consultant

ISP consultants.How to hire and engage Part 1

I have been a consultant for the Internet Service Provider (ISP) space for the better part of my working life. I have dealt with the technical side of the field and some of the business and back end. I have been an owner/operator/stakeholder in several ISPs since 2000. Some of these ventures have been self-funded, while partners funded others. This history has given me a unique perspective many others have not been able to experience.

Most of the ISP operators I have worked with boil down two one of three types

The Businessperson. These operators usually have little technical knowledge but see a business need and require technical and operational personnel to help them. An outside technical consultant helps to supplement any technical expertise.

The Techie. These are folks who know the technical side of operations. They may not necessarily have Service Provider experience. Still, they can configure gear, understand spec sheets, and follow the lingo on message boards and groups.

The Operator. They may need a consultant for a few reasons. The first is that they are racing and need outside talent on demand. Second, they may need someone to supplement higher-end tasks such as BGP, CBRS implementations, or LTE help. This person is a professional who can pick up on both the business and technical sides.

Each of the above types needs different things from a consultant and should approach a consultant differently. One of the best things to do before hiring a consultant is put a list together of what you need help with. This need can be a long wishlist or a specific task. Either way, having a defined Scope of Work (SOW) is beneficial.

From my experience, the more focused the task, the easier it is for me to get up to speed. This ease is especially true of an established network. It is much easier for me to give a time estimate when someone says, “OSPF is broken between router ten and router eleven. Can you look at that?” than it is for someone to say, “My OSPF is broken. can you look at it”. As a general topic of investigation, I will try and get more specific, so I am not spending hours looking at unaffected network segments.

One of the things I think any owner should do with a potential client is to have a general call before any work starts. If you are looking for someone to fix a specific issue, this is probably a quick call. I have jumped into a client’s screen share before within a few minutes of them calling and worked through an issue without much prep work. Suppose the operator is looking to have a consultant work on several projects and work on a medium to long-term basis. In that case, the conversation needs to be longer.

Suppose you are an operator looking to hire a consultant to be with you for a while. In that case, the initial conversation I mentioned above is more like a two-way interview process. This type of conversation tends to happen with new or startup WISPs a lot. They need direction and someone to answer many questions that are not answered outside of an ISP. In an earlier article, I go over the differences between an ISP network and an Enterprise network.

In Part two we will look at more things to ask and look for from the operator’s perspective. In Part Three we will look at some of the rationale and options from the consultant’s perspective.

Philosophies as a consultant Vendors, distributors

Over the years my views and philosophies on being a consultant have changed and are constantly evolving.  There are certain things that consultants can incorporate into their businesses in order to maintain a high level of service to clients.

Being Neutral
One of the things I have tried to do is be neutral when it comes to vendors and technology. While this is an admirable goal to have, you will find yourself gravitating toward technology you and your clients find useful and proven. It’s okay to be a certified consultant for a specific vendor. This brings up a whole new set of issues I will talk about later. There are two keys to take away from this. The first is to understand the underlying technology as a whole. If you think a particular product is superior enough for you to become certified in it, know why. Know how it is better than the competitors and where it lacks compared to the competitors.

The second key is to not be influenced by becoming a reseller/distributor for particular products. If you want to become a distributor, then focus on that. If you offer consulting services, become an integrator for that product. This way, you are not influenced by the latest promotion for a particular product and try to make it fit for a customer when something else might be better.

Vendor Expertise
As a consultant, you will probably find yourself working with specific products more than others. This is natural. I have found myself working with Cambium ePMP products more often than some others. I believe in the product, so I recommend it to my customers when it fits their situation. However, becoming an expert on a product line has pitfalls.

The first pitfall is you are an expert not paid by the vendor. If you are doing an excellent job on Social media and SEO your name should be popping up in google searches for that product. For example, if you do a search for “Cambium Consultant,” the first page that pops up is a page with my info on it. In a way, you are representing the brand without knowing it. This can lead to you answering questions about a product without any direct compensation for your time. I have always strived to answer questions on topics I am an expert on. There is a fine line between answering questions to a client who has not paid you money and one who has. Every potential contact is a potential client. You have to decide how to handle that grey area. This is an area I struggle with regularly. I am a Cambium ePMP expert and get many questions on this and that from folks who are not clients. I try and answer as many as I can, but at the end of the day, the paying clients do take priority.

Distributors and ordering
I mentioned earlier about me personally, not wanting to be a distributor or reseller. I don’t want to have to meet quotas and absolute minimums to keep stock of products. Some companies are better at this than I ever could be. Having a good relationship with a few good distributors is a good idea. Over the years, I have developed good relationships with several of these WISP distributors. There are some I shy away from due to they have competing services. There are a few vendors and distributors I have referred folks to, and the next thing I know they are offering them consulting services or saying, “I can fix that real quick for you”. They may not even realize they are hurting my business. These are distributors and vendors I personally stop referring business to. If it’s the right product, I will still include them in options for clients, but I make sure I keep on top of the relationship between myself, the vendor, and the client.

There are distributors out there who do very well offering consulting services. The question to ask is are they selling you products because the product makes them money or is it the right product for you? There is much room for either way.

Just some random 3am thoughts