 minutes to an hour to the service call."
Finally, don’t agree to fix something for an employee without first checking with their manager.
"Be sure to know who is allowed to make decisions about spending money to fix issues," recommends Jacobsen. "If a line-level employee asks you to fix something that isn't covered, get approval first. Don't make the mistake of investing a lot of time – and possibly parts – into fixing something you won't get paid for."
For more unexpected events to prep for, read "6 IT Consultant Tips for When You’re Just Starting Out."
When You're On Site, Remember It's All About That Client
We saw what happened at the 2017 Oscars when one of the accountants was so busy tweeting that he handed out the wrong envelope for Best Picture. This is a good lesson in how to act in the field. When you are at a client site, they should have your full attention. Not only is it polite, but it also prevents mistakes from happening.
"Don't do anything personal on a client site," says Garbus. "That includes Facebook or talking on your phone. If you need do something personal, like take a call, step out."
It can be a balancing act to take care of the needs of the client you are with while not inconveniencing the next client if things are taking longer than you anticipated. A little discretion goes a long way.
"If you say, 'I have to leave now because I have to be at client X in half an hour,' that usually is not taken well, even if it happens to be true," says Buono. "We need to be respectful of both clients and to understand how to handle that situation as creatively as possible. Sometimes it can be as simple as saying, 'I'm sorry, I have another appointment at 2 o'clock, so we'll have to wrap up here, but I can be back here tomorrow. What time works for you?' And just leave it at that."
Are you not doing any small business IT consulting yet, but thinking about it? Be sure to read "5 Steps to Becoming an IT Consultant."
About the Contributors
Christopher Buono is chief information officer at Anteris Solutions, Inc., an IT services provider in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He has worked in the information technology field for more than 20 years, including 12 years in leadership roles. He holds numerous legacy technical certifications, including Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer, Certified Novell Engineer, Certified Information Systems Security Professional, and Cisco Certified Network Administration.
Jeff Garbus is the owner of Soaring Eagle Database Consulting. He has decades of IT experience, with a special emphasis on performance and tuning, scaling, and database administration of large databases. He is very well known in the industry, having spoken at user conferences and user groups since the early 1990s, written articles and columns for many magazines nationally and internationally, and published 20 books on database management systems.
Julian Jacobsen is an IT consultant and owner of J.J. Micro LLC IT Consulting. He supports over 120 clients in the St. Louis, Missouri, area. Julian has over 10 years of consulting experience and specializes in small business Windows Server environments.