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Half-and-Half: SMB consultants must know the business and technical sides

Fortifying a cup of gourmet coffee with half-and-half can increase your enjoyment. A different kind of half-and-half can maximize your value as a SMB consultant. The nature of being a SMB consultant is to be “half-business” and “half-technical.”

In this article, I consider both technical and business conversation to be of equal importance because small and medium business (SMB) consultants are in the challenging position of serving both the technical and business demands of a customer. Early in my SMB consulting career, a senior professional told me that technology consulting was hard but the rewards were great. He was right in ways I didn’t understand. I knew the technical side very well; I learned the business side every day.

Fortifying a cup of gourmet coffee with half-and-half can increase your enjoyment. A different kind of half-and-half can maximize your value as a SMB consultant. The nature of being a SMB consultant is to be “half-business” and “half-technical.”

Small Is Small

In fact, most SMB consultants are themselves small business people. On a daily basis, they must use technology and make shrewd business decisions to stay afloat.

Compare these priorities with those of an enterprise consultant who works for a Microsoft Gold Certified Partner. This person may possess deep technical knowledge and enjoy great professional success but have little regard for business operations. Business development and sales are handled by someone else, so the enterprise consultant focuses solely on technical issues. A SMB consultant, however, serves as a jack-of-all-trades and wears up to three hats: a “finder” (who makes the sales), a “minder” (who manages the business), and a “grinder” (who performs the technical work). And you thought passing technical certification exams was difficult!

You Belong To a Community

The good news is that you aren’t alone in your journey to act as part technician and part businessperson for your small business customers. I’ll be here frequently on this site to guide you. I’d like to think my expertise gained from 20 years of business and technical work experience as a small business technology professional, businessman, and MBA degree holder can help minimize your pain and increase your gain as a SMB consultant. Additionally, a vibrant SMB consultant ecosystem is emerging. This ecosystem will be the subject of next month’s column. You aren’t alone even if you work alone.

Meeting the Challenge

Truth be told, I wasn’t the first to also see that SMB consultants have the unique challenge of being half-business, half-technical. The Microsoft team behind the Small Business Specialist Community acknowledged early on that SMB consultants would march to a different drummer than traditional stakeholders in the Microsoft Partner Program ecosystem. Consequently, the requirements to earn the Small Business Specialist title are part-technical, part-business. Here’s the certification testing map:

Exam Requirements

To become a Small Business Specialist, you must complete two type of tests.

Business Requirement: Complete the Small Business Sales and Marketing Assessment.

Technical Requirement: Pass one technical certification exam (70-282, 70-631 or 74-134).

There are other requirements that you can learn about at www.smbnation.com.

A Day in the Life

Enough programmatic descriptions. How can this abstract concept be seen in your real world as a bona fide SMB consultant? Just open your email program and look at your inbox. While I was preparing this column, Office Outlook 2007 was open on my laptop. As I bounced between Microsoft Office Word 2007 (where I was writing my article) and Outlook 2007 (where I was answering email messages), I made a startling realization: I’m living the half-and-half life. Half of the emails were technical in nature. One such email was a request to help someone create a Windows Small Business Server 2003 installation DVD. The remaining emails were business-oriented. An example is one that was about a new business opportunity. The contents of my email inbox illustrate that SMB consultants are just as likely to devote mental bandwidth to a technical issue as to a business matter.

A Further Example

One day I was stuck in traffic. Ironically, I knew the two people driving the cars in front of me. As it happens, both are small business technology consultants. On the left was my friend Terry driving an expensive late model Lexus and jamming to some jazz music. On the right, in an older car, was Bob, looking exhausted and smoking a cigarette. I speculated on what divergent career routes my friends had taken, and why Terry had the nice car and Bob didn’t. It really came down to the principle of half-and-half. Years ago, Terry started to introduce business thinking into his small business technology consulting practice. Bob stayed at the technical level exclusively. Terry had taken his customers further into the technology and business lifecycle, while Bob was content to engage in break-fix activities. Accordingly, Terry had climbed up the success ladder will Bob lagged. Terry’s success suggests that building both business and technical skills is a good idea, doesn’t it?

Justification

So I end where I started. This article addressed both business and technical conversations. Such is the life of a SMB consultant wearing two hats and drinking half-and-half in her coffee!

Harry Brelsford is the CEO of SMB Nation and can be reached at www.smbnation.com. SMB Nation is a portal promoting and providing content to SMB consultants.

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