How To Stand Out As A Tech Consulting Firm

As a newer employee to the technology consulting firm, Ruckbau, I started to become interested in what sets one consulting company apart from the next. And because we are based in the Bay area, a mecca for IT, there tends to be some big competition, as you might expect.

Therefore, I wanted to know how businesses choose at all? What makes one firm “jump out” from the other? Is it the website quality, the verve, expertise, or references? If it is the references, what do potential clients need to hear?

After exploring the intricate web of articles, blogs, IT sites, and business pages that discuss this very subject, I have decided to come up with an abridged list of qualities IT firms seem to need to catch a potential client’s eye.

  1. What’s the point of the mission statement?

My whole life, whether in academia, working at NGOs or research firms, I have constantly heard, time and time again, the importance of a mission statement . The “holly” mission statement supposedly provides value, clarity, and comprehension for clients, grant organizations, and web surfers alike to understand who and what your business is all about. However, remember that saying “actions speak louder than words” ? Well it seems the same is true for mission statements. I have heard of weeks invested in developing and devising a business’s mission statement, only to have a team of people forget it once it was plastered on the wall. What customers (and employees) want is to read, hear, and experience from the firm they choose that the firm itself truly lives and breaths their mission and goal. Makes sense right? To sum up what you do in one sentence, confidently, and further, be able to elaborate about it in a meaningful way, not scripted- just passion. This creates trust on the client’s end. So get your company onboard, start some team building exercises that will help everyone critically engage with what it is that your company does. Because a tech company is just a tech company until you got something else to say for yourself.

  1. What do you offer?

This goes hand-in-hand with the mission statement, albeit, the more detailed and tailored version. “The proof is in the pudding”, as they say. Enumerating what you do in clear bullet points and plain english on your website is imperative to get clients to stick around and read more. Because remember, it might be the most sophisticated, articulate content you ever wrote, and you may be an absolute genius in the field, but if no one is picking up what you are throwing down, your efforts go to shame. Some of the particular descriptors you might want to consider tailoring your offers to on your site should adhere to- functionality, technology, and product scope- with a focus on budget, accomplishments, references, and expertise. If you got it flaunt it!

  1. Value

If you are a curmudgeon because you have been working as a consultant for more than half your life and now have to compete with everyone and their brother (and said brother has only been consulting for the past two years), then you can probably provide a client with a lot more value than the average joe. Therefore, it is important you get that circulated- websites, word-of-mouth, yelp reviews- they all help! Businesses shopping for IT consulting companies definitely like knowing, for the most part, that their IT concerns are not in the hands of a novice. Let your curmudgeon colors shine!

You might believe yourself to be an expert in two very specific fields in the IT world, however, that doesn’t read to a broad range of potential clients. Although you want to be business savvy and honest about where your expertise lie, you also want to present technical versatility to show you are able to deal with a broad range of issues. Identifying that you can quickly adapt and assess any project is going to exemplify your experience, exposure, and credibility.

So what it comes down to at the moment is, online presence, along with the girth of your knowledge, holds the most weight in getting people interested . However, it is a fine balance between being overly specific and overtly generalized. The best advice seems to be- put yourself in your clients shoes. What would you want from a IT Consulting company? How would you navigate the influx of IT firms out there today?

Stay tuned for a follow up article!

 

 

Kayleigh Stack

Customer Liaison and Research Associate

Pros and Cons of Bigcommerce.com

Everyday more and more businesses are using Bigcommerce.com. As a tech nerd, Start-up owner, and employee at Ruckbau, a technology consulting company, I too have had my Bigcommerce.com adventures. At certain pointsI have found myself frustrated, while at other moments I’ve been pleasantly satisfied. After having a decent amount of experience with this company as a customer, I came up with a list of pros and cons, in hopes to help both the bigcommerce.com expert and novice.

The Cons (because they are always more fun to start with)

1- Nightmare slideshow (However, this may not be the case for every layout).

 When you pick a layout for your online shop, more likely than not it will come with a slideshow. The slideshow consists of a big banner on top of the page with a few images. Given its name, I’m pretty sure it’s function is self-explanatory.

 The slideshow in the layout our customer picked was (not?) responsive. If you are not familiar with this term, I’ll gladly explain. A responsive website is a website that adapts to the sides of the screen, for it to, ideally, look the same on all devices- including phone browser, iPad, or 32” monitor. (Now, if you need a 32” monitor to browse the web, you may have some more serious issues not related to the web at all)

Getting to the point….

The Slideshow on bigcommerce.com stretches all the images when looking at them from a big screen. Unfortunately this didn’t have an easy solution. We had to go in and spend four hours playing with the code to get it to work properly. If you are not an experienced web developer, it seems you’ll have no choice but to live with stretched images.

2-Not easy to tweak layouts (This one concerns both tech savvy and not so tech savvy people).

 If you have some  knowledge of HTML and CSS, and you decide you prefer a different layout design rather than the ones offered, you may encounter some difficulties figuring out how to make those changes.

 The way that bigcommerece.com stacks their code doesn’t make it easy to play with the HTML and CSS. However, with that being said, once you do figure out how, it’s pretty simple.

3-Terrible code stack (if your not a developer, this may not concern you).

 The code stack the website is built on is pretty terrible. If you need to go in and do development, you should be mentally prepared to deal with lots of things you probably don’t want to deal with.

4-Creating a Homepage could be a pain.

 If you are trying to create a landing page that is not going to display products for sale, you will be confronted with some extra work. Although it may not be extremely hard (I found a pretty good tutorial video), your frustration-o-odometer may go through the roof (yes, that is an official measurement).

The Pros

1-Friendly user interface.

 If you use WordPress, Bigcommerce.com should be a breeze. If you don’t, after an hour or two, you’ll feel like a pro (or at least comfortable with it.)

 Their user interface is very friendly, and after playing around for a short time, you should be adapting pretty quickly.

2-Lots of online support.

 There is lots of documentation on their support site. Plus they have an online chat support- offering many people eager and willing to roll up their sleeves to do the dirty work for you (as long as it’s a reasonable request).

3-Lots of layouts to pick from.

 With a good assortment of both free and purchasable layouts, it should be easy to pick one that fits your store’s needs.

4-Google analytics and more.

 You can get Google analytics to track where your customers come from, go to, and all of those other cool things the internet is doing these days. They also offer lots for marketing to help promote your store, gift certificates and more.

5-Free trial.

If you still don’t know if this is the commerce platform you have been looking for, you get a 15 day free trial. I’m not sure if you will see any sales results in that time (and if you do, I want a commission), but that should be more than enough time to figure out whether you like the site or not.

Thank you for taking the time to read! Hopefully this will help you when considering big commerce.

Fede Pisani

Technical Blogger

Picking a CRM: The Shackles of Fantasy (Part 1)

Last week I met with a company to discuss their transition into a full-featured CRM (Customer Relationship Management) environment. Currently, they’re primarily using Act and pen and paper to track their thousands of contacts. Obviously, this is unacceptable. Post-it notes and napkins aren’t exactly efficient.

One of the great fantasy movies of all time courtesy of Wolfgang Petersen. Copyright Warner Brothers.
One of the great fantasy movies of all time courtesy of Wolfgang Petersen. Copyright Warner Brothers.

Their story is a typical one: for years, they’ve been meaning to step into a CRM – to move forward into a new age of efficiency and clarity – but they’ve never been able to pull the trigger on any solution. Like most organizations, they’ve been paralyzed by two competing fantasies – one of idealized success and one of catastrophic failure. The fantasy of failure is an easy one to understand: what if they step into a problematic system that ruins their company as whole? (After all, fear of commitment is not unique to 30-something year-old bachelors) Fortunately, this distopian fantasy is not hard to overcome, we deal with it so often in our everyday decision-making that we can see it for what it is – a phantom materialized by simple fear.

Fortunately, this distopian fantasy is not hard to overcome, we deal with it so often in our everyday decision-making that we can see it for what it is – a phantom materialized by simple fear.

The fantasy of success, however, is much harder to pin down. In fact, it is this delusional idealism that has been plaguing this company the most. Every time they’re about to choose a system to implement, they start comparing it to this utopian fantasy. Sure, this CRM can track my contacts and how I’ve communicated with them, but it doesn’t plug directly into my phone system; Or Salesforce is great for tracking most of the process, but does it sync with my coffee maker to make me coffee once a lead has been successfully converted. The more time they spend thinking about the solution, the more ridiculous the utopia looks.

So, how does someone break free from the shackles of fantasy? Well, like everything, I think the trick is to think logically. In Part 2 of this post, I will break down how I would organize my thoughts in order to make an informed decision on choosing the right technical solution (in this case, picking a CRM).

9 Signs That Your Meeting is Going to Suck

I’m no fan of meetings (you can read more about that here). Occasionally, they’re highly effective tools for communicating; usually, they’re time-sucking ego-fests where nothing gets done and nobody learns anything. Here are 9 tell-tale signs that your meeting is going to suck.

  1. Lunch has been ordered for all of the attendees; the meeting started at 9:00 am.
  2. The meeting is titled “How Salesforce Will Solve All Your Problems;” you’re in the IT department.
  3. The host is going to show everyone a keynote presentation; her laptop is a PC.
  4. The meeting is about business processes and how they can be improved; the host is a motivational speaker and the meeting is titled “If You Can Envision it, Then it’s Already Happened.”
  5. The meeting is scheduled for 4:30 pm on a Friday; the host is your recently-divorced CEO.
  6. The meeting is titled “New Marketing Strategies for 2013;” it’s hosted and organized by the IT department.
  7. There are 6 people in the meeting; three of them are board members that are just “sitting in.”
  8. The host has a portable disk drive with his multi-media presentation on it; he couldn’t fit the whole thing on a thumb drive.
  9. In-house counsel has decided to call a surprise meeting; as you step into the conference room, you see IT staff sneaking into your office.

Getting more web development clients

As a consulting firm or independent contractor, it is important to be reminded that, although we are constantly boasting our services throughout our websites, blogs, social media accounts, and google campaigns, at the end of the day, customers are not only purchasing services alone, they are also buying you. Meaning, face-to-face networking, being social, authentic, and naturally brilliant at what you do, often times, will generate far more leads than any online marketing campaign could offer. Simply put, it is not enough to be an “armchair developer,” even when, ironically enough, most developers spend a significant chunk of their lives in an armchair, hunched over their sporadically moving fingers. Rather, we have to get our hands dirty if we want to see any real revenue. People, more often than not, will trust your services if they end up trusting you as a person. Plain and simple. However, albeit simple in theory, a majority of the time I see people taking the complacent approach, believing that it is enough to simply use impersonal, online approaches with the belief that their experience speaks for itself. Although, in theory, this would be ideal, it is human nature to trust an actual face over a well manicured digital storefront – at least for now, that is.

How to cultivate relationships with potential customers built on a solid foundation of trust? The most sound, reliable formula consists of something that would include the following: establishing credibility through authentic conversation, discussing services in an informal dialogue, and continuous follow-up, as it often requires more time than expected for someone to follow through with purchasing just about any product! Continuous contact through follow-up emails using a personable demeanor will help keep the relationship alive post-introduction.

After a customer has been given enough time to ruminate over your services, and seems interested enough, you can help get the ball rolling by offering a free consultation. The best way to help a client get clear on what they are seeking from your services prior to the initial meeting is to supply them with a list of 10 questions to fill out ahead of time. This way, that one-hour free session you are providing them can be fulfilling and effectively utilized.

However, remember, to be able to get to this point of the game, you really have to be willing to get your hands dirty first. Go to networking events, have lunch with local business owners, collect business cards whenever possible, and create a database with all the contacts you gather to send follow-up emails to each person you’ve met, commenting on how pleasant it was to have had an introduction and how you would also like to be of service to them, or their business, in the future.

This starts now, not Monday nor the following week. Take immediate action today to have a successful, thriving business.

You know you’re a mid-size business when…

Dassault.falcon900.cs-dfh.arp
Dassault.falcon900.cs-dfh.arp (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You have at least 3 Brians working for you, forcing you to use last name initials whenever referencing one. “Invite Brian K. and Brian J. to the meeting, but not Brian S.”

At least 30% of your desk is covered in Porsche brochures.

The kind people at NetJets have you almost convinced that your cat food business can’t survive without fractional ownership of a jet.

Your banker knows the name of your spouse.

You realize that Salesforce is not quite as awesome as you thought.

Akamai sales people are calling you at home.

Private equity firms keep sending you tickets to pre-season hockey games. What, are basketball tickets too expensive?

Republican fundraisers keep inviting you to support their candidates.

Your assistant has an assistant.

When you hear the term “exit strategy” you no longer think of fire escapes.

Your company’s nescafe budget is more than what you paid yourself the first year you started the company.

Using Google Forms to Streamline Meetings (and Prevent Singularity Events)

The supermassive black holes are all that rema...
What started out as a harmless meeting quickly turned into a supermassive black hole. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For the most part, meetings are the black holes of the office universe. They start out as a galactic dance of massive egos – gaseous bodies spinning around each other – and eventually converge into a single gravitational force. Soon, the gravity of this cosmic abomination begins to suck into itself time, space, and every productive person within ear shot of the conference room. Once you’re in, there is no getting out. You’re stuck: Trapped in a vacuum of eternal blackness, accompanied only by your coworkers and a never-ending supply of PowerPoint slides, “humble opinions” and white board notes, each floating by just out of reach of reality. You have been caught in the office singularity eventand your only hope now is that the host will get hungry soon.

Needless to say, I hate most meetings. But I realize that they are an invaluable part of the organizational process; not all meetings turn into violent, astronomic events.

80% of meetings are violent black holes, 19% are just ‘good,’ and about 1% approach greatness…

Some meetings – the really good ones – are actually very productive. In fact, a good meeting is probably the best way to communicate concepts, confirm that everyone is on the same page, and make well-informed, real-time decisions. Heck, on occasion you might even have the chance to be in a great meeting, a place where people work together to come up with innovative ideas and clever solutions that would otherwise not be possible. In keeping with the astronomy metaphor, those great meetings are where stars are born (i.e. Adwords, the iPhone, or even Justin Bieber). The problem is, 80% of meetings are violent black holes, 19% are just “good,” and about 1% approach greatness – not the best odds.

The Meeting is a Business Process

Regardless of how dismal they can be, meetings are invaluable tools in a successful organization. Although Basecamp, Salesforce, Evernote, and every other collaboration tool will try to tell you differently, a meeting – I’m talking real human interaction – is the most powerful form of communication possible. Discussing a problem or idea with other people in a real-time dialogue is exponentially more powerful than disguising monologues in fancy PowerPoint presentations. The best collaboration happens when people talk (remotely or in the same space).

Anti-Justice League
Anti-Justice League held very productive meetings. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Profile of a Productive Meeting

Before I show you how Google Forms can help you improve the odds of having a successful meeting, let’s break down what a productive meeting looks like.

  1. Everyone that is involved in the meeting has something to say or something to learn. One of my pet peeves when entering a meeting is seeing unnecessary participants. Every single person in a meeting should either have something to contribute or should need to know every detail of the meeting – unsolicited opinions are for pundits and fashion bloggers.
  2. At least one decision must be made or a problem must be solved. Why invite six people into a room (that doesn’t include cocktails) if you don’t absolutely need their input to make decisions or solve problems. Before a meeting starts, know what decisions you have to make and what input you need in order to make those decisions.
  3. The meeting should have a clear, well-defined agenda. Every single participant should be – well before the meeting begins – aware of the agenda and raison d’être of the meeting.

The solutions to 1, 2, and 3 seem pretty self-explanatory. One, don’t invite everyone and her secretary to your meeting – this is not a bat mitzvah; two, be ready to make some decisions and solve some problems; and three, think of what you want your meeting to be about and make sure is clear to everyone involved. All of this seems easy enough, but what it requires is a great deal of preliminary work. In fact, the work you do setting up a meeting is just as important as the actual meeting itself.

Meetings are NOT Lectures, Everyone has an Agenda

At some point in the last 10 years, “setting up a meeting” began to mean sending out calendar invites. As if having everyone in the same room would be enough to generate some cosmic levels of productivity. Well, the birth of a black hole is definitely a cosmic event, but it’s not very productive for an organization. In order to have a highly focused and productive meeting, you need to have a highly focused and productive agenda. That’s easier said than done.

It’s not always easy to know what the true  focus of a meeting will be. Sure, you might have your agenda, but once you put five opinionated people in a room, a whole lot of new agendas suddenly appear. For an occasional narcissist like myself, this is completely unacceptable. Not to mention, it’s very unproductive . So, how does one manage to create a focused meeting with an agenda if the agenda is not easily predictable?

The Pre-Meeting Questionnaire

First, let me say that the “Pre-Meeting Questionnaire” is not necessary for every meeting. Sometimes, you know your colleagues well enough (and you’re all professional enough) that a meeting plays out like a John Coltrane jam session – each attendee hits his or her notes at all the right times, and beautiful music is made. Unfortunately, that’s usually not the case.

English: A portrait of John Coltrane by Paolo ...
John Coltrane held some pretty cool meetings (Photo credit: Paolo Steffan, Wikipedia)

Usually, you end up in a meeting with a bunch of amateurs and all you can do is pray that you’ll eventually be released from the vortex and get back to the business of working. For those occasions,   a “Pre-Meeting Questionnaire” might just save you from such a catastrophe.

The idea behind the questionnaire is very simple: send out some questions to those that you wish to invite to the meeting, and get a feel for what their agenda might be. This sounds simple enough. The hard part is making sure to have questions that do not insult potential attendees but do get them to reveal their agendas.

I like to use a simple introduction to my questionnaire that explains the need for such a document and then I jump right into the questions. Here is sample:

Hi everyone,

I’m looking forward to our meeting tomorrow. In order to put together an agenda for the blah blah blah meeting this afternoon, I’ll need some input from all of you. Please answer the following questionnaire so that I can make sure to account for any specific  concerns or ideas. 

At this point, I usually have a link to an online questionnaire that they can use to keep track of their responses. Why the questionnaire? Well, if meetings are a business process, then we should treat them like important ones. The online questionnaire tracks and simplifies this preliminary step. More importantly, it adds gravitas to your meeting.

Using Google Forms to Discover the True Agenda of a Meeting

Firstly, you should know that Google Forms is free. This is an important distinction because I don’t like paying for things if I don’t have to. To use the product, all you have to have is a Google account and a web browser. Simply log into your Google account here: www.google.com/drive. If you you don’t have a Google account, you can sign up for one there.

Once you’re in, simply press the “Create” button on the upper, left-hand side of your browser. Select to create a new “Form” and voila! You’re in the the new form wizard. From here, you can easily add questions to your form, save your form, add text to the top of the form page, and send a link to your form to anyone that you wish.

Some Canned Questions I Like to Ask in my Pre-Meeting Questionnaires

  • Does “project/decision/process/problem/outcome” affect your team/department? If so, how and how often? (Usually, this is a resounding “yes!”)
  • Does this  “project/decision/process/problem/outcome” work the way it’s supposed to? Why not?
  • Based on your judgement, is this “problem” getting worse?
  • Based on your judgement, is this “solution” working?
  • How does this “project/decision/process/problem/outcome” impact our organization as a whole?

Obviously, you would have to change the “project/decision/process/problem/outcome”  to reflect the subject of your meeting, but the idea is pretty straightforward. At first, you might get some push back, but eventually, people will appreciate having more effective meetings. I like think that everyone, like me, loves an efficient meeting. Every minute you save by finishing early, is a minute you’ve earned to be unproductive elsewhere. After all, nba.com does not check itself.

What is an SMB?

This is actually a difficult question to answer. The acronym itself stands for Small and Mid-size Business, but what that means is pretty vague. According to the small business administration (government), depending on the sector and the size of the market share of a business, a company making $20 million a year can be categorized as a small business. I know a lot of small business owners that would consider that a pretty large sum.

Messy Desk
Messy Desk (Photo credit: andhij)

Most of the organizations that consider themselves within the SMB sector, are actually micro-businesses. If your business was just demoted, I’m sorry. Here are some guidelines that I like to use. They’re based loosely on the European Commissions guidelines as well those used at Big-5 consulting houses.

  • Small Business: Between 5 and 50 employees (excluding sub-contractors); revenues NOT exceeding $15 million per year
  • Mid-size Business: Between 51 and 250 employees (excluding contractors); revenue NOT exceeding $50 million per year

If you need further clarification, here you may find some “you know you’re a small business” qualifiers…

You know you’re a small business when…

Below are some tell-tale signs that I’ve come up with to detect whether you’re a small business or not. 

More than 25% of your workforce is made up of family members.

Your home office isn’t an occasional substitute for your office office.

Your conference room table doubles as a dining room table.

Your marketing budget includes a line item for business cards.

Your corporate web site is a Facebook page.

Over 50% of your web traffic comes from your home IP address.

Your employee perks include delicious sandwiches made by your mom. (Wednesdays ONLY!)

Post-it notes
Post-Haste Enterprise Resource Planning (Photo by Watchsmart)

You have to go to your accountant (as opposed to her coming to you).

Business processes are managed through a complicated system of Post-it Notes. You’ve named this system, Post-Haste technology.

You call your employees on their cell phones and occasionally ask them to pick up office supplies on their way to work.

Your lawyer has your emails marked as SPAM.

You tell people that the big monitor really helps you work more efficiently, but really, it acts as a screen so your employees can’t see it when you cry.

Your secretary is really just your voice-mail message.

Your voice-mail was recorded by your Aunt Gertrude – she’s British!

Your invoicing system is called “Sheet A” in Excel and your vendor management system is called “Sheet B.”

Your Contact Management System is a notepad with your realtors face at the top of every page.

Your employee stock option plan involves allowing employees to raid the stock room once a quarter. “Have at it, kiddies!”

(Feel free to add more in the comment section of this post.)