These days everyone wants to be an SAP consultant. As a result, potential clients have a lot of choices on whom to hire for each SAP project. With the glut of competition, how can you stand out from the crowd and score the best project engagements? According to experts Jon Reed, vice president of SAPtips (www.saptips.com), and Bill Scheer, research analyst with Kennedy Information, Inc., the keys to success as an SAP consultant are...
choosing the right projects, positioning yourself competitively, and putting the client first while knowing your own limits.
Also check out the companion article: "Breaking into SAP consulting"
The right projects
First of all, be sure to bid on the projects that will best suit your situation. Obviously everyone wants profitable contracts, but the right contracts to pursue often depend on an individual's personal financial picture. For example, contracts that involve travel expenses will be less profitable than local contracts. It also pays to find the most direct route to the client as possible, says Reed. "All kinds of intermediaries and brokers get involved in placing people on SAP projects," he says. "The more you can find a direct pipeline to projects, the better your rates are going to be."
Avoiding intermediaries can be hugely beneficial for your rates. For example, Reed points out, some projects often involve firms bidding directly, then other firms feeding those firms' requirements, then by the time the work reaches the actual consultant, the rates are pretty grim. In working as a consultant, try to build connections to firms that are as close as possible to the projects, Reed advises. "As you get a feel for the agencies out there, that's a key criterion that can lead to better profitability."
Competitive positioning and promotion
Several simple strategies can help consultants in promotion. In bidding for a project, play up your industry connections, Scheer advises. Show off your track record by getting testimonials from potential clients' peers. When clients see peers or competitors testifying to your skills, that can be very powerful.
"It's important to show the client what they're buying," says Scheer. "It used to be that clients were only interested in the product, but these days they're also interested in the firm and consulting organization that they're hiring as a whole." Whenever possible, try to show your clients what the organization is like, who runs it, who staffs it, and how it's being run. Scheer advises including details like how you apply best practices in your solutions and what your quality assurances are.
How can you best position yourself competitively? Scheer says partnering with an offshore firm for delivery of coding on projects is an excellent strategy. Pick all your strategic partners carefully, he advises. "If there's a service that the consultant thinks is going to be part of what's needed to pull off the project, the consultant should have those resources lined up before going into pursuit." Bring all the resources to the table in order to show your client your team. That strategy piece can be even more important to smaller firms that don't have as wide of a range of inhouse capabilities as a larger firm. New consultants often struggle with this, but it's very important. "You don't want to be in an interview for a contract and not have a need met for a resource," Scheer says.
Putting the client first
According to Scheer, new consultants often falter in not focusing enough on project ROI when dealing with the client. Another common mistake new consultants make is in being too prescriptive in their approaches to a client while failing to keep the client's needs in mind. Make active effort to avoid thinking in a box and never try to shape your solution without paying attention to the client's needs first. "Clients continue to be wary of consultants overbilling them, promising the sky, and trying to sell solutions that are beyond the organization's capability or needs," he says. Consultants need to scale project proposals and RFPs appropriately and not be overly ambitious.
Scheer points out that sometimes when consultants are experts in a particular SAP module they want to go out and do a lot of consulting for that module in a particular way, and in so doing they link themselves too rigidly to a particular approach. "Consultants need to stay flexible and be open to an approach that is not beholden to one kind of solution or small set of approaches," he says. Even experienced consultants fall into this trap. "They know about certain things, so they naturally want to go in and start talking about them," Scheer says, but it's better to listen first and then try to adapt your experience to what the problem is.
Knowing your limits
Along a similar line, in the drive to prove their expertise many new consultants inadvertently start thinking as if one size fits all and miss the intricacies of a particular client's needs. Reed reminds new consultants to be comfortable listening and to remain flexible and open to all ideas. "Sometimes not knowing the answer to a problem is okay," he says, "if you can go on to figure out what the client does need." Don't try to be all knowing. Listen and ask questions.
Reed uses the parallel of how a new student can rub everyone in a class the wrong way by trying too hard to stand out with new ideas. "There are rules of how the consulting game works," he says, "and sometimes it's better to keep your head down and make sure you're listening to the more experienced people. Then, over time, you can throw your weight around more." Remember that clients are not just technology but people too, and be sure to give due attention to the people and politics side of projects.
What do you do when you don't know the answer to a question on a particular project? Whatever you do, don't just wing it. As Reed points out, the Internet offers you a lot of interesting ways to do your homework. You can find different types of technical forums, help files, OSS notes, and networks of experts who are willing to help out. It can pay to offer your own expertise in help forums when you have the time. "If you take the time to do that you can really back up your own expertise by having people you can turn to in a pinch," he says. Give the help to get help. "If you're truly independent you're not going to be successful, but if you support your colleagues, they'll have your back in certain situations."
Once you have your consulting business up and running, be sure to budget time in to keep your skills up to date, and always keep somewhat busy. Your marketability will often depend on the last six months or so of your resume. "No matter how many years of experience you have, it's really the last year of your experience that defines your prospects on the market," Reed says. So it pays to stay on top of things.
Also check out the companion article: "Breaking into SAP consulting"