Friday, September 19, 2008

Defeating Vlad's Nightmare

My good friend Vlad constantly rails against the incompetence and unprofessionalism of "SPFs" (single points of failure).

It is certainly not the case that all Sole Proprietors in the technology field are incompetent or unprofessional, but there are days when I just can't believe how horribly incompetent some of them are!

About once a year we step into a snake pit that one of these losers left in his wake.

- He sold the wrong equipment to the client.

- He "sold" them illegal, outdated, pirated, or gray market software.

- He couldn't figure out how to configure the hardware.

- He couldn't install SBS 2003!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

- He couldn't install SBS 2003!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
- He couldn't install SBS 2003!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
- He couldn't install SBS 2003!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
- He couldn't install SBS 2003!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
- He couldn't install SBS 2003!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

- He didn't configure the firewall, the network, the desktops, or anything else correctly.

The worst part is: We bid on this job. The prospect became loser-boy's client. Loser-boy trashed their system and charged them full price. Only THEN did the prospect become our client.

Wow. Think of all the money they could have saved.

That means the client made a conscious decision to choose loser-boy over us. They chose inferior hardware and pirated software, delivered by a dishonest scoundrel.

Well, maybe they didn't choose that. But . . . they didn't choose top notch hardware with real legal software delivered by competent technicians.

If a client simply goes with price, are they responsible for the results?

Yes. At least in part.

On one hand, if the price from one technician is significantly better than another, it is very likely that competence plays a role the difference.

On the other hand, if they assume that a consultant is competent, it's hard to blame them for choosing the lowest priced competent consultant they can find.

But how can a client make a true evaluation of the technician's competence without being a technician?

A few people have been vocal about raising the bar in our profession. It's overdue.

What can we do?

I don't want the government deciding who's competent and who isn't. If you think for two seconds that that's a good idea, check out the tech support in your average state agency. "Microsoft knows this is a problem and they refuse to fix it." Please.

Industry leaders (such as Microsoft) can't do it. They will give up professional expertise in a flash if there's a shiny nickel in it for them. Look at the MCSE program. It was very serious in the days of NT 4. But five years ago it had became so diluted that people were getting an MCSE in a weekend. Now their whole certification program is a confusing joke.

So what about us (the technical professionals) defining and enforcing some standards on our own? It happens in a lot of other industries.

That way, when a prospect is trying to choose a consultant, there is some independent measure of competence and achievement. It doesn't have to measure in fine detail: Just enough so that the client isn't tricked into thinking that an incompetent technician is really competent.

Let me be very honest. There are some good programs out there. Microsoft, Cisco, and a few others have some very good measures of competence. For example, with MS Certified partners, there are some real barriers to entry. They don't guarantee that incompetent scoundrels won't get become certified, but they make it a little more difficult every year.

Microsoft also performs client interviews and satisfaction surveys for Certified Partners.

But even with these few things, there are no good tools for clients to find competent technicians. Or for clients to vet the technicians who show up on their doorstep.

360 days out of the year we have a story about the last big loser.

But 5 days a year we live through a lot of frustration, cleaning up after the loser and apologizing to the client for being part of an industry that is less regulated than used car salesmen. Most importantly, we spend five days trying to convince the client that we're not all dishonest and incompetent.

Help me out here. It's one thing to complain. How do we take concrete steps to take our profession to the next level?



  1. I understand the frustration that business owners have. The root of the problem is that they are not qualified to determine the qualifications of the person they are hiring.

    I'm qualified. But getting that message accross to my prospective clients is difficult. They don't understand what the letters behind my name mean. They aren't impressed by MS partnership level.

    This is a tough problem to resolve. Personally I think that the SBSC program has the best chance at making sense to the business owner. In the end, this is who the program has to work for. Not for you or for me but for the small business owner.

  2. I agree. SBSC is a step in the right direction.

    In the UK the plan was to upgrade the skills to renew each year. Kind of like continuing education credits for accountants.

    Not sure how that's working out. But it has potential.

  3. Karl,

    SBSC will definitely give us the leg up.

    Amy has a good point, and one of the ways we have developed to address that point is the building of a repetoir of real world examples to use when talking to the prospect about thier situation.

    Security = House. Doors, windows, walls, etc. to explain.

    Network = Highway. Mbit = 4 lanes, Gbit = 8 lanes, etc.

    DNS = cab ride. Going to Prospect's house at 123 Street in Edmonton, AB as opposed to going to Prospects living room (.local) and the cab driver's perplexed look at that one.

    Remote Web Workplace = Just show and they will come! :)

    Knowing their industry can help a lot too as we can talk to them in a language and with analogies that they understand.

    There is no way to explain the inner workings of the infrastructure ... just like explaining how the shape of a piston top can change the amount of power an engine makes ... to someone who does not work with the stuff.

    Some further thoughts on the whole matter posted a while back on our blog: Cheap is as Cheap Does.


  4. Anonymous9:15 AM

    I like the SBSC idea, but I have to say that every time I mention it to new clients or prospects I'm met with "deer in headlight" eyes. It sounds interesting, but they have yet to care. We have a ton of certifications but it seems to matter nil in the end (or at least very little).

    Sometimes I like to mention that although our rates are 50% higher than their existing firm, it takes us 50% of the time to resolve issues, so they make out in the end. That gets them thinking, but isn't the silver bullet that I'd like it to be.

    It seems like we are all having the same issue... does anyone have anything that works well for them?

  5. Anonymous2:44 PM

    Maybe the customer just liked the personality of the other consultant better than you.

    A lot of the real Microsoft song singers sound like broken records and it is extremly dull.

    You lost out in the sales process and you should focus on that instead of why the other guy is so crap.

  6. Well, okay. I'll take my lumps. I've lost sales before.

    Let me finish the story. I contacted the prospect after we lost the sale and made sure he knew we were still interested. And while we don't like it, we'll clean up others' messes.

    So a month later the prospect calls. We meet and he signs the deal.

    In the long run, I got the client. But instead of a reasonbly priced install, the client went through unnecessary hell.

    My question remains: How can we help clients find competent technicians the first time?

  7. BTW, Paulie, Welcome to My Blog.

    If you think I'm a Microsoft Song-Singer, you need to read a few more posts.


  8. Anonymous3:37 PM


    What we need are independent, third party, vendor neutral certifications. There's all this talk about Microsoft Certified, but does that REALLY help us get the deal? It doesn't even mean something to me because I know how many lame techs I've met that are more certified than I am. I don't meet an MBA and think he's a better business person. But an archetect, or a CPA, that means something to me, because I know there is an independent body of their peers that regulates their certification process. That's the idea anyway, maybe a CPA will tell me it's a bunch of crap, but that's my perception, and our clients perception of our certifications is more important than out own.

    You alluded to vendor neutral certifications in your SMB Consulting 3.0, and I'm axiously awaiting what you know that you're not telling.

  9. Hi Karl, great post. This is why IT Matters in Calgary has chosen to provide Professional IT Services over the stereotype Managed Services. How do we show the Calgary marketplace that we are the professionals and not the apprentice or the trunk slammer. Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of great SPF's out there who focus on core solutions that we contract to, however the difference is they choose one solution and become the expert at that one solution.

    Karl, I don't know how to fix this challenge, maybe Robert Cohen at Integrated Mar is on the right track with his Trusted Business Adviser certification program that he is talking about on his blog.

    I have been saying for a long time that we need something like the vehicle mechanic or carpenter trade programs to separate the certified from the non-certified. Let the customer choose and understand the risks of taking his car to the dealer certified shop vs. the backyard mechanic, we can't stop them but it is blog like this that can start the awareness of it.


    Stuart Crawford
    Calgary, AB, Canada

  10. I still think it comes down to referrals. Most of my clients came via other clients or consultants. I have met highly skilled consultants who were nightmares for clients due to attitude and arrogance. I have met consultants with great personality who couldnt use a screwdriver but had contacts all over the city and get clients just because of who they know ( at least until the client realizes he doens't know what he is doing).

    The only time I have seen clients be truly comfortable or at least less leary is when I came recommended from another client who is a friend or business associate.

    I guess what I am saying is you can be certified out the wazoo but does not mean you are qualified to service a client either technically or personalitywise.

  11. Anonymous6:35 AM

    We are just seeing the natural selection process at work. I see it all the time in this industry. In the end it all works out, you got a client that appreciates the value of what you do, the client learned an expensive lesson and the network wrecker will eventually lose all of his business.

    To be honest, we need these people. If every IT support firm did it right all the time our value would decline. They serve as examples of what can happen by not doing it the right way.

    Like most people here I also have a stack of certs that don't mean anything to my clients. I have given up on them as a waste of time and money. Take the time and money you would have spent on obtaining a cert and put it into getting referrals and see how much more effective it is.

    The number one referral source for me is the office staff of existing clients. They all have brothers, sisters and friends that work at other offices. I tell them that if they can get me a meeting with another company's decision maker I will take them to lunch. If I get a service agreement out of it I'll buy them an Ipod Nano or whatever cool gadget is hot right now.


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