Tools & Techniques for Contractors and Consultants
Though I usually focus on certification topics here, this column is of great importance to IT professionals who work as contractors or consultants. This month, I address important tools and techniques that they can use to market their services and time to their customers. The driving concept is to determine how consultants and contractors can maximize their chances of inclusion whenever a customer creates a “short list” of candidates or bidders for work that falls within their specific areas of expertise or capability.
To begin with, regular communication with past, present or prospective customers is key. Unless consultants and contractors work to keep their names and capabilities fresh in clients’ minds, the odds of obtaining work decline dramatically. Thus, an occasional e-mail, phone call or letter inquiring about upcoming work is essential. Other ways to maintain contact and to communicate include newsletters, regular updates to brochures and annual reports.
Some of the most successful consultants I know send monthly or bi-monthly newsletters to their colleagues, clients and business partners to report on topics of interest within their expertise. Their aim is not only to demonstrate ongoing involvement and capability (which you might consider to be the “hidden agenda”), but also to share useful information that recipients can use whether or not it leads immediately to more work for its sender.
Likewise, printed or electronic brochures should not only speak to what their senders can do for their recipients, but should also showcase hot news, major business wins, recent accomplishments, new certifications earned (or old ones updated) and so forth. The same is true for annual reports, which need not resemble SEC filings or the slick booklets stockholders receive from companies in which they invest. Namely, they should talk about last year’s activities, accomplishments, learning opportunities, conferences attended and so forth to demonstrate ongoing activity, interest and capability in the sender’s area of endeavor.
In the same vein, consultants and contractors can find participation in professional associations and other “human networking” situations useful. For one thing, such organizations usually maintain membership directories that permit members to provide contact information, statements of competency, areas of professional interest and so forth, both inside and outside those organizations. Also, active participation in such groups helps professional development by providing a convocation of peers from whom one can learn and with whom one can share common concerns, issues and answers. Such organizations can also help generate business leads, referrals and opportunities for collaboration.
Vendor partnerships and programs work much the same way as professional associations, except that they focus on the sponsor’s products and services. But there will often be organized programs to generate sales leads, consulting opportunities and so forth to help members create new business. Also, because sponsors want program members to be informed advocates, modest membership or participation fees often lead to substantial discounts on products for internal use, training and even certification exam costs or related annual fees. Here again, participation in services and contracting and consulting directories is part and parcel of such programs. Those consultants or contractors who go out of their way to develop relationships with local or regional sales offices (where applicable) often find their effort rewarded by referrals for new work or customers from the program sponsor.
Finally, it’s important to investigate sources of information about consulting or contracting opportunities related to one’s area or areas of expertise. Assiduous Web searches usually produce multiple national, regional or local listings—professional directories, Web sites and “yellow pages” all qualify. Sometimes such listings are free and require relatively little effort to complete. In other cases, listings incur fees that vary according to their size, scope or placement. But if listings lead to work, the fees involved can be repaid relatively easily. The trick in this category is to track sources of referrals, to minimize expenses, to repeat listings that deliver results and to cancel those that provide no return.
The key to successful marketing for consultants and contractors is to keep current customers (and keep them happy) while attracting new ones. To that end, following the various paths to maintaining or establishing communications with customers is critical. Likewise, anything you can do to get the word out to prospective customers will widen the net you cast to catch new ones. For both efforts, constant communication and useful information provide the pathways to success.
Ed Tittel is vice president of IT certification at iLearning.com and contributing editor for Certification Magazine. E-mail Ed with your questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.