IT and Business Insights for SMB Solution Providers

Being Top Dog with Clients

A trusted adviser relationship helps you better serve clients and keeps your business healthy at the same time. Here’s how. By Bob Hood

If you are a small business IT consultant, you really become the keeper of your clients' data and the caretaker of their businesses. If you can't accept that responsibility, then you shouldn't be doing what we do. That realization has certainly driven me--fear is a great motivator!

This is the trusted adviser role everybody is talking about. I'm on the org chart at two of my clients; and at three others, every time they put out a new telephone list, I'm on it until someone realizes I'm not really staff. It's the kind of relationship that's been very rewarding for me, and I think it's been very valuable for my clients--they know I'm not just the mechanic.

I make it a point to do a formal sit-down with major clients at least twice a year to discuss their strategic planning, how I integrate with that, and how what I'm doing with their infrastructure is going to be influenced by any change in their plans. I may find out about a physical relocation, changes in personnel, or downsizing, for example, long before the CEO makes it public, which enables me to do a better job of planning for changes in their information infrastructure. It also locks me in to the trusted adviser role.

In addition to the twice-yearly meetings, another part of establishing yourself as a trusted adviser is to develop a relationship with whoever controls the decision making--the CEO, the COO, or maybe the controller. Keep them informed about what you're doing without tech-talking them to death. You might approach it by saying, "I just want you to know we upgraded your anti-virus software this week because of some new threats, so you're protected." Then when they read in the paper about a new virus or worm problem, they already know they're covered.

THE "WE" FACTOR

I also use what I call the "we" factor. That is, when I sit down with clients, I talk in terms of what we are going to do with the network, what I need to know so we can make the right decisions. It's about us, not you and me. It's very basic, but it's something people forget.

My clients are not-for-profit organizations that rely heavily on the personal relationships they have with their peers to find the various contractors they need. And being a trusted adviser makes you referable-your clients feel good enough about you to voluntarily refer you. The key is finding clients that are part of larger circles in which they do, in fact, propagate information. Third-party referrals are going to drive your business forward.

Particularly in the not-for-profit sector, personnel changes more often than in the for-profit sector. And if you work with only the accounting manager, for example, and he or she leaves the organization, you've lost your relationship. But if you have established a relationship with the key decision maker and the accounting manager leaves, you can call on that decision maker, who will more than likely walk you into the new manager's office and introduce you. And with that kind of introduction, the new manager isn't going to call the SMB consultant he or she worked with at a previous job. The manager gets the implied message right away-here's your IT guy; he's the one you work with.

BUSINESS SKILLS A MUST

Just as important as your technical skills are the business skills you've developed over the years. Being well rounded enables you to say to a client, "Does it make more sense to lease this or just buy it outright? I've done a little checking, and the best lease prices we can get are now in the 12 to 14 percent interest rate range. But you may have a line of credit at the bank and can do better." Broadening your knowledge enables you to help them beyond making recommendations about their information infrastructure. You'll already know they have to think about costs, capacity, and planning for the future. And as a trusted adviser, you can be there to guide them.

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Big Savings for Clients

I am a real evangelist for an organization called TechSoup.org, one of the oldest and largest not-for-profit technology assistance agencies in the United States. There's a service on the site called TechSoup Stock that enables not-for-profit organizations to access donated and deeply discounted technology products if they qualify under the program, which all of my clients do.

When you visit TechSoup Stock you will go into shock because, for example, Small Business Server 2008 Premium Edition can be purchased for an administrative fee of only $62. The client five-pack is $31, which is normally a $500 purchase at regular retail-a significant savings. Likewise, Microsoft Office Professional Plus 2007 is just $20 per license, as opposed to $300 or $400.

When I go to meetings with other Microsoft partners, I'm amazed at the number of people who don't know about this site and how much value they can provide to their clients by using it. Working with clients, we've been able to buy software for virtually a song. We then take the money we saved and buy really good hardware. That's pretty hard to beat.

Profile: Bob Hood
Founder, Hood Consulting Group
Location: Chicago
Established: August 1995
Web site: www.hoodconsulting.com
Company focus: Design, install, and support local area networks for Chicago-area not-for-profit organizations
Key personality trait: I talk too much.
Favorite part of my job: Hearing a client say things like, "Wow! I didn't realize we could do that."
Least favorite part: Rebuilding workstations after recent malware infections
Words of wisdom: Stay lean, watch your own bottom line religiously, watch your spending like your clients should, and find ways to deliver maximum value.

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