So you’ve decided to be a consultant. Are you prepared to go out and find, mind, and grind your own work?

Three Consulting Fundamentals

So you’ve decided to be a consultant. Are you prepared to go out and find, mind, and grind your own work?

It’s 11 p.m. Do you know where your life is? That’s a question I recently faced as I sat down to reflect on consulting and write this column. As a consultant, you have lots of freedom to work the hours that you want to work. Paradoxically, you have the freedom to work too many hours.

It was my great pleasure to be on the “How To Be A Consultant” panel at MCP Magazine’s TechMentor conference this past August in San Jose, California. From the standing room-only crowd, questions peppered the panelists regarding the perception and reality of being a consultant, MCP-style. Based on my own interactions with the audience, I made several observations about the nature of consulting that I’d like to share with you now. First and foremost, consulting is divided into three roles: finder, minder, and grinder.

Finder

Ever ask former consultants why they decided to return to a full-time salaried position as an employee? The answer you’re likely to receive is this: “I didn’t realize how much marketing was involved!” True statement. One of the reasons why MCP consultants are lucky to enjoy 50-percent utilization (that is, you bill half of your working hours) is that much of their time is spent selling themselves. The balance of their free time is spent managing or “minding”—more on the minder stuff in a moment.

The term “finder” means different things to different people. For some, it’s hard-core sales and closing practices, such as cold calls. These are the power callers of the MCP community. For others, it’s writing books and giving speeches, relying on educational marketing approaches to fulfill this role as rainmaker. For others, it’s simply answering the telephone and taking an order. And finally, my favorite, for some lucky people it’s afternoons and evenings of client entertainment ranging from sails across Puget Sound to attending professional baseball games with the company tickets.

Surprising to me, many people don’t enjoy the finder role of getting the business. Perhaps it’s because this extroverted role runs counter to the more introverted personalities that tend to populate the MCP ranks. Others thrive on the interaction and possibilities of making the sale. Furthermore, many MCPs assume more finder responsibilities for one simple reason: More sales means more income. Talk about job security.

Now, having arrived at different definitions of being a finder, how can you be a better finder? There are several ways.

Being a Finer Finder

First, consider outsourcing the finder function if it’s just not your thing. You’ll pay a price, but consider the following. Let’s assume you’re an independent consultant who enjoys doing the work but not getting the work. If you step back and put on your accountant’s green visor, you might discover that marketing and sales expenses for many businesses are 25, 30, or even 50 percent of sales, depending on your business. If you sign up with a contract house or temp agency, you’re effectively paying marketing and sales expenses within this range. The contract house or temp agency will bill you out at a somewhat higher rate (say, $50 per hour) than you’re paid ($30 per hour). Worth it? For many people, yes. Certainly, having someone else get you work is worth something.

Second, consider working with an employer who, through other business, can stir up leads for you. My present employer is a perfect example. I’ve made a long-term home with CN Consulting, which is owned by Northwest accounting firm Clark Nuber. The accountants are my virtual sales force. Via their interactions with clients, they’re able to steer viable, “warm” leads to me. Think about it. If you’re a business owner who relies on your accountant for financial advice, might there exist a trust relationship that allows for the introduction of additional services such as networking? You bet! I’ll take warm leads over cold calls any day. And it’s not lost on me that most MIS directors, network managers, and technology managers still report to the CFO of a firm. And guess what? Our accountants deal directly with the CFO. What a great country...

A Marvelous Minder

OK, so you’ve gone out and gotten the business. Now you have to manage it. Plus, as a professional service provider, you’re striving for referrals from your existing client base—something that makes future finder activities much easier. Minding the farm results in referrals. Here are some of the management, or minder, challenges regarding consulting.

We computer people tend to be creative types. Many of us aren’t detail oriented when it comes to management. Speaking for myself, sometimes it’s just a challenge to get my time and billing into the company accounting system. The minder role also isn’t a natural orientation for MCPs because it isn’t taught in the MCSE curriculum. It’s something that blooms from pain (read unsuccessful consulting engagements) and lots of consulting experience. To help shorten your journey to minder status, I’ve placed a sample document below that I use in my day-to-day consulting practice when I’m wearing my minder hat. This document is a sample site report that I complete after each visit to a client site. It details the work performed and the amount billed, and, of course, provides a thank you to the client! This document grew from my client feedback saying that they often didn’t know what work I performed.

Sample Site Visit Letter

November 20, 1998

CLIENT

RE: Work Performed November 20, 1998

Dear Jon,

This letter will serve as our site visit report for the work performed by the undersigned on your behalf.

On November 20, we performed the following.

  • Updated our checklists and project schedule, and discussed the project internally with Steve Bloom and Vernon Loveless.
  • Accepted a support telephone call from you wherein we provided extensive guidance with respect to the Paradox database. At our request, you modified the properties for the Paradox application shortcut icon so that the shortcut icon pointed to the proper application and working directory.
  • Directed your efforts to add everyone to the Administrators group so that we could efficiently resolve a Great Plains Dynamics security authentication issue.
  • Fixed the WSP-related conflict on the workstation running CompuServe.
  • Resolved a logon problem at a user's workstation by having that workstation authenticate on the network via the IXP/SPX protocol.
  • Fixed the Raiser's Edge client application installation on Lynette's PC and mapped Drive R to DS01.
  • Modified the Paradox network configuration files as per instructions from Borland support. This modification work included changing the network identity from NetWare to Other (which apparently supports Windows NT Server, the underlying network operating system for SBS).
  • Resolved Mike's Great Plains Dynamics data reporting problem. First we verified the status of the data copy from the old NetWare server to the new SBS server. Next we paged and instructed Vernon Loveless to proceed to your site. Once Vernon arrived, we advised Vernon of our progress and helped him perform several Dynamics-related tests. We also assisted Vernon in re-transferring the Dynamics-related data from the old NetWare server to the new SBS server.

For this work we billed the following.

  • For item #1 we billed one ("1") hour at $125 per hour to Phase B of the project.
  • For item #2 we billed 0.5 hours at $125 per hour to "Additional Services" for the project.
  • For items #3 to #8 we billed three hours ("3") to "Additional Services" and one hour ("1") to Phase B of the project.

If your understanding of the above work differs from ours, please contact our office so we may discuss this matter. Thank you for your continued use of CN Consulting.

With best regards.

Very truly yours,

Harry Brelsford
MCT, MCSE, CNE, CLSE, CNP
Network Consulting Manager

C.C. Client File, Brelsford Reading File, Eileen Garcia

I know what you’re saying now. You’re an MCSE and you just want to do network engineering. All of this paperwork is for Dilbert and other mid-level folks in the Dilbert Zone! At some level I agree with you. When I’m writing project reports, I’m certainly not expanding my understanding of the new registry setting in Windows NT Server 5.0 (Beta 2). The funny thing about performing the minder function, however, is that the right clients will pay for it. I implicitly bill for writing my site reports and project updates, and the clients gladly pay because it inherently gives them peace of mind. For those clients who don’t see value in my minder activities, I refer them to our competitors. It’s been my experience that consulting gigs in those situations have a huge propensity toward failure.

Another thing I’ve tried to do in my consulting division is hire my weaknesses. Let’s face it, I’m first a grinder, then finder, then minder. So, based on the advice of my success coach, I’m foremost out to hire a minder. This lets me add a team member who complements my skill sets and results in the best fit possible.

Not turned on by the minder thing? Consider another consulting alternative. The aforementioned contract houses and temp agencies perform many of the minder functions, such as providing client updates and collections services. So, while you pay the piper when you dance with a contract house (by effectively earning a lower hourly rate), if you structure it correctly, you can avoid the finder and minder roles and just focus on the good stuff: grinding!

A Great Grinder

Now’s the easy part. Rare is the MCP who doesn’t like to grind or perform the work. In fact, I’ve found that occasionally people will hold back the gifted MCPs in their consulting organizations. Otherwise, the MCPs start billing 50-plus hours per week on an on-going basis and then burn out. (See my August 1998 column for more discussion on burnout.) These super-grinders also forget to attend classes, conferences, and seminars, placing their current skill set at risk. This isn’t a good trend for long-term sustainable grinding.

The only departure I’ve witnessed from the grinder model is, indeed, a function of burnout. I’ve seen haggard MCPs who want nothing more than to give up the long hours and 24x7 on-call pagers. These individuals tend to take positions as account executives, pre-sales engineers, and project managers. This isn’t necessarily a bad role, but it’s typically far less technical than the average MCP and can lead to “has-been” syndrome.

Additional Information

Janet Ruhl has written several books on consulting, including The Computer Consultant’s Guide: Real-Life Strategies for Building a Successful Consulting Career (John Wiley & Sons, $19.95, ISBN 0-47117-649-4) and The Computer Consultant’s Workbook (Technion Books, $39.95, ISBN 0-96471-160-5). She also maintains the Computer Consultants Resource Page at www.realrates.com.

How To Be a Successful Computer Consultant by Alan R. Simpson (McGraw-Hill, $21.95, ISBN 0-07058-209-4) shares suggestions for choosing a specialty, organizing your business, writing a business plan, staying current, fitting into client organizations, and handling the difficult client.

Bottom Line

So, what’s the bottom line on consulting? It’s great work, the pay ain’t bad, and it’s tremendously rewarding. But be realistic. Evaluate yourself against the finder, minder, and grinder model. It’s been my experience that you can get two out of three in any given person. How you manage that third requirement too will foretell how well you’ll do on your own.

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