The Struggle in Booking Projects for Small Services Companies

I had written two posts for LinkedIn to help customers understand how subcontracting and markups affect them (Understanding Software Services Charges). I often find customers are frustrated by some of the situations they are in but the main issue is that they don’t understand the situation. If they understood it, they couldn’t necessarily change it, but by at least having a good handle on how these things works makes it more understandable, if not necessarily less frustrating.

For the Large Projects
For those companies who are ultra-large, the people needing the services often don’t have a choice in the vendors they use. They might have to select from their preferred vendor list. If they don’t like the preferred vendors or if the preferred vendors don’t have the right resources for them, there aren’t always mechanisms in place to select someone else or to do so in a practical manner. If they miss the days of getting more personal service, it’s just too bad, for the most part – you get what is set up by the corporation. Period.

Likewise, those consultants who look for large contracts to work on are typcially at the mercy of the preferred vendor system, as well. These days, the majority of large projects are run by the preferred vendor system and you can’t get these customers as your direct customer if you want to be on these projects. This means that most of these customer don’t know who you are and won’t ever value your particular skills. While I do sometimes land work with a large customer, it’s rare, these days. Basically, if I based my business on the large customers, I’d be out of business, which is entirely different than when I started my business. Back then, many of my customers were large companies. Also, since there’s no real loyalty in these subcontracting situations, where each person is just a widget in the grand scheme of these projects, it’s possible the customer won’t really get to know you or remember you when there is future work.

For the Small Projects
When a project is small, the customer might have a hard time getting much attention when surrounded by projects in the same space that are large. These customers might want and be able to get more personalized service – a service where they work with one or just a handful of consultants that will treat them as if they’re important and who will be fairly consistent resources over the long term.

Likewise, companies like mine are best suited to give that kind of personal service and to be long-term resources for these customers. It’s about building loyalty on both sides. When you build this kind of loyalty, on the customer side, you can begin to feel comfortable that you won’t just get dropped when a larger customer comes along. On the services side, we can feel good that that customer will call us back when they have their next bit of work – that they’re not going to forget about us as soon as we’re done, but can also know exactly how that customer views the work we did. We can make sure we do the best job because we can understand what the customer wants and needs, thus better ensuring we do get called back.

Not Quite the Answer to the Problem
For anyone out there looking to find new customers or for any small customer out there looking to find someone to work on their project, I’m going to make this bold statement – there’s ALWAYS someone out there for you. Yes, I say “ALWAYS!!!” The problem is getting the two matched-up. This is why the answer to this isn’t to just have small customers and small consulting companies work together – they just don’t have a good way of finding each other. Looking for customers is a lot of work – it’s hard. And, for small customers, I find that not all of them know enough about the industry to know where to find the right resources.

What to Do
The hard question I get is, “Where do you find your customers?” In the old days, many of us in the industry could depend on getting some work from the old LIMS discussion list. These days, there is not a discussion list nor any business listing that I have gotten a single lead from. Yes, that’s right – sign up for free in all these places and, over the years, nothing comes of it.

In fact, I would venture to say that there’s no good way for the small customers and small services companies to find each other. It’s a struggle. On the customer side of things, customers sometimes find me because they hear my name from another customer, possibly because they stumble across my blog or web-site, possibly because they remembered me from a previous project at another company. But there isn’t a “good” way. You have to just try a lot of things and keep doing them in the hopes that you’ll get maybe one lead from each thing you do and that that will be enough to keep your business going.

For the customer trying to find the smaller services groups, these days, there’s no single place everyone is listed. In addition, just selecting from those lists often wouldn’t help you find quite the right resources. My best suggestion to those trying to look is to ask others in your industry. If you’re at a user group meeting, as other customers you meet, especially those in your industry. If you go to an industry conference or belong to an industry discussion group, ask there. Those are a few places you can go.

More Objections
Some customers will object to looking for a small services company, with the fear that, if that person or small group of people goes out of business, there will be no-one to take over. That is just as likely with some of the big services groups, where there might be turnover and where they might be purchased by someone else. Look at the company’s years in business and use that as one factor in finding someone that will provide consistent service. Or, ask other customers if they feel that that is a threat in using that company.

On the consultant side, many consultants will argue that finding small customers is not just hard but that you have to find so many of them. Instead of finding a big project that gives them 40 hours/week for the next 100 or so years (to me, some projects seem to go on forever), you have to find a whole lot of 10-20 hour/week projects to fill your time and they will turn over more quickly because, after all, they’re small.

I’ll admit that this is difficult. I often find myself in the position where I would like to fill another 10-20 hours of one week or another or find that I have an entire week unbooked but can’t quite fill it. Some would argue that you make less money, this way, and I suppose that that’s true. However, I prefer to have my own customers and this is one of the pitfalls.

Pick Wisely
In the end, we all make choices. In either side of this, there are plenty of frustrations. I have made a commitment that I will never dump my small customers to subcontract something large that would just fill my time. I’ve stuck this for all these years in business and intend to keep that promise to my customers. It’s not always the easy thing to do but it’s the commitment I’ve made to my customers. It can be frustrating when there are small blocks of open time, since they’re so hard to fill, but the opposite side of the coin is that working with nothing but large projects has its own frustrations.

In the end, it’s the customers who make the real decision. Those customers that can and want to work with the smaller services groups like GeoMetrick Enterprises will do so and if the trends push everyone toward the larger groups, then that is just the way it is. I see plenty of small companies that have folded, over the years, not being able to convince enough customers to continue to work with them. It’s the way the marketplace works. Things go up and they go down – nothing stays the same, forever, and well all adjust to customer buying patterns. Sometimes, that means going out of business, unfortunately.

Gloria Metrick
GeoMetrick Enterprises

4 thoughts on “The Struggle in Booking Projects for Small Services Companies

  1. In reading your article, I get the impression that you speak from experience with the struggle to get new clients/projects. From previous postings your scope appears to focus pretty much exclusively on Labware and Thermo. From what I have read, those companies have tight relations with large consulting firms and what is not covered by those firms the vendor provides the staff. It appears that the trends are against getting work in the areas of Labware and Thermo. I am guessing you have to move down the LIMS food chain but that would involve learning new systems. I guess that is like starting ones career over again.

    It all sounds like a tricky situation for a consultant tied to a handful of systems but as you said in your wrap up. That is just the way business is. You adapt or go out of business.

    Speaking as a LIMS vendor, we use consultants constantly and in fact we train and put consultants in business and share our consultants with our clients. It works well for us and we plan to expand our work with consultants. We find that consultants are key to our growth. I cannot imagine LIMS consultants having difficulties in finding business.

    • They both vary. Thermo Fisher Scientific does have partnerships with companies of all sizes. LabWare also does have relationships with large consulting firms but also has many, many tiny consulting firms of one person or so. There are probably plenty of projects to go around for anyone that wants them, more or less, but that getting them is tricky.

      As one example, whether coming from the software vendor or not, some of the large services groups oversell their services. They grab as many projects as they can and cannot necessarily fill them. Customers don’t necessarily know that they won’t get their projects entirely staffed until it is too late to do anything but just wait.

      But there are many other reasons why projects don’t filter out to everyone. As I said in this post, when you’re small, no-one has heard of you, for one – you’re harder to find. That’s true whether you run a small firm like mine or you’re a tiny customer.

  2. From my point of view, consulting activity is not only working on projects but also with minimum 20% FTE to run commercial actions to find new projects/customers.
    A few years ago, when I was managing GC&Partners, I made the strategic choice to avoid accepting big projects with a full FTE constraint.
    CG&Partners specification was 5 for lower limit concerning running projects. As soon as I was under 6, I was lunching all kind of commercial actions (emailing, scientific exhibitions, LIMS Conference, direct calls,…) to stay upper than 5.
    One of the main reason was: with 5 or 6 projects, when you terminate one (whatever the reason is) you can manage continuation of your business with no problems. If you have only 1 or 2 the solution is much more difficult.

  3. Claude, your reply really hits the heart of the matter. One of the hardest parts of having a services consulting business is this issue that you always have to be looking for the next customer. If you don’t, you don’t stay in business. However, you’re so busy with your current customers that you don’t have time to look for more customers. Finding the balance is tricky.

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