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Tom Adelstein -- Linux Consulting: How to Prospect for Engagements

Jul 20, 1999, 12:57 (2 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Tom Adelstein)

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By Tom Adelstein

"... John Bell, the Company's Senior Systems Administrator... says, "I am constantly on the lookout for ways to use Linux. It's great as 'network glue' between our Solaris and NT machines." -
From Linux Today, Linux in Business - Case Studies "Vignette"

Thirty spokes will converge
In the hub of a wheel;
But the use of the cart
Will depend on the part
Of the hub that is void. - Lao Tzu

Someone once said that humans enact their symbolic world. The principle remains the same whether someone calls our behavior selective perception, a self-fulfilling prophecy, or a mistaken certainty. Many analysts and members of the Linux community think that the demand for Linux consultancy remains low. For everyone who believes that demand for Linux in business remains low, consider that an opportunity to capture business.

The demand for Linux consultants looks good and brisk for those who know how to prospect and close. If you believe that Linux has no place in the commercial sector, you'll fulfill that belief. If you think that Linux exists for technologists, hobbyists and the lone programmer then you'll see only that. People who believed the earth was flat never left the site of land.

At the Open Source Forum in Austin, I heard a keynote speaker say that the major companies supporting Linux were merely testing the water. A Dell representative told me that their support of Linux amounted to a gesture. The spokesman for IBM touted his company's Linux initiatives only to hear one of his own in the audience challenge that assertion.

The penguin appears to represent Linux well. Penguins have a habit when they dive for their food. Numerous birds line up at the waters edge and peer into the deep. They wait and wait until one of the penguins jumps into the water first. If the brave soul surfaces without incident, the remaining penguins will then jump in and start to gather fish. If they see blood rise to the surface, they know an Orca waits for them and they scatter. If the major consulting firms want to wait on the waters edge, let them. Those who know say the water's fine!

Do you think that prospecting means "cold calling?" Do you think it means sending out mailers or spam? Maybe you think it means digging in the mountains for gold or silver. Whatever your notion of prospecting might be, let it go. In consultancy, prospecting isn't a numbers game.

Prospecting involves

1. determining market needs,

2. measuring the competitive landscape,

3. crafting a message to the market and

4. getting that message to the market.

Determining Market Needs

The Secret waits for eyes unclouded - Lao Tzu

As a market analyst, I suffer from the affliction of believing my own unproven assumptions. I also take myself too seriously. These traits turn market analysis into a guessing game. If you guess correctly, you win and if you guess incorrectly, well you already know that answer.

How does one analyze the market? Take your best guess and then adapt. Replicate what works and see if it works again.

For example, we've discovered a number of commercial clients moving off of Netware and onto Linux. One such firm sent some of its systems engineers and administrators to Linux training. When they returned, they realized they didn't get training for the tasks before them.

The stakeholder in the firm put out a requisition for a consultant to coach the migration team. Their procurement officer spoke with many firms providing support. By the time they made their decision, the procurement officer said that the consultants with whom he spoke had unrealistic expectations of what the market would bear.

First, the firms offering support demanded specific term contracts for excessive fees. Secondly, the firms refused to guarantee turn around time. Third, they wouldn't mix per-incident support with hourly support. Still, the main complaint the client verbalized was that the firms offering support wouldn't provide deskside or instantaneous support during critical project milestones.

A client migrating an entire network from one platform to another under specific time constraints can not function under vague support promises. The lack of professionalism and need recognition from Linux consulting firms damages the community as a whole. I can easily empathize with those individuals in the Linux technical community who resent the commercialization of a product they have offered the world under an Open Source General Public License.

Market analysis of this situation gives us a clear indication of what's wanted and needed. The original provider of the referenced client thought that general Linux training would suffice for already trained Netware engineers. By not qualifying the client's needs and constraints, the original consulting group failed the customer by providing the wrong solution. He also failed himself because he lost a golden opportunity. To make matters worse, he told the client he didn't have the infrastructure to provide continuing support. The client reported that the consultant's answer was to do more training.

What can we gain from this situation? The market needs on-site, full-time, level one and two support for clients who are actively doing a migration. When they hit a hurdle, they want the answer now, not in three days.

If you aren't prepared to offer just in time service, then what are you really offering?

Measuring the Competitive Landscape

Once you have decided where you think the market need exists, analyze the landscape. For example, the following matrix might work if you wanted to measure the competitive landscape for real estate against Linux solutions. Notice how certain firms provide solutions in segments of the market. Also, notice the white space.

In this example, openings exist for Web Services and Firewalls for the Hotel and Apartment markets. One might ask, why have the major firms not gone into these sectors? Maybe opportunities don't exist. This matrix comes from an actual case where we by-passed our assumptions and did a bit of investigative work.

We visited hotels near airports. We spoke with the managers of five hotels and took five orders for high-speed internet access. Each hotel had had numerous business travelers ask for high speed, secure Internet access.

Consulting Solution Hotels Apartments Office Buildings
Web Services IBM, EDS,CICS
File, Print (Samba) Servers IBM, HP,Compaq IBM, Compaq, HP IBM, HP, NSIS
Firewalls Checkpoint, TIS, Microsoft
E-commerce IBM, Sabre IBM, Compaq, HP, EDS IBM, L& H
LAN EDS, Paranet, IBM IBM, Compaq, Paranet,CICS EDS, IBM, CTP

Feeling proud of ourselves, our sales team walked into two apartment buildings only to discover TCI had already started delivering cable access at each site. The high density nature of apartments near major metropolitan airports provided an easy target for cable modems. Though humbled, we learned where the opportunities existed. This lead us to hotels wanting an inexpensive yet stable solution to high-speed Internet access.

Crafting a Message to the Market

Working with a hotel near a major airport lead us to understand the nature of our market. Our first assumption proved incorrect. We didn't have to work with Holiday Inns at the corporate level. The Holiday Inns we visited had local owners. In fact, the owners chose to affiliate with Holiday Inn as a franchisee. Even though the brand said "big, huge, untouchable, major corporation", we learned we were dealing with local owners who made their own decisions. This possibly explained the blank space in the matrix. Large consulting firms may have found it too inefficient to work with small business decision makers.

Soon, we heard from other local owners. We had some great collateral in the form of our first client advertising in his Hotel Association's magazine. We also let our audience know we provided support services after the installation with our own add. We also let them know how adding high-speed Internet access to their accommodations could increase their business in both rental and occupancy rates.

We also learned another lesson about crafting a message to the market. If you do excellent work then you have made a statement. If you do poor work, don't show up when you say you will, fail to maintain constant communication with the client and take a cavalier attitude to the job then that's the message you give to the market.

Linux has a rich legacy. Thousands of people have given of themselves to provide the world a good solution. A good message for Linux consultants to craft would be something like - "we deliver projects on time and above our customers expectations".

Getting that Message to the Market

Our first installation created a champion for us. He helped us craft the message to the market. He also helped us by placing an add in his Hotel Association magazine and in travel guides association lists. In bold letters, he told the travel agents that he had "High-Speed" Internet access for the business traveler. This set a baseline for our market message.

The form of your message to your market depends on the available existing channels. You might simply send out a press release to the industry magazines and newsletters. You might discover where the owners go to get updates on the industry. Wherever that might exist, consider putting your message there.

Tips and techniques

Learning to prospect and learning to identify a market niche are mutual dependencies.

1. Know what sources of information give you access to various markets. Use those sources on a daily basis. Study them, write to them, correspond with the personalities. Your presence should be felt by the participants in your market.

2. Be willing to give your ideas away. Write letters to the editor, participate in forums, state your opinions in talk-backs. If you have a solution, use the Open Source rule - publish the recipe and open a restaurant. Your active involvement positions you in the market you wish to reach.

3. Read business case studies and white papers about your solutions from your competition and the industry. When you speak with a prospective client, you don't want to hymn and haw. Know and be good enough to add value even in a casual conversation. Whatever you do and wherever you happen to find yourself, you're making a statement to the market.

Things to watch

Prospecting is defined as the act of locating and mining a prospect. The terminology made its way into the profession of selling from the mining industry. The process of mining starts with an examination of factors which lead one to conclude that a particular spot has the potential for success. Consider this as a hint of the process you must follow to adequately prospect for Linux consulting engagements.

Conclusion and parting notes

This article is the fourth in a series on Consultative Sales and Marketing. The first article, How to Successfully Sell Linux, introduced the idea of starting a consulting practice. The second article, Consultative Selling, explained the seven phases of a consultative selling effort. The third article, Using a Pursuit Team to Win, discussed how to create a presentation or "demo" by taking a project approach.

In describing prospecting, we stressed the importance of having correct information about the market and what the competition provides. Linux provides excellent solutions for a number of consulting engagements. Locating the best prospect for the solution and presenting it in the best light can help ensure your success and everyone's around you.

Tom Adelstein, CPA, is the CIO/CFO of Bynari, Inc. He's the author of several books and articles on business and technology and has management, consulting and hands-on experience in the Information Technology field.