Tuesday, August 9, 2016

I lost a client: Trials and Tribulations of IT consulting

I lost my biggest (and for all intents and purposes last) IT consulting client this week.  

Now truth be told I wasn't making all that much there but it was better than nothing and to me it was an investment.  One made with the prospect of more hours as their business grew and more referrals.  I'll cut to the chase.

You roll the dice on any investment and this one didn't pan out.  Revenue went down instead of up, the client downsized and the one referral I got from them stiffed me for a grand in billable hours.

The writing was on the wall long before the sad email I received this week, however, and I'd been expecting a development like this for awhile.  

Slow payment, resistance to new projects and curt communication are all signs that you're on the way out and lately they were happening more often.

The relationships I build with clients are both blessing and curse.  A blessing because I get the benefit of the doubt and continue the relationship.  A curse because I'm expected to suffer the consequences of any malady that occurs along with them.  That means discounts, free work and in some cases a zero sum game. 

Even then sometimes it's just not enough.  In this latest case the client figured that a relative could do what I was doing for free.  I can't compete with free and won't try.

That said, this client was no different than any other long term engagement in that I had an intimate relationship with their business.  I knew more about where my money was coming from than most in my position would.  That's not by accident either.  The cornerstone of my business is knowing how my client does their business and doing whatever I can to support that.

It's simple, if they make money I make money.

After nearly two decades of IT consulting I've lost three clients.  Two including this most recent were due to budget issues and one was pure politics.  I've had other short term and what I call "hit and run" clients over the years but those never appealed to me.  If I can't build a relationship and instead get treated like an appliance repairman then I'm not interested in sticking around.  

Saying, "I lost the clients." is a bit harsh, however. As none of those exits were on bad terms and all of them were after at least a five year stint.  Even the so-called political exit was nothing more than getting caught up in the fallout from events that had nothing to do with me.  I worked for them for over ten years by the way so do with that what you will.

Personally I believe you have to be doing something right to stick around that long when your services are always at the top of the bean counters cost-cutting list.  That and the longer you can stay away from on-demand clients the better.

I've never been a big fan of "Hit and Run" IT mostly because it never pays well and you end up fighting for every penny.  All the while losing your shirt in the process.

Ultimately you end up hating the people you're trying to help which is an internal conflict I'd rather not have.  So I look for longer engagements. There's a price to pay for that when you're on your own, however.   I keep my active contracts limited to no more than 3 as any more means I can't provide the level of service a long term relationship demands.  

That also limits a fallback position which is where I'm at now.  You don't have much of an opportunity to scare up leads if your phone is constantly ringing.  Worse if those clients aren't generating any referrals you're trapped.  Which gets you to...here.
I'll be honest, I just finished an online application for Autozone right after filling out one for an IT manager with a fortune 500 company. 

At this point, whomever calls first wins!

Yeah, it's that bad....

There's both wisdom and foolishness in the way I operated my consulting business and I've been called on the carpet for it more than once by my consulting peers.  They say I get too involved and care too much when I should just be focusing on extracting as much money as I can.

They want me to be like them, appliance repairmen.  Sadly, they may be right as they're usually puling down 6 figure incomes while I'm living on 40 cent Burritos.  A tech martyr was not what I was going for....

I've mentioned before that I had a sense of activism when it came to IT.  It's what drove me to getting into the field as I didn't care for the bad (and deserved) rap it got for being full of ego maniacal jerks. 

 I wanted to change that perception through my own actions and for awhile it yielded positive results.  As time wore on, however, I found I really wasn't reaping all the benefits I'd hoped for.  While I truly loved all my clients I knew that at some point they were going to take advantage of my good nature.  

You sleep in the bed you make and if your client relationships are built on more good will on one side than the other then you're not leaving yourself much leverage to change them when the time comes.  

Let's face the reality.  There's a sense of organizational narcissism that pervades the corporate space that only respects a similar narcissism in their business relationships.  It doesn't matter how large or small, it's always there.

That's because nobody really has the time to think about the human condition when they're trying to run a business.  Rather, they want definitive answers that can easily fit into the bean counters spreadsheets populated by well defined metrics and "milestones."

Even if that isn't realistically possible or fair that's just how business is done.  It's Texas Hold'em and somebody's got to pay the blinds.  As a consultant, they'll try to make sure it's you.

Which is why instead of success I end up a martyr.  

I seem to keep making the same mistake in choosing my causes.  

IT is a cold calculating field by it's very nature and the most successful in it are similarly defined.  That's not going to change anytime soon.  In fact that's what's expected and any departure while initially welcomed ultimately turns out badly for the pseudo-activist.  

I do the same thing with video games.  On my other blog I constantly rail against the injustices of big video game publishers and the relative blindness of their consumers that pump billions of dollars into inferior products.  

Nobody cares about making the world right for patrons of computer support and video games.  

But don't get me wrong, I'm no sucker.  Well, at least not willingly.  I just have an overheated sense of fairness.  

So what do I do now?  Does Don Quixote stop poking at windmills?

Yes, yes he does...

Look, don't get me wrong.  I love tech, I love IT, I just can't stand most of the people that work in it.  Most of them are with very limited exception the very stereotype of the narcissistic, egotistical IT jerks.  As far as I'm concerned they're all in dire need of a fat lip which I'd dearly love to provide.

Over and over again...

But on to more productive thoughts...

My only hope is to either get out of this masochistic madness or do what I initially set out to do and get into higher levels of IT management leaving the hands on drudgery to the ego maniacs. 

It's the reason why I have sixty thousand in student loans and spent Twenty+ years in the field even when it was probably wiser to get out.  If I can't lead from the trenches maybe I can lead from the mountain.  I certainly couldn't do any worse than the inept morons I've met with who currently occupy those positions.

I don't hold out much hope of that, however.  The most likely outcome for my future is pushing alternators and car batteries for a living.

I say that because I've interviewed with many of those whose jobs I'd ultimately seek to occupy and found them to be largely unimaginative, unimpressive and inadequate.  Meaning nothing has really changed in the world of the IT professional if it this is what business is looking to for leadership.  

So I suppose I can't really blame the lower level IT guys for being such jerks when lead by such uninspiring folk.

As such, the landscape being what it is, that door will likely never open to me.

That's OK.   I've liked cars far longer than computers for most of my life.  So long as the bills are paid I can take those well honed customer service skills and apply them to a field where they can be put to better use.

Will I continue IT blogging?  Probably, if I find something interesting to share or if my IT fortunes improve.  

Right now, however, I'm feeling very jaded.  I look at IT like an Ex-spouse with whom the divorce was amicable and without drama.  I may like her but it's unlikely we'll get back together unless something extraordinary happens.

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