On the Road Again: Dealing with Clients

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Forgive me if this is reductive, but there are, by and large, two types of consultants: those who live on the road, and those who don’t. If you belong to that second group — that is, if you have an office with a desk and a lamp and a potted plant that you rarely leave and can thus be called a hermit — stop reading now. What follows is not for you. But if your consulting practice gives you an intimate knowledge of the interstate, or if you spend more time in airports than pilots do, what follows will save you time.

Your Swiss Army Knife
I’m one of those consultants who lives in his car. I spend most of the day there, and I’ve learned a few things about working in the cramped quarters of a late-model black sedan.

First up? Clients don’t care that you’re out of the office. By definition, a client’s needs are urgent. If you dispute this, recall that your clients do not, and they won’t care that you’re on the road and without access to a PC.

Hence, your cell phone is your lifeline: Don’t skimp on it. Buy the best model you can afford, all the better if it’s a cell phone-cum-PDA, such as T-Mobile’s MDA, the Treo 750p or 750w (the “p” is for Palm, and the “w” is for Windows) or the fabulous Motorola Q, which is not merely potent but pretty.

Each of these gadgets is a first-rate tool in itself, but when you add mobile broadband, they’re fabulous. Not only can you check and send e-mail, but you can read (or even write) Word docs, Excel docs and low-end PowerPoint slides; surf the Web; instant message; access your calendar and all your contacts; make voice notes or even record interviews and client meetings; log time and billable hours; skim RSS feeds; read books; write notes in graffiti or longhand; listen to books on tape; listen to music; watch DVDs; play games (useful for airport downtime) and best of all, you can use the phone as a modem, giving your notebook full access to the Internet, including wikis and your clients’ Web sites and virtual private networks (VPNs).

That might seem like a luxury, but if your clients are even vaguely like mine, they’ll want you to download a press release from the network and post to their Web site. And they’ll want it now, as you’re dealing with an insistent truck in your rearview mirror.

Consider this: The bulk of your clients’ emergencies demand some form of Internet access to resolve. If you can’t do that because you’re on the road, what’s to keep your client from finding someone who can?

My Kingdom for a Desk
I have yet to find a car with a built-in desk. (I’ve looked. In fact, I’ve had car salesmen look at me oddly when I ask, in a way that suggests someone with such clear problems can’t possibly make it through the credit check.) Sadly, it’s hard to work without a desk. But there are options.

Point your browser to www.MobileDesk.com for quite a few of them. These include expensive but extremely helpful “extending arms” that will mount your notebook close to your steering wheel for easy access, as well as less expensive plastic blocks that sit in your passenger seat and have space for pens, pencils, folders and more. There are even models that mount your notebook directly on your steering wheel — to be used, of course, when you’re not moving. (I say that because we live in a nation where someone very well might send e-mail while driving on Interstate 10, crash, then sue me for suggesting it.)

If you need more than a car desk — someplace to really spread out and breathe — then make friends with your library. Most of them offer free WiFi and a generous helping of quiet.

If you drive more than fly, treat yourself to a few amenities. Burn six or eight CDs of good music, buy some books on tape, get a car mount for your cell phone and invest in a good Thermos or no-spill cup.

This last point is of prime importance. I say this because fast food restaurants have found a dozen ways to sell a large amount of soda for less than $1, yet they have found no way to keep that soda from spilling, which it will do only when you’re wearing a white shirt and a good tie and only minutes away from meeting new clients.

And last, know that perfecting your on-the-road setup has value beyond its convenience. I have yet to meet a client who’s not intrigued when I link my notebook to my cell phone through a Bluetooth personal area network (PAN) and download his or her Web site. And I have yet to meet a client who’s willing to wait for me to get back to my office to return a call or even pump out some work.

A consultant’s response time is one of his or her best sales tools. Don’t sacrifice yours to the road.

David Garrett is a Web designer and former IT director, as well as the author of “Herding Chickens: Innovative Techniques in Project Management.” He can be reached at dgarrett@certmag.com.

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