Political correctness as an IT consultant: DOs and DON’Ts

I’ve been an IT consultant for about 10 years now, on top of my regular 9-to-5 i’ve always had side consulting activities for other businesses, and around 2013 i was even teaching at the University of Santiago after hours, i guess i like to keep myself busy. Being a consultant is fun if you like to see and do different things all the time, this job ranges from just looking around and giving advise, to taking that advise and transforming it into small or even large projects. Sometimes it can be rewarding, sometimes it can be frustrating. But all in all over the years I’ve learned a thing or two regarding political correctness, or etiquette if you will, the DOs and DON’Ts.

DOs and good ideas:

  • ALWAYS bring business cards with you. This is something i learnt the hard way in Japan, where the business card exchange is almost a ceremony (meishi koukan), not so much overseas but still very important.
    • Get good quality business cards with your name, job title, email, phone number and name of your company. As for your job title “IT consultant” is fine, don’t go with “Senior IT Business Infrastructure Architectural Consultant” or add a bunch of certification logos, etc.. you are not the one to stand out here, you want the attention on your customer.
    • Carry many cards always, you want all the people on the table to know who you are. Sometimes you will not get to a deal with the main customer but sometimes these other people may have similar needs and you can get jobs from different departments or even different companies. This has happened to me when someone on the table changed companies and later needed an IT Consultant.
    • If you are consulting on behalf of different companies make sure they get you a tailored business card, you don’t want to consult for company X and in the first meeting with a customer hand over your company Y business card (because company X didn’t give you one).
    • At the time of introductions be polite, DO NOT slide your card on the table like a shuriken, do the card exchange before sitting if possible, if not, stand up and hand over your cards person to person, especially if someone joins the meeting later. We don’t need all the meishi koukan details outside japan but basic manners make a difference.
  • Adjust your speech style and etiquette to the occasion. This is very important, the variety of customers you may get is highly diverse, from technical staff, supervisors, managers (juniors and seniors), and from many different industries. Every occasion needs previous study just like the business people who got you this first meeting. This is a “know your enemy” kind of advise, do some research on the person you are meeting, mainly age, current position, previous positions, industry, internal company department, etc.. this will give you some hints on how to walk into the meeting. Young managers tend to be more relaxed and a more casual conversation is possible, but Senior managers are rather stiff and therefore precise speech and table manners are needed; use “sir”, “mister”, “madam”, etc… show respect, they like hierarchies, especially if you are younger. General advise, don’t be cocky or bossy, sit straight (don’t be that kind of consultant sitting as owning the place), be careful with hand gestures (don’t cross arms!), smile even if there are some micro aggressions coming from the customer (i cannot stress this enough, practice a good friendly smile), use a lot “we” and “us” instead of “I”, you need to convey trust and avoid being seen as a threat (more on this in the DON’Ts section).
  • Bring the right Technical Tools with you. This should be obvious but always bring with you whatever you need for the first meeting, if you know you are doing a site visit after the meeting at least a laptop, some cables and accessories depending on your customer’s business. My basic IT consultant tech toolkit is:
    • Portable laptop with good battery life: If i know it’s only going to be an indoor meeting i use a Macbook or an iPad, but if i know we will do a site visit i also bring a field laptop, with Lenovo’s x200 series being my favorite.
    • Serial-USB and Ethernet cables: The old reliable one (USB to RJ-45) or new tools such as an AirConsole work well. A couple ethernet cables in different lengths are also a good idea. If you do a site visit, more often than not your customer will have little idea if a device is configured at all, and that’s valuable information for your survey. For serials i use Black Box IC199A-R3 with a classic Cisco rollover DB9 to RJ-45 attached to it.
    • A portable screwdriver kit: Believe me, this is useful, you are visiting the unknown and most of the time the customer has about the same knowledge as you have about their physical infrastructure. Most of the time i need to unscrew something to check a label, open a rack, remove a server bezel, etc… i use a Jackly JK-6089 kit.

    • A portable flashlight: What? yes, a flashlight and a portable one, there will be times you will need to look into a rack in a dark and dirty room to trace a cable just to get an idea where it goes to. You could argue smartphones can use the camera LED for that, sure, but are you prepared to drop and potentially lose your phone inside a rack you may never see ever again? i don’t think so. Any portable USB LED flashlight from Amazon will do the job.
    • Any other right tool for the job. Are you a Wi-Fi consultant? you will probably carry a Wi-Fi tester such as a Fluke AirCheck. Unified Communications consultant? you may want to have some external PSTN numbers and MCUs available for testing and measuring jitter/delay, etc… depending on your consulting line you want to have the right tools for the job.
  • Bring basic PPE with you just in case. Is your customer in the construction, manufacturing, or any other industrial business? be prepared, i’ve made the mistake before of not bringing basic Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) with me knowing this beforehand and it’s a huge pain for the customer to get some for you at last minute (especially shoes and goggles). Now i always carry with me safety shoes (steel or composite toe, slip resistant with electrical hazard protection), precision and cut resistant gloves, ear plugs, safety goggles, KN95 face masks and a helmet (a hard hat for you US folks). For shoes i always go with Skechers Work Footwear (check out the Azbar model, great value for the price) and for helmets an MSA hard hat will do, but my personal favorite is a Petzl Vertex Best with a Petzl Tikka headlamp (which saves me most of the time the use of the portable flashlight). This point is critical during the times of COVID, Personal Protective Equipment needs to be REALLY personal.

DON’Ts and bad ideas:

  • Again this could be obvious but it’s a bad idea not to read and consider the good ideas listed above 🙂 
  • Don’t show yourself as a threat. If your customer decided to go with a consultant it’s most likely because something isn’t working as expected, so don’t put the finger in the wound and avoid the following:
    • Don’t be cocky, a show-off or a know-it-all. Ask questions as a survey for your consulting practice and not as a way to show the customer how bad they screwed up before. Be empathetic, you are there to help.
    • Mind your language, you can find all types of disastrous deployments when consulting and chances are that either your customer did it or someone else who works for the company did (and this person could be next to you during the site visit). Always use positive language, ask things like “what problem did you try to solve with this setup?” or “what is the mission of this device here in the rack”?, instead of “why did you do it like this?” or anything in that line since it sounds more of a reproach than anything. 
    • DO NOT bash vendors or technology. Yes, you read it right, you can be a Cisco fanboy and get the shivers when you see D-Link or a generic Chinese router, but that’s what you will have to work with in the beginning and if that device doesn’t suffice you will later have enough technical proof to justify your opinion, just not now, not in the first meetings or during a site visit. Same as the point above, it could be your customer who chose it, or a close employee, you don’t want to question them, ever, try it and you will learn the hard way how to lose a deal. 
      • I have a recent personal experience about this. I’m very opinionated as a Network Engineer with Cisco Firepower, i personally think it’s a sub-optimal poorly rebranded product (coming from Sourcefire) and i made the mistake to bash those firewalls with a customer who had already invested over USD 100K in the technology, and this almost cost me the trust i already achieved with the customer up to that point.
    • Don’t sale fear to customers. It’s tempting, especially during site visits where you witness the most deep wounds the customer has, and coming up with phrases such as “if you don’t fix this in the next 3 days your factory will implode and you will lose trillions of dollars” can eventually lead you to a good deal, but can you stick to your facts? what happens if this is not entirely true and the customer finds out? you get the idea. 
  • Don’t visit a customer without negotiating your rates BEFOREHAND. Either if you are consulting on behalf of another company or directly for the customer, DO ALWAYS negotiate your rates and the scope of your work before any meeting. This is tricky and you don’t want to lose time, money and energy in vain, so here’s my advise:
    • If you will be just meeting the customer, indoors, let’s say 1 hour top, and always if the chances of closing a deal are medium to high, you can waive any charges. If the discussion needs more than 1 meeting and several hours of dedication you should be charging your base rates. If the customer doesn’t show positive about this, you may offer a lower rate for videoconferencing instead of in-person and fixed time slots for these meetings, and if you close a deal, later you can waive these charges.
    • If you will be meeting a customer and you are 100% positive that a site visit is necessary then you need to always charge your base rates. Justify this on time and the delivery of a “site visit report” where you will propose the next steps, be it small or large, and if you close a deal with any of those proposals, later you can waive the charges for the site visit. 

There’s probably more to share but i will split those experiences into other dedicated posts, especially the one about “selling fear” to customers, which is something IT Sale Associates tend to get into just for the sake of meeting their sales quota, i can’t blame them but massive sales based on a dishonest process is diametrically different than selling smaller but with the building of long lasting relationships with our customers, which will bring smaller but continuous revenue over time. 

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