Until computers become as simple to operate and maintain as toasters, computer consulting will remain a hot growth area, according to Joyce Burkard, executive director of the Independent Computer Consultants Association in St. Louis. "While many of our members are involved with contract programming," says Burkard, "the biggest growth area is in anything having to do with the Internet."
As a result of this trend, many consultants, like Henry Stephens, co-owner of SPN Services Inc. in Queens, New York, have added Web-page design and support to their lists of services. "We got into the Internet business about two years ago. It's been building like gangbusters, and 15 percent of our business now is in dealing with Internet issues," he says. But Stephens strongly believes that knowing the technical details and being in on the latest rage are just part of operating a successful computer consulting company.
"Success in this business can be summed up in one thought: Don't disappear on your clients," says Stephens, whose company specializes in networking design and installation, support and training, and Microsoft Access database applications. Too many consultants, he says, take the money and run, setting up complex systems, then leaving clients to deal with inevitable problems.
"You don't have to know everything, but you have to be reliable to succeed," says Stephens. "You have to be a good listener and be in tune with the customer's comfort level. A lot of consultants are technical hot shots who miss the mark on the business and customer service end of things."
Solving customers' problems and sticking with them has enabled the company to grow from nine accounts when it started in 1994 to almost 40 major accounts today. "When we finish a project," Stephens says, "I feel a real sense of accomplishment."