As a consultant, a recurring situation is one where you have a lead for a new project, but the specific work is not something you have done before. For instance, we might get called in to do an audit of a network which has Open VMS systems. Not having worked with these specific systems always poses a hurdle when trying to convince the client that they should go with us. Or the project might require us to provide consulting on GPRS security. Now, projects like these are of greater value simply because they expand our repertoire, and can be used immediately to pitch the same service to other clients. So here are some tips to get out of the chicken-and-egg situation, and convince the client that you can actually provide the right consulting expertise:
- Get access to the technology: Typically, when we've not had the experience on a technology, but we do know enough about it, we try to get our hands on the technology first. In some cases, this simply means downloading the trial software from the Internet and loading it up in our lab. In other cases, it means figuring out an existing client who has the same technology and may extend a favor and give us access to the test systems they have.
- Ask around: However, there are some cases - especially those that involve high-end technology - where it is simply not possible to get access to the technology. In this case, the best course of action is to check within your list of contacts (clients, partners, ex-employees) who may have worked on that technology or domain and would be willing to help you out.
- Write an article: If at this stage, you feel you know sufficiently enough about the technology, it is always worthwhile to write an article on that subject. This could either address the work you have been asked to do directly, or it could be about some other aspect of that subject, but in a way it would still help establish your credibility. A lot of publications related to your field of work are always looking out for good writers, and might carry your article. Some of them even pay a decent amount for your submission. Even if the article is not accepted by a publication, you could always upload it to your website.
- Deliver a talk at a forum:Look around within your region and determine professional bodies that are related to your area of work. Most of these bodies or societies convene at least once a month, and are always on the lookout for good speakers. If you can swing an invitation to present at these seminars or meetings you might win potential clients on the related subject. Another positive outcome is that after the talk you can upload the Powerpoint presentation to the "Resources" section of your website and sooner or later it will get indexed by search engines. Potential clients searching for consultants on the subject will land up on your website and call you up.
- Submit a concept note: In order to get the client to buy into your idea, prepare a 2-3 page concept note on the subject. This note's main focus is not to directly tell the client why they should hire you, but rather to demonstrate your knowledge of the subject. So it should be opinionated and it should take into consideration the client's specific requirements. Mention regulatory guidelines, related studies, and expert opinions to back up your points of view. Be careful not to give away everything in the concept note. Also avoid arriving at any definite conclusions, since that's what the actual consulting assignment would involve.
- Hold a topical workshop: Often the main buyer at the client's end may not be the only decision-maker. There may be other people involved, who may similarly need to be convinced about your abilities and skillsets. Suggest to the client that you could hold a 1-2 hour workshop to get the others to buy in to the idea, and more importantly get their viewpoints on board. If they feel you are sincerely interested in what they have to say, they will reciprocate that when it's decision-making time.
- Leverage other related work: As your consulting experience and domain knowledge expands, with every new requirement there is always some or the other past work that you can bring up to convince a client. For instance, if it is GPRS security, you could bring up work that you might have done for a telco, which might have involved just a wee bit of work on their GPRS systems. Or you could bring into play work you have done on similar technology where the same concepts were involved.
- Tap into external expertise. If none of this seems to be working, you could always outsource specific parts of the work to a domain expert. Of course, this means lower margins for you, but at least the client will not feel short-changed. You provide the overall approach and quality assurance, while the outsourced consultant would provide the domain expertise. We have done this on numerous occasions, and even more often we have had work outsourced to us because we had the edge in terms of domain knowledge. It helps a lot to maintain a database of external consultants and their areas of expertise, which you can then tap into as soon as the lead warms up.