business intelligence

Selling E-Consulting Services

I am an Excel consultant. I produce spreadsheets for companies all over the world and, at the start of this century, my job didn’t exist. I work remotely and few of my clients ever meet me in person.

The fact I don’t have to travel means I have very few overheads. The fact I incur few overheads means businesses can pay me directly for the work I do, and no one else is taking any sort of cut. However, there is one major shortcoming. Why would you ask me to build a spreadsheet when you don’t really know anything about me?

My experience of Excel consulting has taught me a few lessons. Firstly, you need a website. This is essential for generating sales although, theoretically, you could just cold call every company in the phone directory. It also lets a client know that you take your line of work seriously. If a client is going to spend $1,000 on a spreadsheet, they want the security of knowing you will provide ongoing support. Remember, they know nothing about your career, so need the confidence that you will still be around in a year’s time.

E-consulting is all about confidence. You need the confidence that a client is going to pay for the help you give them. They need the confidence that you will complete the work to the required standard. So when should the client pay?

Everyone has their own answer to this question. Ultimately, someone has to perform the work, or pay the money in good faith. My answer is that the smaller company should always be the one to act in good faith. When developing a spreadsheet for a medium sized business, I would get them to agree terms at outset but I wouldn’t ask for payment until I’d completed the project. It is good practice to ensure you have some company details so you can pursue them through the courts should they fail to pay. When developing a spreadsheet for an individual, I would request payment up front. Individuals expect to pay companies a deposit for services so this is not an issue.

I have never had an issue with non-payment, although the nature of my work may provide some explanation for this. As an Excel consultant, businesses pay me to make their processes more efficient. If a business is about to go under, it does not want to front-load costs. Secondly, very few projects last more than a month from start to finish. Therefore, a healthy company is unlikely to become bankrupt in that time period. If performing larger projects, I would recommend operating on a consultative basis and billing incrementally.

The final advice is to understand the business case for contracting your services. If you wouldn’t employ yourself, chances are that no-one else will. So with Microsoft Excel, a lot of people waste time doing tasks manually that could be easily be automated using Visual Basic. If an employee spends a day a month preparing a report, you could potentially save the company e.g. $4,000/yr (once all overheads are considered), if you can automate the entire process.

So if I charged $1,500 to solve the problem, I would be saving the company money. Well, maybe. But what if I was wasting half the time automating a very small part of the process which only takes 10 minutes to do manually? Should I explain to the client that I can do the job for $750 but that they will still need to make a few changes at their end?

The answer has always got to be “yes”. It demonstrates that you understand the nature of their problem, and that you can be trusted. There’s no point trying to squeeze a customer because any experienced consultant will tell you that the bulk of their work comes from existing clients. If the client trusts you to explain what is and isn’t worth doing, they will come back to you more often.