Marketing Tips for Independent IT Consultants

During the IT boom of the mid-to-late 90s it seemed like every IT professional who had any kind of high-paying skill decided to go solo.

And the vast majority found the rewards they were looking for more personal freedom and control over their careers, an abundance of interesting and challenging work, and financial success. The market was ripe for the picking.

In the post-9/11 economy, the opportunities for independent IT professionals are much harder to come by. With IT departments scrutinizing every line item in their budgets, many independent consultants are finding themselves on the bench -- that is, with downtime between paying gigs. Both new and established indies will have to market themselves much more aggressively to maintain their businesses this year.

For those who are struggling to maintain the viability of their solo careers or thinking of launching a new consulting practice in 2002, veteran independents offer the following marketing tips.

Get Out and Network

Face-to-face networking has never been more critical than it is this year, consultants and agencies say. "Searching online is a bust right now," says Christine Hokans, an independent IT project manager based in Belmont, Calif., and president of the Northern California chapter of the Independent Computer Consultants Association (ICCA). "You really have to know someone to get a job these days." She suggests attending ICCA meetings, joining local user groups and, most importantly, seeking out groups in which you'd have a unique skill set to offer. "Don't just go to meetings where everyone else is like you," Hokans says.

Focus your sales message on problem-solving, not technical skills.

If you're selling yourself on your ace technical skills alone, you'll lose out to the lowest bidder every time, consultants and recruiters say. Technical skills - even the hard-to-find ones - are ultimately a commodity, notes David Randolph, president of Prairie Trail Software in Plano, Texas, and president of the Dallas/Ft. Worth chapter of the ICCA. Expertise in solving specific business problems is the real differentiator. "Focus on the problems you have solved, not the way you solved them," Randolph advises.

Prepare to Adjust Your Rates

Although you may have enjoyed skyrocketing rates over the last few years, you may have to forgo an increase in 2002. And if your rates have been relatively high, you may even have to consider a downward correction to come in line with the current market. "Pricing is always negotiable, and anyone who tells you otherwise is deluding themselves," says Greg Hollings, president of Visionary Computer Consulting Inc. in Lakewood, Colo., and president of the Denver chapter of the ICCA. "And in a soft market, prices tend to come down."

Be Willing to Work with Agencies and RecruitersEven if you have a solid track record of getting direct contract work, you may have to consider working through a third-party this year. In such an uncertain market, open yourself up to any and all possibilities. With more consultants on the market, and fewer projects to go around, an agency or recruiter may just have the inside track to a key new client. "They can open doors that may otherwise be shut," Hokans says.

Volunteer

Contributing your IT expertise to a non-profit is a great way to keep busy, improve your skills and expand your personal network while you're on the bench. "It could even lead to a paying gig, which would be great," Hokans says. At the least, it will keep you focused and make you feel useful. And, in many cases, the service you provide could count as a tax deduction (check with your accountant).

Maintain a Positive Attitude

As the saying goes, "If you dream it, you can be it." Jon Higgins, general manager of Nemeth/Martin Consulting, a Danbury, Conn.-based IT consulting agency, advises consultants to stay focused and concentrate on generating gigs. "There have always been downturns, and things have always come back. I believe in the strength of the U.S. economy and the strength of people to get through this," Higgins says. "Personally, I believe that if people would stop talking down about things, the economy would get better faster."

Don't be Afraid to Launch a New Consulting PracticeIf you've lost your job and are mulling over life as an independent consultant, go for it, Randolph advises. "It's actually best to start a consulting business during a downturn because you're desperate, and that's important when starting a business," he says. "The mental shifts needed to switch from being an employee to a business owner won't happen unless you're hungry."

In that spirit, next week's column will detail how to launch an independent consulting business.

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