With A Fat Paycheck Comes Fat Responsibility

This is the second article concerning why and how technically oriented but unemployed individuals should consider offering freelance technical support. The first part is here. There is also a Part 3.

A few years ago I left my job as IT Director (rather, my job as the entire IT department) of a 65-person advertising agency to return for an undergraduate degree at Columbia University. Doing that job had been the end result of years of second-hand computer experience gained as a journalist, radio announcer, desktop publisher, art director, technical support contractor and a staff tech manager.

My intention was to lay a foundation for a fresh start outside of the tech world. At Columbia I took a French degree, using the humanities to balance my geek aspect and giving me a good reason to spend a year in Paris. But during the years I was in school, good paying jobs in my preferred non-tech fields seemed to disappear. We were back to where we had been in 1993: high unemployment, a weak economy and a fragile employment framework.

As graduation approached, I sent dozens of resumes a week in application for non-tech jobs, with custom cover letters for each one, each document carefully edited and looked over with a pedantic eye. I applied to jobs in non-tech fields for which I was capable and qualified. My resumes were solid, but nobody was biting.

So I went back to applying for tech work, and re-wrote the resumes for full-time tech jobs.

Still nothing. Well, one response: an American gaming company with offices in France sent me a very polite thank-you note of refusal. That was it. The rest didn’t even fire off a “bite it, loser” form letter.

To tide me over the weak period, I put out feelers to my friends, former coworkers and past clients. My network of professional acquaintances had grown moribund for the three years I was in school and in France, so it took a couple of months to revive. Lunches. Coffee chats. Office drop-bys. Parties. Lots of “What’s up?” emails to old employers and remote acquaintances.

I ordered a stack of really cheesy business cards from an online service, which, no matter how cheesy, were also really cheap and had all my contact information on them. “Freelance Computer Support” they said. I gave them out like toothpicks in a diner.

Clients seemed to like the cheesy cards: they weren’t too slick. They were functional, and utilitarian, and sober. They didn’t look like the work of someone who really wanted to be a graphic designer but was only settling for doing computer support.

A former boss used to toss me a few hours here and there while I was in school, so I called him, hoping for a project or two. But the company he worked for had suffered massive hemorrhaging: layoffs of more than 50 percent of the 300-person staff, the IT department reduced from a high of nine employees to three. Two satellite offices were closed and a hiring freeze was put into place. He said he had nothing for me, but promised to ask around.

Through him, I landed a temporary gig as a fill-in head of IT (with a staff of one intern) at a small company of about sixty employees. My job was to put the shop ship-shape, streamlining the systems and regularizing everything after the departure of the sixth such IT head in three years.

For three months after that ended, I barely worked. I would spend hours a day trolling the job sites, reading the job alert emails–as many as seventy automated agents reported to my email box each day, passing along hundreds of help-wanted postings which matched my keywords, featuring jobs from two continents, in three languages, and nineteen different fields. I customized cover letters, resumes and emails, printed and enveloped and labeled and stamped, then tramped off to the post office to send the product off into the void with a pat and a kiss, or crossed fingers as I pressed the “return” key to send the queued email messages of application.

My outgoing email box glowed white-hot with over-use. The “responses received” folder was a desert.

My situation slowly changed through seeds I had planted months before. One of my networking attempts had been to call up an old client to shoot the breeze and ask how were they fixed for technical support. He called me much later: As a matter of fact, he said, they were shopping around. They had appreciated the work I had done for them in the past, and so after a lunch with the partner responsible for technology, we renewed our relationship. Ten hours a week, fixed. It was a start.

So that was how it was going to be, I decided. If I couldn’t find a whole job at one company, I’d have to piece one together out of whatever hours were available at multiple companies.

It turned out to be just the answer.

What I do for a living is private computer consulting. This is a highfalutin way of saying “freelance tech support.” I help small businesses with their computer problems. I’m a generalist: I tackle just about anything, although I shy away from cable pulls and down-and-dirty hardware repairs that require soldering guns or ohm meters. I specialize in end-user support. I target small businesses, usually with fewer than 25 people. I have more than 24 clients. I work from 50 to 70 hours a week. I handle all my own client acquisitions, marketing, billing and the support work itself.

While others around me are un- or under-employed, I had a great year in 2002. This is part two of my proposal explaining what I believe it takes for you to achieve the same thing.

In the last article, I basically cheer-leaded the dispirited by trying to convince them that there was an opportunity to be had, that, with only slightly better-than-average computer skills, out-of-work folks could take a shot at building a freelance technical support business. I also talked about the available market segments, home users and small businesses. I also talked about why third-party tech support companies are not serious competition.

In this second part, I will talk about knowing if this work is right for you, marketing yourself, learning on the job, handling and educating clients, managing the business, the temperament required, and the negative aspects of the work.

Thanks to a good and proper Slashdotting (which is somewhere between a reaming and someone tossing your salad, although the traffic was still less than when World New York was mentioned on the television show Martha Stewart Living) and the traffic resulting from links to this article from dozens of other sites, I know that people are very interested in learning more about doing freelance technical support for a living.

There were several pieces of good advice I had not considered on Slashdot, so I’ve added them into sections of this document which were already written, with proper credit and links where necessary and appropriate.

Am I Good Enough to Do This?

One of the questions most-asked by people who read the first article in this series was, “How good do I have to be?” Another was, “How do I get better?” These two are linked, so I will treat them together.

At the start, to be good enough is to be better than the client. But being good also has plenty to do with a way of thinking and working. I’ve covered some of the working issues later in this article, but there are a few other characteristics I think a good tech should have.

You need to be able to agree with a lot of these questions:

— I almost always solve my own computer problems on my own, or as the result of my own research.
— I talk with colleagues all the time so we can share ideas, about tech and non-tech matters alike.
— My friends, coworkers and family often turn to me for help with their computers and peripherals.
— My own computer probably would work very well if I didn’t keep installing alpha, beta, development and trial software on it all the time.
— I’ve totally hosed my own computer a number of times because I just wanted to see what would happen when I…
— I have been known to spend hours on solving a problem, non-tech and tech alike, without growing bored.
— My home is littered with electronic gadgets and computer-related devices.
— I spend as much or more time on the Internet than I do watching television, and very little of that time is spent on chat.
— I can usually quickly find what I’m looking for on the Internet.
— I read constantly, and just about everything.
— I rarely have a problem explaining myself.
— I am somewhat sociable, but I can work for long periods on my own, too.
— I’m friendly but not garrulous.
— Although I hate the term “self-starter,” that’s what I am.
— I believe all computer peripherals and devices are hot-swappable unless someone else is around.
— I have never impersonated someone of the opposite sex in an AOL forum.
— I only keep my AOL account so I can more easily get my email from any web browser anywhere.
— I get a lot of spam, but I block or filter most of it, so it’s not an issue for me anymore.
— I never read the manuals when setting up new electronic toys, but only later, when I’m sitting around bored with the toy, just to amuse myself.
— Unix is like a lover to me: I don’t understand it very well, and it makes me angry sometimes, but I am still in love with it.
— I have some computer books on the shelf, but I only use them as references, not as literature.
— I see nothing wrong with strapping a wireless PDA with GPS to the dog so that we can log his roaming patterns through the neighborhood.

Are you satisfied with your number of “yes” responses? Do you feel like you have a strong inclination towards discovery and investigation? If so, carry on.

Learning More.

One down side of being a freelance tech is that you have to create your own support network. You don’t have coworkers to turn to if you need another brain on a problem. Many of your answers are online: consider the Internet the online lobe of your brain.

It’s up to you to decide if you’re ready to learn more. Building on what you know is the key to making this work, and the Internet is one of the methods.

— You should be reading the tech sites appropriate to your specialty every day. There’s nothing quite like that uncomfortable feeling you get when a client says, “What do you think of the new XYZ?” and you don’t know what they’re talking about. Ask your tech-oriented peers and colleagues what tech sites they’re reading and take them up yourself. It may seem like a cinch to include Slashdot on this list, but you’d be surprised how many techs don’t read it, or aren’t even registered. Sure, there are a lot of bozos and doofuses hanging out there, but if you keep your comment-viewing level at least two points or higher (I use three points), many of the comments are loaded with new ideas and insightful analysis.

— Keep up to date on system patches, updates, new releases, common problems with new releases and hardware, etc. Just know they exist. You do this by trolling the discussion forums for major vendors, and by checking other sites which specialize in collating this information. This is crucial: it’s easy to fall into the trap of learning only what you need to solve the problem at hand, but then you leave yourself with spotty, unsystematic knowledge. Sometimes just knowing that other people are having a similar problem is enough to give you hope that a problem is resolvable. And it makes proposal writing much easier if you’ve got a general idea of what kinds of products the market is pushing.

— You need to master the art of the search, and then put that mastery to use on Google and other huge search engines. Too many people don’t know how to exclude unwanted search results, leaving them with hundreds of thousands of useless pages. If you’re good, you never have to look beyond the first page or two of results. Knowing about phrase searches is useful, too: just type any vaguely unique portion of an error message inside of quotes, hit search, and you’re bound to get pages where other folks have dealt with that error.

— The tech magazines are largely a waste of money, so don’t bother with them unless you get free subscriptions.

— Discussion forums and email lists. Many discussion forums and email lists are not indexed by Google or other search engines, so it’s up to you to find the best forums where the newbies don’t seem to dominate. You can usually tell if the newbies are ruling because there will be hundreds of questions posted but no answers, except for a endless variations on “me too!!!”. You need to find forums where the long-timers and the pros don’t respond with “RTFM, newb!”, where answers appear to be thoughtful and generous, giving more help than the questioner needed. The best forums are usually heavy with posts which start, “I just solved a problem and want to share the answer in case anyone else has the issue” and “This one is for the record.” Once you find sites like that, hang on to them. That’s where you’ll get your questions answered when you’ve exhausted all other options.

— Flip through the computer catalogs you get in the mail. Just read what catches your eye. That little bit of information gathering is gold when it comes to talking casually to clients about upgrades or proposed new purchases: many of them will buy what you recommend on the spot without any extra research or a written proposal. This means you should really have your act together, or else you’ll be installing and supporting a sub-standard solution you yourself just happened to mention.

— Learn to string solutions and results together. One BSD project I worked on had a very small problem which required me to consult more than 40 web pages, and it was the conjunction of answers found on many of these which solved it. There’s no single secret magic site with all of the answers. You have to find the bits of knowledge piece by piece. And by God, don’t just bookmark the sites: Save the text to your hard drive if the content is static. Even the Google cache expires eventually, and content drops off the Internet every day, like ships off the edge of the Earth. How many times I’ve lamented not saving a page as text…

Whoring Yourself.

But the number one question from all direct respondents to the first article was, “How do I go about getting clients?” The answers are easy and obvious, so at first guess, you might dismiss them as too easy or too obvious. But the easy ways work.

If any of these marketing methods strike you as cheesy, you need to put that cheese on crackers and carry on. The cheese works. One client here, one client there, before you know it, you’ve got a full roster. Then you can pull back on the self-marketing. In the meantime, you need to take every opportunity to push your business.

Business Cards.

You must have business cards. Make them simple. Don’t do them on your home printer, unless you’re really, really good at it. They need to look and feel professional: opaque, clean inks on heavy stock. Make them memorable: they need the words “COMPUTER SUPPORT” in huge letters somewhere, with all your phone numbers and contact information. Don’t disguise the business card as a calling card. It’s a business solicitation and people need to remember that. Forget logos: you’re not IBM and you never will be. No slogans: “computer support” is all the client needs to remember about you. You’re not Nike; as a one-man operation, you don’t need to do branding.

Black text on a white background is fine. You’re not meeting the Queen, you’re getting business. Nobody ever said, “Wow! Vellum! Indigo ink! Hire him immediately!”

I recommend against raised lettering, but some people like it. To me, it’s like super-sized fries: only 39 cents more, but do you really need that extra?

Human Networking.

Most of my early clients came from plumbing my personal network, as described above. Contact absolutely everyone you know or have ever known. I’m serious. Friends, family, coworkers, ex-coworkers, bosses, ex-bosses, ex-wives, in-laws, and ask them, kind of demurely, sheepishly and apologetically, “Do you have need of computer tech support? Do you know someone who does?” It’s that simple. Don’t be a used car salesman about it: you can’t make someone need your services; either they do or they don’t, and they’ll know for sure.

Of course, some of your first calls will be from family members who are trying to help you out. They’ll probably say something like, “Is there any way you can speed up my computer?” or “There are a lot of files everywhere. Can you straighten everything up?” or “I just want a checkup.”

After a while, the personal networks run dry; any Amway dealer can tell you exactly how limited friends and family are as a network for sales. But if you do well on these first few calls, other people will start selling your services for you by giving out your name as a referral.

Don’t forget that your personal network isn’t just people who you would have over to the house for dinner: it’s absolutely everyone you meet. When you meet new people and they ask what you do for a living, have business cards at the ready. Don’t be pushy, but get them on your side. Be a little hesitant and say something like, “I don’t want to be a glad-handing weasel, but I’m striking out on my own in computer support and trying to land a few more clients. Do you know anyone who needs some help?”

People will take your cards: either they’ll feel sorry for you, or they’ll need the service themselves, or they’ll want to seem helpful, or they want to shut you up, or they’ll see you as someone yanking on your own bootstraps, an action which calls to the deep-seated belief of most Americans that someone who is working hard and attempting to be a self-made success is admirable.

Any way it goes, give those cards out, a half-dozen at a time. Try to run out of cards: they’re doing you no good in the box. Get them out the door and into the wallets and pocketbooks of other people. Then, when somebody has a computer problem, as they inevitably will, your card will be at hand. It really does work that way: happens to me all the time that I get a call from someone who has a card I put in their hand six months ago.

Since networking is about making sure that everyone knows you’re available, change the sig file on your email to include your business identity, even on those emails you send to friends and family. Include the same sig on posts to discussion forums and bulletin boards.

Change your answering machine and cell phone voice mail answering messages: Don’t pretend to be a company, but say something like, “Hey, this is Monkey Boy. I’m probably out handling a computer support call right now, but leave a message and I’ll ring you from the field as soon as possible.”

Everyone, absolutely everyone, needs to know you’re building a business, and they need to be reminded regularly.

Classified Ads.

To further increase business when I first got started, I took out an advertisement in a local alternative weekly, about $300 for five lines and three weeks. It read more or less like this:

Small Business Computer Technical Support

Mac, Windows, DSL, Upgrades

Networks, Small Office, Home Office

Excellent references, suitable rates

Call XXX-XXX-XXXX

Not the best ad ever, but not bad: it covered the themes I felt were important.

There were just five responses: one from a potential client, one from someone who wanted me to hire him, and three from other newspapers asking me if I would also place my classified in their papers. Fortunately, the potential client became an actual client, and the first week’s revenues from it paid for the advertisement. But despite this, I couldn’t help but feeling that the advertisement was a failure.

[This bothers me a great deal, actually. Many of my past years have been spent working in various capacities for newspapers and advertising agencies. While I have no doubt that advertising helps promote a product or cause, it’s always been a burr under the saddle of clients to quantify the response to their ads. It’s one of the reasons why novice advertisers like coupons: they think that will help them gauge the effectiveness of their advertising dollar. And it’s one of the reasons newspapers and advertising agencies hate coupons: people who send in coupons are but a small sub-set of people who read and/or respond to an advertisement without clipping on the dotted line, and branding and image-building are not taken into consideration at all if one considers only a coupon return rate. Coupons are really just a testament to the ability of the staff of the newspaper or ad agency to use scissors, write with different pens in different handwriting, and mail the coupons from the homes of their in-laws.]

The classified ad seemed like a wasted effort, but I did get a client out of it, one which ended up being one of the $30,000-a-year clients I mentioned in the first article. So as a larger part of promoting your new business, classified ads must be considered. Longer runs in the back of alternative weeklies will likely pay off more often than short runs in expensive dailies, and, depending on your budget, should be a part of your marketing campaign.

I also put numerous ads online on free classified sites, but they returned absolutely zero response. Perhaps you might have better luck, but it seems like a gross waste of energy to me.

The Interwebnet Cyberhighway Thingy.

At the time I was building my client roster I had a domain name which I’ve owned for more than four years and have played around with as a weblog. Since I was paying the hosting bill anyway, I decided to post an advertisement about my services on the site. The page listed my skill set, companies for which I had worked, the services I hoped to perform for potential clients, and the answers to a few questions which visitors might be asking themselves when looking for a tech support person.

I double-checked my spelling and grammar, and made sure it did not look like it was designed in 1994 by a 12-year-old. Few graphics and browser compatibility were my watchwords. It had virtually no MBA- or marketing-speak. Only the skill set was jargonized, by necessity, so that more advanced clients searching for specifics would be more likely to have my page turn up.

The end result is that after the site was indexed by the major search engines, I received, on average, three calls a week from potential clients, translating into about four new long-term clients a month. For a company, three calls a week is nothing. For a one-man operation, it’s more than enough. My site, selling only my skills, effectively made a profit, and has long since paid for all the hosting fees I’ve ever spent for the site and the domain name.

Those calls come in because my page tended to come up higher on search engines than any of the larger more full-service tech companies in town. ( I write “tended” because I have since taken down the page, as I am no longer accepting new clients). You might think that big companies would take some care with their web sites, but they don’t.

A large part of this is due to inattention on the part of the large companies’ web designers. Some of the sites are all Flash. Some are mostly graphics. ALT tags are missing. They have lame TITLE tags, and lamer link names. Metatags, now out of fashion but perhaps still useful, are missing. Some of these tech company’s sites don’t even appear to be listed at all in the Yahoo directory, which I would consider a fundamental place to appear.

I hesitate to point this out here, for fear that those larger companies will fix this problem, but, frankly, since I’m currently turning business away, I don’t really mind. And, as I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t consider us in competition. My clients have different needs and, more often than not, cannot afford the services of those larger companies. Even more, I think the market is so untapped as to make it irrelevant as to whether the tech support companies get their act together.

Take a look at a few of the tech company web sites in your city. See what’s astonishing about them? Many of them don’t even include the word “computer.” They use euphemisms like “technology.” How many Google hits are they missing out on because of that one absent word? Most of them are lame attempts to look like much bigger businesses than they are. In writing nothing but jargonized mumbo-jumbo gobbledygook, they neglect to include true descriptions of their work, which should contain the very sorts of words and concepts for which potential new clients will be searching. It’s as if every site about dogs used Canis familiaris (which gets fewer than 20,000 results in a Google search), instead of the more common “dog” (which gets more than 18 million).

You don’t need a web site. You need a web page. The tech support promotional page was not the main feature of my site, but just an addition to my weblog.

Since my weblog is legitimately linked to by hundreds of other sites, the network of trust is put into play. Thus, any search engine which uses an algorithm based upon number of external links to judge the popularity of a site will list my site high on the search results. It’s as legitimate as you can get. Also, given a chance on tech support forums and comment sections of web sites, I always include the URL of my tech support web page with my posts, so it’s on oodles of legitimate, non-spam tech posts all over the Internet.

I should note: many of you reading this are scumbags. You’ll think this is a recommendation to spam your web site link everywhere, or to use those lame paid-links sites, or worse, those pathetic “top sites” directories. Don’t bother reading the rest of this. Do everyone a favor and stab yourself in the throat now, because you’re never going to make it. Anyway, the important search engines know this trick and filter for it.

The weird thing about my web page being successful at getting business is that it sounds a little like the pie-in-the-sky predictions people were making eight years ago. “You can make money on the Internet!” Turns out, it’s true: not millions of dollars, but enough. Funny, though, how few people seem to believe it: they have business web sites which cannot conceivably return any real business. They built the web sites, but they make little effort to attract potential new clients towards them.

A nice side-benefit of getting clients through the web site is that they’re self-selected as being at least minimally technically adept and as having an Internet connection. You will be getting few calls from potential clients saying, “Now what’s all this about an interwebnet cyberhighway thingy?”

Street Papering.

In the responses to the first part of this series, some of the readers at Slashdot made comments about the number of bozos who post fliers offering computer tech support help. There are a lot of them. You know why? Because fliers work.

I posted fliers in the Flatiron District of New York City, an area with a lot of advertising and creative businesses. I put up just 15 fliers and got 12 calls. One of those calls was from a photography service bureau. The guy in charge said he was tired of helping his clients with their computer problems. That’s not what he was in business for, so he wanted someone to refer the business to. He chose me, and I landed three clients from him alone.

One of the clients I landed fired his current tech, who was doubly pissed off when he discovered the client found about me via a flier with tear-tags posted on a telephone pole. Seems kind of, well, cheap, doesn’t it? Yeah, but what’re you gonna do? Starve? Have you been getting any response from your resumes? I didn’t think so.

But in general, the comments on Slashdot were right: most of street fliers promoting freelance tech support are lame. One Slashdot user posted the following excellent advice, and I quote it partially here, edited and with my own additions:

“If you have applicable certifications, explain them genuinely. If you don’t, describe your actual knowledge instead. This sign I saw in the store said they offered ‘computer detailing’ service, anti-virus and OS installation… and that was about it. If this person knew more, they’d have said it.”

Exactly: The best potential clients will see through your baloney immediately. List only what you know and what you want to do.

Just like your Internet page, your flier needs to have keywords. You need to catch the eyes of your potential clients. What are your strengths? Put them down. What services are you getting the most requests for? Put those down: many requests for a certain type of service are indicators of a larger body of other clients who will want the same services. Are you targeting home users or small businesses? Choose appropriate words.

Cut the jargon. I’d even recommend dropping “PC” in favor of “computer.” In other cases, if you have to explain it to people outside of the tech business, then it’s jargon.

[If potential clients call and ask you to do work you’re not sure you can accomplish, offer a rate discount. “I’ve never encountered this before, but I’m sure I can figure it out. Why don’t I cut my rate in half, since I’m learning as I go, and we’ll have you up and running in no time.” For problems which I have really enjoyed solving but had never encountered before, I’ve even given the work away for free. My pay was learning how to do the task.]

Nobody you’re targeting really gives a damn about your certifications. They might ask about them, but that’s only because they can’t think of any other way off gauging your abilities and credibility, and in truth, most people outside of the tech business don’t know what the certifications mean, anyway. The kind of street smarts and MacGuyver-like solutions required of a good freelance tech don’t come with a signed certificate, so offer clients professional references instead. Have them at the ready so you can rattle them off to callers or hand out in person.

The Slashdot user also wrote, “Let the prospective customer know you stand behind your work, but at the same time, don’t put yourself in a bad position to be liable. Say that your liability is limited to one free hour of additional service, should you determine that an oversight on the initial visit wasn’t sufficient.”

Alternately, consider a flat rate per project. If the client wants to network three computers to her DSL connection, then say, “That will be $150 for as long as it takes me to finish for that service only.” See below for more about billing and managing the business.

Legal liability is another issue, and one which I am not qualified to address. I recommend consulting a good small business advisor, many of which are available through government programs.

“If you have a logo… don’t use stock clip-art. This sign used the lined-pyramid default image on every default MS Publisher template as his logo. Depressing.”

For most techs, I’d recommend that unless you’re an advertising or graphics expert, you drop any attempt to create a slogan or logo. I guarantee you your graphic design efforts are pathetic and doing you more harm than good.

Make it readable. It should look more like prose than a bad yellow pages advertisement.

Spell- and grammar-check the bloody thing. You are not free of errors. You are fallible. Good clients are heavily correlated to having good educations: they’ll see any errors you make, and feel less inclined to call you for business, leaving you with the witless clucks who don’t know its from it’s. When in doubt, take it out or look it up.

Referrals.

Another important way of getting new business is through referrals, which I briefly mentioned above in the discussion of networking. I’ve sectioned this topic out from networking because it’s so crucial to growing your business and knowing how to manage your clients.

How do you get referrals? By being reliable, good at your work, and personable. I’m at the point now where I’m getting referrals from clients who were referrals of referrals. That comes later, after you get your first clients and prove your value to their operations.

You also get referrals by asking for them. I sometimes do work for free. Usually small piddly one-offs over the phone or for a friend, or a friend of a friend, the kind of thing where I might feel uncomfortable about asking for money. Instead, when they half-heartedly offer some kind of compensation (half-heartedly because although the work is good, everyone has a cheap bastard inside of them somewhere), I decline and say, “Why don’t you just take down my information or have a couple of my business cards and refer me to anyone else you know who may need my services, then we’ll call it even?” They always brighten at this form of barter, and the referrals keep coming in.

I can’t over-stress how much business can come from referrals. Not just from clients and friends, but from other techs whom you encounter along the way. Even if a tech is fired by a client, it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything wrong with the tech. There are plenty of bad clients, too. It pays to strike up good relationships with other techs, because if it’s obvious you’re good at your work, they will give you clients they don’t want or can’t take or don’t get along with, or hire you to cover for them when they go on vacation, or to help them with a large rollout or other substantial project. I’ve got a small network of friends who do what I do for a living, and each of us passes business back and forth to the others.

That’s why you should be careful about which bridges you burn.

[I do believe in burning bridges: too many bridges, and the river is just another concrete-covered sewer. The river’s charm comes from having places suitable for crossing, bathing, drinking, fishing and shitting.]

There’s no greater delight I take in my work than having business to give away and knowing I will not be giving it to nasty people. Crypto-schadenfreude: delight in the misfortunes of people who don’t know they have them.

Also, you’ll just have to see, but my impression is, even in a town where there seems to be an infinite number of people offering their computer skills, the perceived market seems bottomless because there are a lot of stupid techs. If you’re good, the business is yours for the taking. Many of my referrals are from people who currently have techs but are dissatisfied.

Yet Another Tangent.

Some time ago I took over an entertainment agent’s office from another tech. There are about thirty employees, a terminal server, a large file sharing RAID system (for press releases, mailing lists, databases and photos) and a healthy mix of Windows and Macintosh. The transition meetings with the outgoing tech, though not warm, were at least civil, with he and I talking geek while the chief operating officer looked on in confusion. The outgoing tech, all round-eyed and scouts-honor, said, “Of course I’ll be available for questions. Just send me an email any time.”

His list of master passwords lacked a couple of crucial items, so as I performed a security audit over the course of a couple of days, I fired off an email asking for the appropriate information. “The password for the root account on the secondary mail server doesn’t work. Is that an error on the sheet? Can you give me any suggestions for what it might be?”

His response was to send me nothing but a link to the sales page of a book covering Unix for beginners. No password. So I rebuilt the server (using a newer version of Exim, and plugging in SpamAssassin, Razor and webmail while I was at it), and let the matter drop.

The next time I asked him for information, this time for a password related to backup, he sent along 20 megabytes of user manuals for the tape autoloader. No password. He was being intentionally offensive.

So I bounced that message, with enclosures, back to all five of his email accounts, including the one for his PDA, and never communicated with him again.

In the months since, I have come across at least five solid pieces of business I haven’t been able to take that would have been right in his line. I didn’t recommend him for any of them, but gave them away to other techs who are polite and civil. He lost the original client to me, and he lost the referrals, because of his manners. He probably still doesn’t know it.

Managing Yourself.

I want to state plainly: I am not perfect. I don’t know everything. I make mistakes on the job all the time. I sometimes act unprofessionally. I behave badly.

Like, accidentally erasing the very backup tape from which I was about to recover important year-old data.

Like, not getting it in writing from the phone company that, yes, we could keep our current phone numbers when the client moved to the new office.

Like, barking madly into the phone at the fifteenth call in a day from a client who, while very sweet, is as bright as the dark side of the moon.

Like, overbooking myself so that I have to bump clients scheduled for the end of the day.

I tell you this in order to be somewhat forgiven as I further dish on bad techs and bad clients.

In the spring I met another fellow at another party. He, too, specializes in small business technical support. We talked geek for a while and sniffed tech tails to suss out the other’s geek level. He thought he had me with his MCSE, but I trumped him with my low Slashdot ID.

Turns out, he’s having problems. Business is dismal. The phone’s not ringing. Lost a client. But I knew his would be a tale of woe before he told me. I knew the second he pulled out his two-year-old laptop.

It still had the promotional stickers on it. Brightly colored triangular patches on the wrist-rests which bragged about processor speed and options and warranties and the like. Those stickers are red flags, and they say, “I am an idiot. I am too stupid to recognize what is part of the product and what is not. Also, there’s a chance I think these stickers look good. All those pretty colors. If they were made of shiny foil, I’d like them even more.”

I’ll tell you more about him: He’s the kind of tech who never applies service packs to the operating system on his own computer. He’s never run Windows Update on it once. Even though he connects to dozens of different networks over the course of a month, his email (and its passwords) are sent in the clear no matter how he’s connected to the Internet. His own virus definitions are outdated. He has, however, installed a custom cursor package (he likes the propeller best) and his desktop picture changes every five minutes. He never puts his laptop to sleep, but shuts it down, because he doesn’t know he can put it to sleep by just closing the lid. So he sometimes carries around the laptop turned on and open like a book, holding it with his hand cupped around the spine. He rarely reads the tech support forums. He’s more likely to wipe a drive and reinstall everything or to call Microsoft tech support than to research the problem on the Internet.

Button It Up.

A year ago I resumed working for a client that I let go when I went back to school. It was an uncomfortable transition: the fired outgoing tech was the long-time boyfriend of another employee. The transition meetings were icy. I knew that one of the reasons they were letting him go was because he was inattentive and difficult. How inattentive became clear.

First, I discovered that the mail server was an open relay and had been spewing tens of thousands of spam messages a day, unbeknownst to anyone in the office. It was listed in three blackhole databases. A single check box in the mail server application and a few relay-only-from-these-hosts settings on the mail server software closed it. It took about ten minutes to change the settings, and a few days to get off the blackhole lists.

Second, he had discarded an appropriate and perfectly good 10bTX network hub to purchase a new 100bTX network switch. Why? Well, so he could set up a multiplayer game server with low latency and fast ping times. Never mind that the client had very low data transport needs; they never came close to clogging the old network. But although the mail server was running on a five-year-old box, and their file server was woefully short on brute power and storage space, the game server was one of the finest, newest machines in the office. He had confidently explained to me during one of our transition meetings how proud he was, how people all around the world were logging in. “You mean, in through the firewall, right?” Yes, he replied. In through the firewall, through the ports he had opened: all of them. He didn’t even have the sense to put it in the network DMZ.

Third, in the three years since I had last worked for the client, not a single administrative password had been changed. But he had made the effort to change the names of the printers to some infantile 133t-speak mumbo-jumbo.

Ph33r me, indeed.

These are not the causes of his unworthiness as a tech, but the symptoms. If it had been a football match, he would have been red-carded in the first minutes of the first half. It’s a common story, unfortunately. Only the details change.

There are several things to learn from techs like this and the one with the stickers:

One, that’s business waiting to be taken away. Any tech who makes those kinds of mistakes or shows a high level of inattention to the basics most likely has clients who would be open to a polite business overture from another freelance tech. Bad techs give bad service.

Two, techs can get too familiar with clients. They lose sight of their goals. Here, the game-server guy forgot that, as much fun as he was having with the servers and the network, it wasn’t his. You can see the evidence of forgotten goals in techs who commingle client resources: a cable from this one to that one soon becomes a computer from one to the other. A client’s office is not a home.

Third, such techs make the price of entry harder for others—the clients have been soured on the last guy, so you’ve got to be careful not to make any mistakes the first couple months. All the trust has been depleted until you restore it. Anyone who replaces a bad egg like the ones described above has to work harder and longer and better in order to make sure that the client not only trusts the tech, but the technology as well. The kind of business you take from bad techs is tainted, even poisoned, so tread lightly.

Bad techs are everywhere. There’s a reason some techs’ appointment calendars are full, and those of techs like those described above, are not.

Managing the Business.

There’s another kind of red flag to be on the lookout for, too: burnout, and you should be looking for it in yourself.

I recently saw signs of burnout in myself, so in March I resigned 14 clients, mainly those who where giving only intermittent business, those who were treating me poorly, those who abused the free email and phone support by calling for the same issues repeatedly, and those who seemed to take more of my administrative time (asking for many proposals or reports, for example) than other clients.

Burnout is caused by taking on more business than you can handle. If you’re a good tech, the pool of available clients seems practically bottomless. It’s so tempting to try to fit in one more client visit per day, to try to make a little more money each week. One more dollar, then you’ll go.

A lot of burnout is your fault, but you can fix that by not taking on more than you can reasonably manage. If you begin to see the signs below, step back. Resign those clients who are making you work the most for the least return. That return is not just money, but knowledge: a client which keeps you busy learning new things on interesting projects may be more worth keeping than a client which pays you well to teach someone how to build PowerPoint decks, as that low-paying-but-learning gig adds to your skill set and makes you more marketable to other clients.

What are the signs of taking on too much business?

— Constantly having to reschedule appointments.
— You are late for nearly every appointment.
— No free time for yourself.
— You work every Saturday and Sunday, rather than just the occasional weekend day.
— You are constantly on the phone with clients, even while servicing other clients.
— You work many evenings and early mornings and are often in the clients’ offices when no one else is there, because that’s the only time you could fit the client into your schedule.
— When people call you, you ask them to call you back, rather than handling the call right then.
— When they do call back, you sometimes ask them to send you an email instead.
— You frequently underestimate the amount of time required to handle a service call properly.
— Your friends, lovers or family comment about how they never see you any more.
— You become unusually impatient with even basic questions.
— You are easy to anger.
— You forget things: discs, passwords, appointments, names.
— You take a long time to respond to email or phone calls.
— You neglect to do invoicing, reports or proposals.
— You don’t sleep or eat well.
— You are too tired to do anything but go to bed or zone off in front of the television once you get home.

Clients don’t help, either. They all want special service. “I’m more important” they all seem to say, one way or another. Even if you’ve left two or so hours free every day to handle same-day or emergency calls from people who can’t or won’t wait, you still might find it’s not enough. Clients want breaks, exceptions, waivers, favors, that extra mile. Sure, they’d be glad to wait in the office until 6:30 p.m. when you’re done with your last client of the day, if you could just squeeze one more in, and, oh, by the way, since you’re the last one here, would you lock up when you go?

Clients also have a “one more thing” syndrome, and its not the good kind of “one more thing” like Steve Jobs’. They’re not lying, exactly. They call you to move a computer, and it turns out, they didn’t mean move a computer, they meant swap a computer, and that means copying 23GB of data from one machine to another, making sure the preferences are intact, and setting up the old computer for a new user. Suddenly 30 minutes of work has become two hours.

Or, they call to have you add new users to the email system, and then they say, “While you’re here…”

Some clients are completely incapable of discerning what merits emergency support and what doesn’t. I had one who was zero for three when I resigned the business. The first “emergency” phone call involved a computer that wouldn’t boot. It turned out the power cable was slightly unplugged; my contact claimed to have checked it. The second emergency phone call involved email which had been “deleted.” It turned out the outbox of the user’s mail program was selected rather than the inbox. No mail in the outbox, usually, is there? The third emergency involved a Palm Pilot modem that wouldn’t work. Its batteries needed to be replaced.

The client I mentioned earlier who is very sweet but not very bright was one of those clients who refused to learn, and a client I had to let go. She’s very young, too, in her early twenties. I believe she was perfectly capable of learning what she needed to know, with a little bit of effort, but she constantly called on the same issues. And I constantly had to recite the same solutions over and over. She refused to be educated (see below for more about client- and self-education). She’s one of those people who are used to relying too much on others, and are happy with being told there are no stupid questions.

There are such animals as stupid questions: it’s okay to have to ask them once, but twice is once too often.

Hand-Holding is a Precursor to Love-Making.

A good amount of tech support is nothing but hand-holding. Clients just want to feel protected. They want attention.

If you tell a client you’re going to be out of town for a week and to only call if there’s an emergency, I guarantee that emergency will materialize. If, however, you leave town without giving them any special notice, the phone will ring hardly at all.

There are clients whom you do not want to permit to freely call you. These are the kinds of clients who don’t understand that your time is valuable and that you have other business to attend to. You should arrange regular visits with such clients rather than permit them to call when they have a problem.

One client had the habit of calling me several times a day. Every time, he had to do the “Hi, it’s Mr. Client. Are you busy? How are you? Everything’s alright here. Can I ask you a question? I’ve got a small problem here.” On and on he goes without ever getting to the point. His closings are just as bad: “Okay, that’s it then. Looks good. Thanks a lot. Talk to you later. Have a good day. Nice talking to you…” Every kind of goodbye he uses.

And then he would call a half-hour later with the exact same litany of greetings and salutations. Oh you mean, how am I now, compared to a half-hour ago? Well, in the last few seconds my life has suddenly taken a turn for the worse.

[Maybe it’s just the New Yorker in me, but I see no need for that level of small talk: If I just spoke to you ten minutes ago and said, “Call me back when you get that bit of information,” it doesn’t really require salutations and politeness when you do call back. Say hi (once), spit it out, say bye, then hang up. Pretend we’re standing next to each other. A small thing, but it would show a bit more respect for my time. All those wasted minutes add up.]

How do you prevent clients demanding more than their share of your time? Even better, how do you moderate your work load?

— When you schedule appointments, tell the client how long you plan to be on site. “I’ve got you penciled in at 3 on Thursday for 90 minutes.” Then, if they try to give you the ol’ “one more thing” routine, you can say , “I only slotted you for 90 minutes. I’ll have to do that next time.”

— Learn to say “No.” Couch it in politer terms without using the actual word “no.” Try any one of these: “I’m already over-extended.” “I wouldn’t be able to give you the quality of service you deserve if I tried to squeeze you in.” “I think your business won’t collapse if we schedule this for Thursday instead of Monday.” “I can’t do it for you, or else I’d have to do it for everyone.” “Is it on fire? Well, then it’s not an emergency, is it?” “We both know that when you say it should only take 15 minutes, what you really mean is that you hope it only takes 15 minutes because that’s all you’re willing to pay for, and when it ends up taking two hours you’ll be trying to dicker me down, right?”

— Once you have a strong client roster, start being firm on your rates when people try to dicker you down. High rates are good for keeping a client roster at just the right size. Newspapers do it all the time: they don’t necessarily raise the cover price because they want more revenue, but because they want fewer readers, because too many readers means more costly newsprint and more wages to press and delivery personnel, which can wipe out any profits from advertising because ad rates tend not to correlate perfectly with increased readership, and represent a largely fixed income source. But be careful not to let a good client get away. Sometimes a pleasant and intelligent client (not to mention a good-looking or an exceptionally friendly one) is worth a 25 percent rate cut.

— Learn to delay clients who are not suffering true emergencies. Consider booking their false emergencies a few days down the road, even if you have time free before that. It teaches the client that you are in demand, that this sort of truly non-emergency work must be scheduled, and not called for at the last minute due to bad planning on their part. It also gives the clients an opportunity to figure out the problem on their own. Use this method lightly: it’s easy to get on a power trip and to begin abusing clients, some who seem to ask for it.

— Manage your time, don’t let it manage you. Always pad your travel time with extra minutes to account for delays. Schedule time for billing, report- and proposal-writing, the same way you would for a client call. Leave blocks of time open each day for emergencies. Schedule your client calls in the same neighborhood to reduce travel time. Schedule lunch. Schedule a few personal errands or a few minutes in the park. Be flexible: set a specific appointment time for yourself, but tell the client, “I’ll be there around 2.” Unless they’re a home user, they won’t mind much if you arrive at 2:15.

Some Clients are Veruca Salt.

Some clients are just rotten eggs. You have the right to refuse clients. You’ll know when they’re irredeemable. I recommend resigning the business before it sours you on the rest of your work. Then spend your new free time trying to land better.

Some bad clients I have had, besides the ones mentioned above:

One who stood behind me as I worked, with his hand on my shoulder. The whole time. He wasn’t coming on to me, just asserting his authority in the only way he knew how, since he felt at a power disadvantage because he had to ask me, someone half his age and half his income, for help.

One who, as I was working on the mail server, would keep trying to send mail, and then say, “It’s still not working.” And I would say, “Yes, I know. I’m not done yet.” Two minutes later: “It’s still not working.” Repeat, ad infinitum.

One hired me to replace another tech, and then would constantly challenge my appraisals and recommendations by saying, “I don’t think so. That’s not the way our old computer guy did it.” Umm, didn’t you fire him?

One with the main office on the west coast, where the corporate-wide IT strategy was managed by lead techs who spoke and thought at about ten words a minute. They were all about management, and not at all about doing the actual tech work. I asked that authenticated sending be turned on in the corporate mail server there and not one, but two of the West Coast techs sent long messages about how that would constitute an open relay. This is the same client for which every purchase over $40 had to be approved. The approval process took ages. This is also the client which, although it had a pathetically small tech budget, authorized thousands on a new Exchange server for a 15-person office. About $4,400 in hardware and software. For email only. They had no plans to use the shared calendar or contacts. This was to make up for the fact that the home Exchange server on the West Coast would crash once a week and not be rebooted until someone showed up at 10:30 a.m. Pacific Time, 1:30 p.m. Eastern, leaving the New York office without email for four and a half hours. This was the same office in which the worst email forwarders were, of course, the lead techs on the West Coast. Every stupid forward, chain letter, scrap of false piety mit jingoism (“Fwd: >>Fwd: Re: Pray for America!!!!!!!!!!”) would be sent to the administrative email list.

No End to the Learning.

When I returned to university, many of the other students in my category were old: some of them would have been receiving the silver savings discount at movie theaters before I was out of short pants, if I had worn short pants. The traditionally younger students, aged 18 through 22, were generally accepting of their elders, as long as they didn’t have to sit close enough to sense the decay, but there was an undercurrent from a few younger students who, while they generally approved of education, didn’t understand what possible use a seventy-year-old might have for a degree in urban planning or physics.

One kid, smart, but not one who ever advanced much beyond repeated amazement at being able to issue sounds from his own mouth, put it this way:

“I mean,” Raymond went on,”they’ll be dead soon. What a waste of money. They should be doing something else. Traveling or something.”

I replied, “How do you know they’ll be dead? They might have another 20 years to go. That’s longer than you’ve been alive. What have you done with your 20 years?”

Raymond’s perspective of a fellow student is similar to that of many techs towards their clients, and towards themselves, and represents an attitude not all that unusual in the States.

My opinions: “I’ll never use this” is a self-fulfilling-prediction. “The client will not understand it” is another. The proper answer to “Why do I need to know this?” is always, “Because.”

The Difference Between Smart and Stupid is the Depth of the Hole You Make When You Screw Up.

People forget that they got where they are by education, education, education, because against the background of effective mass literacy, it’s not so apparent where the gains came from. Techs forget how they know what they know, and that at one point, they knew nothing.

A lot of my beginning tech skills came from when I went to university the first time. I worked at the student radio station, where there were a couple of older Macs. I must have destroyed those computers every week with one stupid mistake after another. The lifetime engineering student who took care of them would get pissed off but ultimately he would explain what I had done wrong. He was an educator. (Thanks, Ian!).

Computers are not easy to learn to use. Most people have to be taught because it’s faster than self-learning. You will have learn for yourself and then teach your clients what you know. Some techs master a bit of technology, hire themselves out to perform based upon that skill, and stop cold. Little new knowledge is acquired. Some people stop in high school, some at university.

There’s another sort of tech support person who refuses to divulge solutions to clients in order keep control, like a Mesoamerican priest from eight centuries ago keeping a stranglehold on writing or astronomy in order to secure a position of authority. It’s supposed strength enforced by knowledge.

But look where they are now: their civilization is dead and everyone’s eating tamales on their graves.

My perspective is that tech support is half education and half service. Most techs fail on the education half. A tech who withholds knowledge as if it were a finite resource, as if to impart facts is to eat the seed corn or spend the investment capital, is doomed to failure. Others who offer only obfuscated, over-simplified, misleading answers, will not gain the trust of their clients. Giving the impression of being helpful without actually equipping the client to handle the problem should it reoccur is a hollow experience for a client.

I predict this response to the above paragraph: “Like they’d ever understand <$task>! Not bloody likely! Lusers!”

[The preceding sentence was written before the first article in the series ever appeared on Slashdot; so nice to be right, but I wish I had been wrong].

Others feel like giving away the answers to tech solutions, or even how to get into the tech support business, would eventually deprive themselves of a job. These are the same people who would call me foolish for writing this document. I’m cutting my own throat, they say. Creating my own competition, they sneer. So be it. I care nothing for them and their backward ways.

You may even find that techs who withhold knowledge also hold the completely contradictory belief that it is impossible to keep up with the rapidly changing technologies. But throwing up your hands in despair is not an appropriate response to fast-changing technology. Learning is.

My response to such thinking is, “My ultimate goal is to be so good at my work that my clients never have to call me.” I strive for that by teaching my clients, though no matter how well I do, they always call. That’s because the work, and I say it again, is limitless. There is always some new task, some new challenge, some new information to grok.

I believe that the best way to maintain your position as someone who is being paid and as an educator (which you are) is to pass on knowledge to your clients freely. Give it away. Learn more, filter it so it can be applied to your client’s enterprise, and educate the client.

Knowledge is crack cocaine. You become your client’s dealer. As the conduit for new information, you are invaluable. Every information transaction reinforces the pathway between you and the client. You maintain your position through sharing, rather than through withholding. They become dependent on you for new information, new ideas, solutions. In effect, you become the client’s mentor, and the client becomes the mentee. While there are certainly many instances of this sort of relationship collapsing (see the relationship between V.S. Naipaul and Paul Theroux; Sir Vidia’s Shadow, by Theroux, is greatly informative on such pairs), for its duration a mentoring relationship can be fruitful, productive, and greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a flowering, a redoubling of strength, the invigorating of the ignorant.

There should be an almost evangelical cast to your client relationships, not to promote to a particular brand or product, but to encourage a healthy respect for the technology. All that should be repressed is the underlying complexities. These should be mastered by the tech to such a degree that its tricks appear trivial, even petty, and no longer are they mysterious, but can be easily explained.

Of course, dependency can be taken too far. It’s like the supposed Chinese proverb: Once you are responsible for a user’s computer, it seems you are always responsible for it. The correct approach, though, is that clients should be dependent upon you for new information, with the understanding that this new information will allow them to care for their computers themselves. They won’t remember how to do everything, but they will remember that it can be done, and that’s almost as important.

One of the many kinds of clients I pick up is small Macintosh-based departments in companies which are otherwise Windows-centric. The Mac users are usually feeling neglected and desperate for someone with Mac knowledge to come in and help them out, preferably someone who understands art direction, color control and output, Photoshop, Illustrator, Quark, massive data storage needs, as well as the larger Windows network and servers. It’s a large niche here in New York City and one I specialize in.

When I talk with the PC support people for such companies, they have two strange things to tell me. One, Macs are basically toys. Two, they don’t know how to use them. So these toys, they’re so simple they’re impossible to learn? What?

They’re doubly afraid of OS X. And triply afraid of the Unices and Linuxes.

It’s not just the PC techs. I’ve got compatriots in the Mac support side who are still stubbornly holding onto OS 9, as if OS X will go away. It’s been here for three years. It’s time to learn it. They also usually have a Windows-based finance machine or two under their purview of which they are mortally afraid. They refuse to learn.

I could understand if the techs would just say, “I just don’t have the time to learn that operating system, but if you’ll get me up to speed, I’ll take it from there,” or, “What book would you recommend to understanding this strange OS?” But they usually don’t.

Posted August 5, 2003

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