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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.

If 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.

So, 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 services them.

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

It 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 impartial advice.

How do you find a computer consultant? Here are five ways:

  • Check with businesses similar to yours. Most consultants are reached by referrals through their previous clients.

  • Use a 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 bad reputations.

You 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.

Consultant Fees

The 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.

Why 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!

If possible, you should ask about charges before the first session. Be sure to find out about the gray areas. Some gray areas are:

  • Does the 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.

  • Does the 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.)

  • When are 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.

  • Does the 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.

  • Does the 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.

  • Is the 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 more risk.

How 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.

Can you get bulk rates? Some consultants reduce rates for long engagements.

Getting 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.

If 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.

Let 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.

Get 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.

Get 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.

Get 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.

Be sure that there is a clear understanding about sensitive or proprietary data. Don't be afraid to ask the consultant to sign a reasonable non-disclosure statement.

Extra Services

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.

Is 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 good buys.

Be 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.

Summary

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.

The 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 systems.

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.

Scott

 

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