Choosing the Best Product for the Client or the Best for Me?

A Miktrotik course was held in my area recently, and I thought “They make some really cool stuff, and it’s amazing value. Maybe I should go on the course?” But then I thought: “Who’s going to pay me for Mikrotik expertise? The people who purchase Mikrotik are engineers deploying it themselves, and they don’t have the budget or desire to pay for external consulting resources.”

This led me to an awkward realisation:

If I want to maximise my revenue as a consultant, I should focus my time and effort on learning those products and skills that people are most likely to pay for consulting on - even when that’s not always the best product for the situation.

This Makes Me Uncomfortable

I do my best to be honest in all my business and personal dealings. That means that sometimes I tell people what they don’t want to hear. Sometimes I tell them they can move to a cheaper, lower-maintenance product - even when that means less ongoing work for me. Salespeople don’t like that, but I sleep easy.

If a product is cheaper and simpler, but does what the client wants, then that means less work for me. So should I spend my time learning that product? If I can do less work per client, but have more clients, it might be OK. Some products lend themselves better to “templated” deployments too - that’s the only way to make it financially viable for small deployments. Unfortunately there’s a lot of overhead associated with attracting new clients.

So What Should I Focus On?

I’d love to work with products like SolarWinds more. I think they have a good product suite, and they’re tremendous value for money. But because they’re a lower price, it gets approved at a lower level within the business. Because they sell to engineers, it’s often an engineer making the buying decision, and planning the deployment.

SolarWinds does good work with making their products easy to deploy, but there’s still many engineers out there that don’t know much about network management, and would greatly benefit from some assistance with getting up and running. But the engineer who thinks that SolarWinds licensing is too expensive will balk at spending even $5K on services - or they can’t get approval for it.

At the opposite end of the spectrum here are products like SAP, Tivoli, HP Software, BMC, CA, etc. Their sales effort is targeted towards management, and because the sticker prices are so high they require high-level approval. At that level, it’s easier to get approval for consulting effort - in fact, it’s expected that you’ll be paying more for consulting, since you’re buying expensive equipment.

I’ve heard salespeople say something like “Every dollar in licensing cost means another dollar on services.” Once you’ve spent $500K on software, paying $200k for services to help implement it seems quite reasonable. People regularly compare the Consulting quote with the Hardware quote. Those who are prepared to pay a lot for hardware are prepared to pay for Consulting. Those who want to buy Netgear switches won’t pay much for consulting effort - even if the cheaper product requires more effort to implement.

Where Does it Lead To?

Where does this lead to? We end up with a market where the majority of consultants have experience with the big, expensive products, but little experience with lower-priced products. People recommend what they know, so it becomes self-perpetuating.

For those firms that want to use something cheaper, and are prepared to pay for external assistance, they’ll struggle to find many independent consultants with experience. Or the consultants will be lower-skilled, since there’s not as much money available.

Am I right in this thinking? Cheaper/free products can definitely do the job, and in the case of Open Source projects, they’re often the only way for really large companies to get the flexibility and power they need. That’s great if I want to work directly for those companies, or as a medium to long-term contractor. But it’s very tough as a consultant. There’s a lot of products I’d like to work with, but I just don’t/won’t get a chance. Maybe it’s time for me to change jobs?

I don’t know. I haven’t yet fully developed my thinking on this subject, and I’d love some feedback. I suspect it’s also partly related to the size of your local market - in my case it’s pretty small.