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Tom Adelstein — Linux Consulting: How to Prospect for Engagements

[ The opinions expressed by authors on Linux Today
are their own. They speak only for themselves and not for Linux
Today. ]

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.