Selecting & Using Computer Consultants
When computers sold for several hundred thousand dollars each, computer
consulting was confined, like the computers themselves, to large
companies. Now that computers have invaded small businesses and become
tools for working at home, people who never used consultants before find
that they need this assistance to solve problems and help them get the
most out of their computer systems.
you have never used a consultant before, the first few attempts can be
trying. Not only do you face the normal pitfalls of using a contractor,
but computer technology adds its own challenges. Since computers are
sporadically unreliable, subject to incompatibilities and conceptually
hard to understand, the best solutions are often obscure and mistakes
can be costly.
here is my advice for working with computer consultants. It applies not
only to consultants, but to computer dealers, mail order houses and
anyone else who sells you computer products or services.
Selecting a Consultant
What is a computer consultant? A computer consultant gives advice on
selecting or using computer products, and sometimes creates, installs or
Computer consultants range from those who provide mostly advice (general
computer consultants) to those who do only short-term programming
(contract programmers). Some consultants work for firms that act
as brokers for their services. Many computer consultants also sell
computer hardware or software. Value-added resellers (VAR) receive a
discount from the manufacturer on products they se
is important to know what kind of consultant you are talking to, because
this will influence the quality of advice and the types of results the
consultant can provide. For example, if you want to know what kind of
accounting system to buy, you will get unbiased advice from a general
computer consultant. But buying that accounting system from a VAR may be
less expensive because of their discount.
When you start out, look for a general computer consultant. If your
needs are modest, he or she can provide general software, such as a
spreadsheet, word processor or database. With a little instruction, this
may be all you need. If you need a more specialized system, the
consultant can find you a dealer, VAR or contract programmer to provide
it, and can help you manage those people. This way, you get the most
do you find a computer consultant? Here are five ways:
businesses similar to yours. Most consultants are reached by
referrals through their previous clients.
directory. The phone book is the most obvious, but doesn't tell you
about services. You can check a more specific listing, such as the
Consultants and Consulting Organizations Directory published by Gale
Research Company of Detroit. The Better Business Bureau and other
groups also publish directories in many areas.
Check with your
own professional organization. Some consultants list themselves with
professional organizations in the fields they serve.
Check with your
accountant. Many accounting firms have separate computer consulting
services. Those that don't can refer you.
Check with the
Better Business Bureau or the Chamber of Commerce in your area. The
BBB collects complaints and can help you screen out consultants with
may also want to check with a consulting or computer trade organization.
Some organizations to note are: ICCA (Independent Computer Consultants
Association), PATCA (The Professional and Technical Consultants
Association), IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers)
and ACM (Association for Computing Machinery). You may also want to
check with a local computer user's group. A good place to find them is
in the business calendar of your newspaper.
average computer consultant in this country charged $1087 per day (in
1992), with the average increasing at 10-15% each year. However,
computer consultant fees vary widely and a high fee is not necessarily
an indication of quality.
do charges seem so high (compared to salaries)? First, consultants are
in business, with overhead like all other businesses. Second,
consultants must take in enough revenue to cover items hidden as
benefits to employees, like insurance and retirement.
Finally, like all businessmen, consultants are entitled to a profit for
taking the risks associated with being in business. When you note that
computer consultants offer a technical skill for which they may have
worked many years, this fee begins to look like a bargain!
possible, you should ask about charges before the first session. Be sure
to find out about the gray areas. Some gray areas are:
consultant charge for the first meeting? About a quarter of all
consultants do, even when discussing whether to take their service.
Most consultants begin when you state you want work done, or when
you sign a contract. Please don't expect a consultant to spend an
afternoon discussing without compensation your computer system and
what to do with it.
consultant charge for travel time to and from your place of
business? Most consultants don't, unless you are fairly far away.
(Fifty to one hundred miles is a typical limit.)
payments due? Most consultants expect to receive payment promptly
after you receive their invoice. However, they may expect you to pay
at the end of the session or even to put up a retainer.
consultant charge for direct expenses? Most consultants charge if
they incur an expense on your behalf. If you ask your consultant to
call a software supplier in a distant area, you may be charged for
the phone call.
consultant charge for travel expense to and from your place of
business? This is a kind of direct expense. Many consult- ants do
charge for this and a typical charge is 27" per mile.
consultant based in another city or state? When consultants must
travel, most charge a per diem rate to go out of town. This averages
about $100 a day, to cover meals, lodging and incidentals, but not
travel costs. In expensive areas, expect to pay more.
Billing methods vary widely. A survey of consultants shows that at any
given time 38% are using daily or hourly rate, 27% are using fixed price
contract, 19% are using fixed fee plus expenses and the other 16% are
using more complicated variations.
Daily and hourly rate consulting allows you the greatest control. It
tends to be less expensive than fixed price contract because you assume
do you minimize expenses? The key to keeping expenses down is to use the
consultant effectively. The section
Getting What You Want
shows you how.
you get bulk rates? Some consultants reduce rates for long engagements.
What You Want
Specify the problem, not the solution. Many clients ask for additional
computer memory or for a particular kind of software to be created,
installed or found. Often, the solution they propose does not fully
address the business's needs.
you want your consultant to use a particular solution, take a few
moments and ask: why? Why do I want to use this particular product or
method. The answer is a good starting point for the consultant. In this
way, you leave room for a better solution an d lessen the risk that you
have improperly diagnosed your problem.
your consultant know how the problem fits into the big picture.
Computers represent only one part of business operations. You want to
get a solution that fits into the rest of your business.
Listen in computer terms, understand in business terms. You should
determine what impact the proposed changes will have on your business.
Unless you communicate what you want on both levels, you can get a
technically correct solution that is useless in the context of your
business. Keep asking questions until you and the consultant are both
clear on these two levels.
a written proposal. Ask that it include a timeline or other indication
of how the consulting will proceed. This can bring out schedule
conflicts early, so they get resolved.
Manage the process. Don't wait for a computer product to be delivered to
see if it works. Break tasks down into easily manageable chunks and be
sure that each makes sense.
written reports frequently. Capture the knowledge as it is being
produced, so that if anything happens to your consultant, the knowledge
you paid for isn't lost.
Understand how each activity fits into a major requirement. Don't let
the project get off course. The trick to a successful computer project
is to implement only essential parts at first, then optimize and
enhance. This is the evolutionary approach. If you have to start over
again, you will have wasted the least resources.
Keep each task very basic. There is no job too simple for the computer.
The computer can make complicated tasks simple, but it can also make
simple tasks very complicated.
an example of the finished product. If the system is supposed to produce
a report, use a typewriter if necessary to make up an example of what
you want. If the screen is supposed to show something, have an example
drawn on paper. A good computer professional can work backward from the
result to develop what you need, and the finished system will naturally
focus on what you expect.
sure that there is a clear understanding about sensitive or proprietary
data. Don't be afraid to ask the consultant to sign a reasonable
What should you expect to get from a computer consultant besides the
consulting? Ask what extra services your consultant provides.
Typical extra services are follow-up telephone consulting and on-site
support after a computer product is installed. Find out whether these
are included or provided at extra charge.
the work guaranteed? Computer product guarantees give you little more
than minimal protection. The best guarantee is to manage the computer
project so that you get what you want.
Consultants can research a computer product before you buy. Since they
are frequently in contact with dealers, they usually know where to get
sure to get tangible results. The natural outcome of the consulting
process is a recommendation. A description of the current situation and
the technical or business reasons for choosing a course of action are
key parts as well. Be sure this is all captured in written form at
regular intervals. Most consultants provide a report. Insist on a
high-quality written report.
Select a general computer consultant first, use other computer
professionals for specific tasks. Ask about charges early. There is a
lot of variation, so don't make assumptions. Be sure you can see how the
proposed solution fits into your business. Proceed in small steps, and
have the consultant document what is being accomplished. Get something
working and go from there.
computer is a wonderful tool. It's sad to see an unproductive system.
Even the smallest computer can be effective if used intelligently.
Computer consultants play a key role in the effective use of computer
Copyright © 1987,
1992, 1995 by Richard J. Wingerter. Permission to publish is granted to
all publications charging neither direct subscription nor per copy fees,
provided this copyright notice is included and provided that the text is
not materially altered and is published in its entirety (although it may
be split between issues).
Although I did not write
the article above, I find it to be one of the most helpful guides to
selecting and using a computer consultant that I've ever seen. It's hard
to believe that it's ten years old. Since I saw the reprint permission,
I thought I would share it with you all.