Dear Career Adviser

A biweekly, interactive advice column in which selected questions will be answered by US columnist and recruitment expert Fran Quittel.

Dear Career Adviser:

As an independent consultant, I've been asked to prepare several extensive proposals during the past several months, but I haven't gotten any new work. How should I respond to prospective clients who want extensive proposals before they hire me?

- Burned in Buffalo.

Dear Burned:

When budgets are slim, consultants frequently complain about potential clients who request proposals but then don't respond with offers of paid work. Some clients use the proposals to benchmark competing proposals, while others use them as well-laid-out (and gratis) game plans for doing the work themselves.

To avoid being burned, follow these preproposal basics: Ask the potential client about the company's budget and budget cycle for the current year and the next, and find out how decisions to use consultants are made and who the decision-makers are. Also, ask about the client's time frame for making a decision and initiating work, the number of proposals being solicited and the staff members who will attend proposal meetings.

Never just fax or e-mail your proposal. Prepare your prospective client to meet with you face to face, and be sure it's clear that you want feedback on your submission.

Finally, if your proposal includes a detailed analysis that a prospective client could use on its own, offer to analyze the client's needs, requirements and alternative solutions and provide documentation in key areas - for a fee.

If the client resists these moves, find someone else who will pay you.

Dear Career Adviser:

I have a computer science degree with a background in Java programming and databases using Oracle and Access. After graduation, I took a job on an IT help desk after looking for work for four months. I currently work in a telecommunications company as a support specialist for Internet, data and mobility faults. Now I want to know how I can move up.

- Moving Up From Help Desk.

Dear Moving:

In years past, you might have impressed an interviewer by working on a help desk and building Web pages for nonprofits or coding at home. However, in this market, these skills aren't good enough to compete against the talent pool of five-year Java and Oracle developers who are also available.

Plan to spend a year or two on the help desk until the market eases, says recruiter Sam Merchant, CEO of DML Technical Resources Inc. in Oakland, Calif. During that time, learn the code behind the applications you're supporting inside out. That way, when a development job opens up, either within your company or at a competitor, you'll be ready.

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