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Advice for Consultants
By Richard Rost   Richard Rost on Twitter Richard Rost on LinkedIn Email Richard Rost   2 years ago

Richard Rost Microsoft Access MVPWhether you are currently an Access database consultant or you're looking to get into it, this page contains advice from my almost 30 years in the consulting business. I know a lot of my Access students bill themselves out as consultants for projects, if not full-time then definitely part time. They should. They have the best teacher, and they make great databases. However, technical skills alone aren't enough if you're going to be in business for yourself as a consultant. It took me a lot longer to learn the business and customer service side of the business. Access was the easy part.

As far as my resume goes, I started providing contract Access developent work in 1994. I've been teaching Access since 1996 (first in the classroom, and now online). I started 599cd.com in 2002. And just this year (2021) I finally decided to stop taking consulting work and to focus 100% on making new videos. So that's 27 years as a consultant. I think I'm qualified to give advice.

How Much To Bill Per Hour

I get asked this question all the time: "how much should I bill myself out for?" That's an enormously difficult question to answer. I've been a consultant since I started my first business in 1994 and I've always struggled with that myself. 

One factor to take into consideration is how much do you want to earn every year. Or you can reverse it to say how much did you earn last year. Let's say you earned $100,000 last year, or you want to earn that much next year. That's $2000 per week (assuming 50 weeks, you deserve a vacation). If you work a normal 40 hour week (ha ha, yeah right) that's $50 per hour. That's not a bad starting point to figure out your billable hourly rate. If you have steady work and you can bill that much, you'll know what to expect for your income. If you want to figure in a raise for next year, go right ahead.

Don't forget, however, that for every "billable" hour, there's usually a lot of non-billable hours you have to put in. Customer service. Phone calls. Advertising. Email. Stuff you can't bill for. So I usually figure I'd double that amount.

How Many Hours to Bill

Then comes the harder question: "how many hours will this project take to build?" That can only be answered through experience. Very rarely will you find a customer that's willing to just write a blank check and say "however long it takes, I don't care." They're going to want a figure up front, so you have to get good at figuring out how long it's going to take to build something. And there's no easy answer. I've built literally hundreds of projects and even I sometimes get it wrong. Without spending too much time up front planning out the database, you have to "ballpark" it in your head.

Make a quick outline. Lay out your tables, forms, etc. but don't go crazy on the detail. At this point, it may or may not become a billable project, and you don't want to spend 3 hours preparing an outline for nothing. But, now that you know how many tables you need, how many forms you have to design, and (my least favorite part) how many printed reports you have to generate, then you can estimate X hours per table, form, report, etc.

How Long to Tell The Customer

Now let's say you are going to charge the customer for 10 hours of "billable" work. Make sure they don't have the expectation that they're going to get it in 2 days. I always tell my customers that billable hours don't always translate to actual hours. I usually multiply my "time to completion" results by a factor of two or three. 10 hours of billable work usually takes 20 to 30 real hours, especially if I'm going into territory I've never been in before. If I'm building a database that I've done a million times, sure, it's usually about the same, but if it's new stuff, it could take longer.

For those of you who are Star Trek fans, there was a Next Generation episode where Geordi and Scotty have a discussion about setting the captain's expectations:

Scotty: Do you mind a little advice? Starfleet captains are like children. They want everything right now and they want it their way. But the secret is to give them only what they need, not what they want.

Geordi: Yeah, well, I told the Captain I'd have this analysis done in an hour.

Scotty: How long will it really take?

Geordi: An hour!

Scotty: Oh, you didn't tell him how long it would really take, did ya?

Geordi: Well, of course I did.

Scotty: Oh, laddie. You've got a lot to learn if you want people to think of you as a miracle worker.

Now I'm not saying that you should pad your estimates, or over-charge the customer for work you didn't do. BUT, you have to take into consideration that, pardon my french Jean-Luc, but "shit happens." You may run into things you don't know how to do and you have to do research. You may have to put out fires. I was working on a project for a customer just recently and my own database has a serious problem that took me 3 days to fix. Plus, you never know what issues may come up in your personal life. So be sure to set the customer's expectations up front. 10 hour project = give me a week. If they want it faster, it will cost more (see below on cost v. speed).

Get It In Writing

Once you've said to the customer, "this is what it will cost, this is how long it will take me, and these are the features that will be in your database," make sure you get it in writing. Have them sign off on the outline. Let them know that you need to know up front exactly what they need the database to do. If they can, have them draw out any screens (forms) they want custom designed. Get printouts of any existing reports they use so you can use them as a guide for new reports. 

There is nothing worse than finishing a database, and you think it's perfect, and then the customer comes back with "oh, but it also needs to do this..." If you don't have it in writing, now it becomes "well, you didn't tell me that," "yeah I did." This way you've got a blueprint in writing that they signed off on and you can say, "I see that you want the database to do that, Mr. Customer, and I would be happy to ADD that feature. It will cost $X and 10 more days."

Speed, Quality, Cost

As a general rule of thumb, I always tell my customers that there are three factors in any consulting or service work:

  • Speed
  • Quality
  • Cost

PICK TWO. You can have it done well not spend a lot of money, but you're going to wait a while. You can have it done cheap and quickly, but the quality will suffer. You can have it done right and quickly, but you're gonna pay for it. So, keep that in mind.

The following are some stories that I have on my Consulting page for customers to read. They're worth repeating here:

Consulting Story

A few years ago, a client called me and said they had a need for a specific database they needed built. They explained all of the details to me (some data entry, a few custom reports, security, etc.) and asked how long it would take me to build it for them. I explained that I could do it right there on the spot and have them a solution up and running by the end of the day. It was around noon at the time.

The client didn't believe me, and bet me $100 (on top of my hourly fee, which at the time was $90 per hour) that I couldn't do it. By 6pm that afternoon, I not only had built them a database from scratch, but I imported all of the data from their old system AND showed their staff how to use it.

Now here's the good part...

After doing all of this, the client (as he was handing me my check for $540 plus a $100 bill) told me that they had previously contracted another company to build the exact same database. They quoted him $5,000 and two months of development time to do what I had done in an afternoon. After waiting SIX months for a solution, the client told the other company to forget it... and that's when he called me. This isn't the only customer something like this has happened with either.

Someone's Always Cheaper

You will run into people who say "I can get a developer from one of these online sites for $10 per hour or less." Yes, that's true. If you're looking for the absolute cheapest developer possible, then by all means, feel free to pursue that route. I am not that person. I don't want to be. I pride myself in quality work.

Keep in mind that you'll possibly be dealing with someone who barely speaks English, may have questionable technical and/or communications skills, might not have the capability to develop the application you want based on limited real-world experience, and may or may not be available for support after the project is completed. These are all things to keep in mind. And remember... The old saying is always true, "you get what you pay for." Someone else is always cheaper.

I still run into this today with people looking for Microsoft Access training. I tell them the same thing. Sure, you can find most of what I teach online with a Google search, if you know what you're looking for. You will find many other people on YouTube, and other companies selling cheaper lessons. They're not me. My stuff is the best, and I'm not trying to be the cheapest. You get what you pay for... and you're paying for my nearly 30 years of experience teaching Access. 

Tesla and Ford

And of course, there's this legend, which I like to remind my customers of all the time. It goes something like this:

Nikola Tesla visited Henry Ford at his factory, which was having some kind of difficulty. Ford asked Tesla if he could help identify the problem area. Tesla walked up to a wall of boilerplate and made a small X in chalk on one of the plates. Ford was thrilled, and told him to send an invoice. The bill arrived, for $10,000. Ford asked for a breakdown. Tesla sent another invoice, indicating a $1 charge for marking the wall with an X, and $9,999 for knowing where to put it.

Moral of the story: sure, I charge a lot for my time, but I can do in an hour what an inexperienced developer will take DAYS to do WRONG.

The takeaway for you: know your worth. You're not some minimum-wage programmer making $12 an hour working for some company that doesn't deserve your talents. Lots of companies out there would prefer paying more for quality work. Don't sell yourself short. I can tell you for a fact that if you're one of my students and you've completed all of my Developer-level Access lessons and you comprehend all of that material, you know enough to bill yourself out at least at $50 an hour as a consultant. The hard part is finding the work.

Finding Gigs

This is the million dollar question, and another one that I get asked all the time. I wish I had a definite answer. For me it's a combination of things. There are a ton of different ways to put yourself out there. Start by letting all of your friends and family know that you are a consultant and what your skills are. Post it on all of your social media pages. Build yourself a web site. It doesn't have to be super professional. Some people like that "down to earth" more laid-back style.

In fact, I used to try to make my own business seem larger than it is. Back in the 90s I actually had a company with 12 employees at one point. We did the standard computer sales, service, networking, training, etc. When that company folded in 2001, I decided at that point that I didn't want employees ever again. Sure, I'll farm some stuff out (like my handbooks) and I've got some great people helping me here and there (like Alex) but the core of the business is just me. When I started 599cd back in 2004, I tried to make it look like I was this big online training company. All of my web pages read in the plural "we offer training..." Now, 16 years later, I've done a 180. I prefer letting everyone know "I'm it." You're getting me. I'm the product. My lessons. My expertise. It's more personal, and I think it works in my favor.

The point I'm trying to make here, is market yourself. You don't need fancy business cards, Class-A office space, and all the trappings of a Fortune 500 company. Just let people know who you are, what you do, and that you're the best at what you - and you learned Access from the best instructor out there. LOL.

I'll talk more about what I originally did to drum up business below (under My History) but the techniques I used back in the 1990s and early 2000s are mostly not available now. I used to have a Fax newsletter I sent around to companies in the 90s. You can't do that anymore (laws have changed regarding unsolicited faxes). I've taken out ads in the phone book. It was an awful return, and you're limited geographically.

I had pretty good success with some smaller pay-per-click advertising (anyone remember Sprinks and About.com?) That worked well for about a year until Google Adwords gobbled it up. I've never had good success with Adwords. There's just so much competition, and the cost-per-click on the good keywords is just too high. It's hard to make money selling a $10 tutorial when I'm paying $2 per click. Too many clicks. Not enough sales. Yes, I could probably optimize, but that takes a lot of time, and I'd rather spend my time recording new lessons. I'm not saying anything bad about Adwords... it's just not profitable for me. If you've got the time to tweak your ads, then go for it. Lots of people make tons of money using it.

What has worked best for me has been YouTube. Fortunately I got my first videos on YouTube when it was in its infancy back in 2004. As of July 2020, I've got over 167,000 subscribers and my videos have a combined 30 million views. I'm not getting rich by any means, but it brings enough traffic to my web site to keep me in business. There's plenty of business to go around too. There's no reason everyone shouldn't put some videos together to promote their product or service. Now, I'm not saying you should do what I do, but if you've got a niche specialty - like a particular type of database you specialize (medical billing, landscaping, etc.) then showcase it with a video. You'd be surprised! And it's free advertising.

Another great way to get your name out there is to volunteer to answer questions on different forums. I've got my forums here and they're moderately active, but do a Google search and you'll find dozens of them. I used to volunteer a lot on AllExpert.com before they closed up shop. Now I pretty much focus on my own Access Forum and my YouTube Channel comments. Between that and making videos, it's a full time job.

One of my back-burner projects has been putting together an Access Developer Network. I have a lot of Developer-level students who are very good with Access. Of course they are. They had a great teacher. As of June 2021, I decided to stop offering consulting and tech support services myself. I just don't have the time nor desire. I've been doing this for almost 30 years. I just want to teach and record my videos. So, the ADN is a forum where people can post what they need done, and my Developer students can help them. As of right now, I leave it up to everyone to talk amongst themselves and negotiate pricing. Perhaps in the future I'll add some formal structure to it.

My History

For those of you who care, here's how I got my start. It may give you some insight and some motivation.

Back in 1994, I was working as a programmer building software in Visual Basic and C++. A friend told me that there was this local company putting out requests for bids for someone to be their PC service provider. It was mostly on-site work to fix problems, upgrade machines, etc. It wasn't my forte (I've always been more of a software guy than a hardware guy) but I figured I could do it. Well, I put in a bid and I won. It was only a $2000 contract for like 100 hours of service (peanuts now) but at the time it gave me enough of a cushion to quit my job and start my own business. When I wasn't providing service for that company (which was only usually 1 or 2 days a week) I could spend time hunting down more business.

Now the techniques I used back in 1994 are outdated today. I sent a lot of direct mail to local businesses. I put an ad in the phone book. I actually had a newsletter I called "ComputerFAQs" which was quite popular. I sent it out by Fax (remember that?) from 1994 until around 2000. People would actually call and complain if they didn't get their issue that week. But, it brought in business. People got to see my name every week on their fax machine, read the articles (mostly Q&A of how to do things in Windows, Word, Excel, etc.) and they loved it.

That allowed me to build up enough of a client base in the Buffalo area where I had pretty steady work. I offered pretty much whatever a company wanted. Need new PCs? I got em. Need something fixed? I got it. Want to add to your network? No problem. Need to train 6 employees in Word? I got ya. Of course my favorite thing to do was build Access databases. I've always loved Access. So as my business grew I hired on more people (mostly friends) to do the things I didn't want to do. Building and fixing computers, running around doing service work, and eventually even classroom training were things that I hire others to do so I could focus on software development.

And then Y2K hit. I made a lot of money in 1999 as companies were preparing for Y2K. Everyone was buying new PCs, new software, upgrading their networks. I was busy making databases for customers who knew their old ones weren't Y2K compatible. We were all real busy. I hired on more staff to fill the need. And then of course, first quarter of 2000 comes around. Everyone got all new stuff last year. Sales dried up. Business slowed to a crawl. So, I shut that business down in 2001 and decided to just do what I wanted to do: the things I was good at: training and software development.

I opened my own physical computer training center in 2001 at a local shopping plaza. It did OK. However, I really started getting sick of teaching the same thing over and over and over again. How many times can one person teach Microsoft Word Basics? That's the problem with live, in-person training: you're limited geographically and your income is limited to the number of butts you can put in chairs. So that only lasted a year. Mostly because I got sick of the repetition.

Next, I figured I would record my videos and ship them to people on CD. I started 599cd.com in 2002, and started advertising online. Sites like About.com were a gold mine for me. They had pay-per-click advertising where you could pick the specific page you wanted to advertise on (specific topic like Microsoft Excel, Access, etc.) and you could enter what price you wanted to bid for ad spots (1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.) and I was able to get clicks for like 3 cents a piece! It worked wonderfully. Then Google bought up all traffic for the small sites that did their own PPC ads and ruined everything. I still don't care for AdWords. Too much competition and the cost per click is way too high. My average sale for a new customer is only a few dollars. I can't pay $2.50 per click. So I stopped doing that. 

Fortunately, in 2005 this new company called YouTube started up. In 2006, I started uploading videos there. Within a couple of years, my business really took off, and I attribute it to the steady stream of new people who find me on YouTube. As I said, I got in pretty early and I still have some old videos with really great search placement. But my channel has a lot of subscribers and good reputation, so YouTube is still my #1 traffic source.

My Consulting Days Are Over

As of June 2021, I've decided to hang up my hat in the database consulting arena. From now on, I'm only spending my time recording video tutorials. No more working on custom projects for clients or fixing other peoples' databases. I'm in the business of teaching people how to use Microsoft Access and other software applications. I prefer to spend my time recording video tutorials, not fixing databases. There just aren't enough hours in the day for me to do both (and have a healthy family life). Plus, it's not the kind of work I want to do - no matter how much people are willing to pay.

I'm currently in the process of removing all of the mentions of my consulting services from my web site, however I wanted to preserve some of this for you in case it helps you to understand how I used to run my consulting business. These are paragraphs that I used to have on my consulting page. Read them. There's a lot to consider for the new consultant starting out:

Consulting & Training Rates

Here are the different types of consulting services and training that I offer. These are my standard hourly rates if you wish to be billed per-hour.

Support Type Hourly Rate
TechHelp Free*
Email "How Do I" $500
Email Troubleshooting $1000
Live Help $1500
In-Person $2000

TechHelp is my "almost daily" video blog where I answer questions that are sent in by all kinds of people. Members do get priority. There is a long waiting list if you're not a member, but if you're not in a hurry, it's a great way to get your question answered for free, in a step-by-step video. If you are in a hurry, consider becoming a Member

Email Support is anything that I can do on my own time. Generally the way that it works is you email me your questions, requirements, details, etc. and I will get back to you with either a detailed email or even a custom video response. This is my preferred method of consulting, and it works well for most of my clients. Here's why. There are two kinds of Email Support:

  • "How Do I" Support involves questions that begin with "How do I...?" For example, "how do I create an accounts receivable report?" "How do I compact and repair my database automatically?" These kinds of instructional support I'm happy to provide. Again, I'll either make you a custom video or answer your email personally.
     
  • Email Troubleshooting involves you sending me your database to be fixed, worked on, evaluated, added-on to, or anything else that involves me looking at work you have created. I don't like troubleshooting. I prefer to not do this work. I will... but as you can see I charge a lot more for it. Sorry. I'd rather be recording videos. Again, if you're looking for someone to help you with your database visit my Access Developer Network.

Live Help involves a real-time interaction at a scheduled time. This can be a phone call, online chat, instant messenger conversation, Google Hangout, Remote Windows Assistance, a Zoom session, and so on. If it involves a live connection between us, then it's considered Live Help or Training. Again, I personally prefer email. Here's why.

In-Person training or support involves me travelling to your location to provide consulting, training, or other support. You are, of course, responsible for my additional travel expenses (hotel, flight, rental car if needed, etc.) if you're outside of the Fort Myers, Florida area. These fees are negotiable based on the project, of course. I reserve the right to charge more for large group sessions.

Please note that no discounts of any kind may be applied to support.

Priority Service

The typical time for me to start your project is generally 3 to 5 business days, depending on the complexity of your request and how many other clients are in front of you. If you want priority service (you need help NOW and want me to bump other projects) then I will charge you for priority service which is double my normal hourly rate for the type of service you require. I don't like doing this, but if you're in a hurry and I have to put other clients off, then that's the deal. I will not bump other clients unless they're OK with waiting a little longer. 

Initial Consultation

To get started, send me an email explaining your needs and what you would like me to help you with. Give me enough detail so that I understand what you need, but don't be too verbose. If it's going to take me half an hour to read through your question, then that's on the clock. Sorry. Be as concise as possible. I will tell you if your email is too long for a "free" initial consultation.

Sending Me Files

If you have a database, spreadsheet, web site, or other files you need help with and you need to send them to me, remove as much extraneous data from them as possible, ZIP them up, and email them to me. I will ONLY look at file submissions if they're for PAID support at my above hourly rate. Sorry, I just don't have the time to look at everyone's databases for free. There just aren't enough hours in the day. After you send your file click here to submit your payment.

Even if I can't help you, the cost for me to download and look through your database is a minimum charge of one hour of service. Keep in mind that it's almost always faster, easier, and cheaper for me to show you how to build something from scratch than it is for me to figure out what you've built so far and to fix it or add to it. I hate trying to tear apart other people's databases to find bugs or fix things. I'd rather build you something that I know works right the first time.

Plus, if I have to look at your Access database with VBA code in it that means I need to be able to run it from a Trusted Location for the code to work. That means I have to take some time to look through ALL of the code in your database to make sure there's nothing malicious in there. That doesn't mean I don't trust you. YOU might not even know it's in there if you're infected with a virus yourself. So... hence the minimum cost I charge to look at your files. It's almost always quicker and easier for you to explain to me what you want to do, and I can teach you how to do it.

If you need to show me something, and you don't want to pay the troubleshooting charge, send me a screen shot. I can see what you're talking about without actually having to look at your database file, or charge you a fee!

Taking On Projects

As you can imagine, I've got a lot on my plate. Between recording my courses, my TechHelp videos, handling customer service emails, and working on projects for clients, I've got little free time. If you want me to take on a custom project for you, and I think it's something that would make a good video to add to my site, then I'm happy to add it to my list. This list is always quite long, however, so I can't make any promises as to how soon I'll be able to get to it. If you're in a hurry and need it done quickly, then I'll have to take it on as a paid job. I can either give you a quote for the entire project, or charge you hourly, depending on the nature of the product and the amount of support you need. Jobs that I can turn into lessons for my other students will always cost YOU less up front.

Let Me Build Your Database

If you don't want to invest the time or money into learning how to build your own database, or if your database is horribly broken, it may be more cost effective to let me build it for you. I have over 30 years of experience building custom database solutions of all types.

How much does a custom database project cost? That's hard to say. I can work with you on an hourly basis, or I can give you a quote for your entire project. If you'd prefer a project-based quote, start by making a list of ALL of the features that you want your database to have (customer management, contact tracking, phone call list, order entry, inventory management, accounts payable, etc.) and anything specific to your business. Then, I'll put together a quote based on your needs. I've built simple $200 starter template databases, and I've built $20,000 projects for clients. Again, it's completely dependent upon your needs.

I prefer to take on projects that have "mass appeal" so that I can turn them into templates or seminars for other students. I'm more likely to accept a project like this than something that's specific to just your business. I'd rather sell something for $200 to 100 people than to have to charge you $20,000 for the same thing.

Fixed Price v. Hourly

While I am happy to give fixed price estimates for products that I build from scratch, any service that involves me working with a project that you have started will be billed strictly by the hour. I cannot gauge the condition that your database is in unless I get under the hood and tear it apart first, plus I'll have to take time to learn and figure out what you've done so far. I know how long it takes me to build certain types of databases. I've built hundreds, if not thousands, of them in my career. So if you say you need contact management, invoicing, and scheduling, I can give you an exact price, up front.

If you want me to look at your database and fix or add things to it, that's strictly billed hourly. I can give you a range if you prefer, but I will always err on the high end, and I cannot be held liable if I'm in the middle of something and discover another problem with your database that I didn't see up front. It's kind of like when you take your car to the shop and say "it ain't workin' right." Well, they can't always tell what's wrong until they get under the hood - and then it could be something quick, or you may need a new engine.

Request for Proposals

If this is a job that's being sent out for bids and is going to the lowest bidder, please don't even bother asking me. I will never be the cheapest. I know there are developers in other countries who work for $5 / hour. I know there are young startup businesses that will promise the world. I'm on the other end of the spectrum. I don't accept every job, but the ones I do take get done right. I emphasize quality over everything, and remember the old saying "you get what you pay for." It's certainly true in the world of software development. 

The ONLY way that I will give you a low price on your project is if it's going to be something generic enough with mass appeal that I can turn into a lesson for one of my classes. Then you might get a really low price because I can resell it to other clients. But if this is a project that is specific to your business, I won't be the cheapest, but I will be the best. 

Service Contracts

If you would like to engage my services for a longer-term contract, or would like to pre-pay a block of hours, my rates are negotiable based on the type and duration of the project. Please contact me for details.

Training & Speaking Engagements

If you would like to hire me to teach or speak in front of your group, I do provide this service as well. Please contact me with additional information (location, topics, number of students, etc.) and I can provide you with a quote. I will travel outside the Fort Myers, Florida area. You are responsible for my travel, lodging, and consulting fee. A per diem can be discussed. Of course, right now during the COVID pandemic, I'm suspending any in-person meetings, but...

Live Online Training

I'm willing to provide LIVE virtual training for your personnel. A combination of video tutorials PLUS live sessions works great. Your people watch a lesson or two on their own time, and then we meet on a regular basis to review and ask questions.

About a year ago I suffered an injury which left me blind in one eye and I get pretty bad random migraines, so I don't generally schedule ANY live sessions (even online) because I never know when I'm going to have to go lay down in a dark room on a moment's notice. That's why I've raised my rates on anything live. I can still do it if absolutely necessary, but it's difficult for me. I prefer to focus my efforts on recording my video lessons. I can record for a little while and take a break whenever I need to. Thank you for understanding.

Fixing Problems

Here's a problem that comes up from time to time when dealing with customers as a database consultant. The client needs help with their database, that they built. They send you the file. You fix it. You charge them. Everyone is happy. A few days go by. They say the database isn't working right. Something's wrong. Maybe a calculation isn't correct or they're getting weird errors. You check it out on the copy of the database YOU have. Everything is fine. What gives? Did the client break something tinkering around with the database? They may have.

The "Computer Repair Hourly Rate" image to the right is equally valid for consulting and software design. LOL.

In this scenario, the client expects you to fix the database even though the problem likely was caused by them messing around with... er... I mean "working on" the database design. I've run into this situation before, MANY times. Here is how you politely handle that situation.

First, explain to the client that if they want a bullet-proof database that you will 100% support for any future design problems or errors, then you are giving them an ACCDE (encrypted and locked) file. They will not be able to make any future updates to it, but you will warranty the work. Some clients will be cool with that because they don't plan on making modifications, and they want you to do any followup work they may need. Great. You can tell them that they can have a copy of the ACCDB. It's still their database. But if there are any problems, you're just going to restore the original ACCDE file.

If they insist on getting the ACCDB because THEY want to continue modifying the database, you need to REFUSE to fix any problems OR explain to them that they will be "on the clock" for any future work, even if it's something related to a piece of the database you just worked on. Keep a backup copy of the last copy of the ACCDB that you sent them. If they complain "so and so form isn't working," then check it in your copy. If it works for you tell them to restore that form YOU built. If they do and it still doesn't work, tell them that you'll work on their copy of the database again, but they're paying for that time.

The obvious exception is if you do find a bug. If the problem was an error in your original work that didn't show up until the client started using it, then yeah, you should fix it. That may happen sometimes. Everything works OK for you in your office and then once they start using it in a real production environment, the bug surfaces. Try to recreate the bug in your copy. If it's YOUR fault, then fine, you fix it. But 9 times out of 10, in my experience, it's because the client broke something.

Over the years, most of my clients were wonderful. They took my advice. They let me make changes they needed. They paid on time. But... you will, every now and then, get that pain-in-the-ass customer who thinks they know more about Access than you do. They'll want to make changes to the database themselves and then expect free help when they break stuff. Don't let them eat up your time for free.

If they want free support, ask them what they do for a living. Oh, you're a plumber? Do you go to your customer's houses and fix their toilets for free? I didn't think so. This is what I do for a living. I work on Access databases. If you have a problem, I'll fix it. You pay me. That's how it works. 

Sure, it's nice to throw a GOOD client a bone once in a while. They just spent $10,000 having you build them a database. They're happy with it, but they want a few little changes. OK, sure. No problem at all. Oops... the server went down and their database got corrupted? OK, fine, I'll come over and compact/repair and get it back up and running for free (this time). No big deal. But avoid those customers who keep wanting to take your time and not compensate you for it. That's the major reason why I stopped taking phone calls unless the client was PAYING for the time. They just want to pick your brains for free, or waste time with chit chat. Don't fall for it.

Access Jobs & Consulting

I just finished putting together a video on Access Jobs and consulting work. Check it out.

On "Being the Expert"

This comes from an email that I sent to one of my admin/moderators, Scott:

You know one of the best lessons I learned from teaching was that it's OK to admit you don't know something. Back when I started my training career (in the classroom, in the dark ages of the 90s) if someone asked me a question and I didn't know the answer, I would do my best to come up with something so that I looked like "the expert." You know the old saying: "fake it 'til you make it." I was new at the business, in my 20s, and didn't know any better.

Sometimes, looking back, the answers I gave were complete bullshit, but they sounded good at the time, and nobody ever called me out on it. These were the days before everyone had Google in their pocket, and they came to me because they didn't know what they were doing and just assumed I was a person of authority on the subject, whether it was Access, Excel, Word, etc.

Almost 30 years later now, I realize it's better to just admin, "I don't know." I refuse to just make something up. If I don't know the answer, and I don't feel like Googling it to learn myself, I just flat-out tell them. Sorry. That's kind of how I approach life in general. If I don't have a definitive, scientific answer for something, I refuse to just make something up or believe something someone else tells me. Prove it. Where's the Beef? There's nothing wrong with the phrase, "I don't know." It's the first step towards wisdom.

Plus, another benefit of having 30 years of experience with Access is that if I don't know it, chances are either (a) it's really not something that comes up on a regular basis, because I've pretty much seen it all by this point, (b) it's brand new - perhaps a feature I haven't seen yet, which is rare, or (c) probably only a few other people on the planet know the answer. So...

If I don't learn something new every day, I'm surprised. Just take each day as it comes, and you'll be OK. Don't sweat the small stuff, and it's all small stuff. Life is too short to worry about little things. 

I honestly really value the way you approach most of the students. Some people just want you to give them the answer. Which is OK... But you're doing the student a disservice if you don't help them figure it out for themselves. I like to see people struggle a little with the answer. That's how you learn!

If everything is handed to you on a silver platter, you don't learn. You don't grow. No pain, no gain. The best learning experience is when you struggle with something for hours, pull your hair out, try multiple approaches, and then finally figure it out for yourself. It's like spoiled rich kids who never had to work in their lives and just got handed everything from mommy and daddy. They don't learn a work ethic. They expect everything in life to just be given to them.

Learning is the same way. The point of my lessons is to show you what's possible, then you go off and explore on your own. Take the Lego pieces and assemble them your way. Something doesn't fit? Rearrange and try again.

Understanding the Client's Business

Sometimes understanding the client's needs are more difficult that learning Access. I remember one of the first "real" clients I had was an insurance agent. I was in my early 20s. I knew programming and Access, but I knew absolutely nothing about the insurance business... premiums, rates, etc. So he had to take the time to teach me exactly how everything worked and was calculated. So if you're going to be an independent consultant, always take that into consideration. Learning the client's business can sometimes take longer than building their database.

On Giving "Free" Consultations

A little while back, I received an email from a good friend of mine, John, who said he had received an email from a potential customer about having a database built. John said:

I could likely work out something that would meet her needs. I asked a few questions about the project and what the reporting needs are. She never responded! I sent another email and again- she never responded. Such a waste of my time! How would you handle this? Should I impose a minimum fee to do a quote? I would appreciate your thoughts.

My initial thought is: get used to it. People love to kick tires. In fact, when I first started selling computer hardware and service, I would get companies that would ask me to come out for an intial consultation, which I did for free at that time because I was young and hungry. They would pick my brain for an hour. I would provide them with a detailed invoice of everything they needed. Then they would go buy the hardware somewhere cheaper.

This happened a lot. In fact, I got to the point where I'd tell people, "look, if you have a place you'd like to buy the hardware from, I'll just come in and set everything up and teach you how to use it." So my business pivoted from hardware sales to service and training.

But... it doesn't matter whether you're selling computers, software, service, toasters, or bull semen. Well, I guess bull semen is a different matter, but I digress. Anyhow, you need to put a value on your time. Now, when you're young and hungry, like I was in the early 90s (yes, I'm old), then your time isn't worth as much. The older you get, the more experience you have, the less you "need" the work, the more valuable your time becomes. Price it accordingly.

In my case, what I started doing was to charge an initial consultation fee. At first it was just a token about, like $25 or something small. But after a while, I charged more. Eventually it was $100 for a 30 minute consultation, but I would put that $100 towards your initial order within 30 days. That worked great for me. It kept away the tire kickers, but people who were serious about using my services weren't at all dissuaded. Plus I looked at it as doing work for them, and I provided a serious, "no-joke" consultation, and an outline of everything they'd need.

Now, when it comes to building a database, the same rules apply. Just like I said in my paragraph above:

To get started, send me an email explaining your needs and what you would like me to help you with. Give me enough detail so that I understand what you need, but don't be too verbose. If it's going to take me half an hour to read through your question, then that's on the clock. Sorry. Be as concise as possible. I will tell you if your email is too long for a "free" initial consultation.

So before you waste your time spending an hour going back and forth with emails, or putting together a 32-page proposal for a project, know how much you're willing to give them for free. For me, if I couldn't read through someone's email in 10 minutes, I'd tell them so. Don't feel awkward to charge for an initial consultation. Your time has value. How much to charge is up to you.

I used to get a rough idea of what they wanted done first. If it was something easy and simple that I knew I could knock out in a day or two, I'd give them a ballpark figure, but tell them it was just a rough guesstimate. This is fine for small projects, maybe $500 to $1000 worth. If it was a more complex project that I knew would be in the thousands of dollars or weeks worth of work, then I would be up front with them. "My initial estimate is about $5,000 for this project, and three weeks of development time. However, in order to give you an exact quote, I'll need to prepare a detailed proposal, outline, and contract for you. I charge a non-refundable $100 fee for that, but the fee goes towards your project." Again, the dollar amounts are completely up to you. If they're serious, they won't balk at it.

Also, don't chase people. If you send them a quote and a followup email, and they don't get back to you in a week or two. Delete. Move on. Maybe a third followup a couple of weeks later. Remember, though, that sometimes life gets in the way. I once got really upset with a customer because I spent a lot of time putting together a proposal for him. He seemed really interested. We went back and forth on details for a week or two. We were just getting to the point of closing the sale, and he stopped answering my emails, and calls would just go to voicemail. I sent him a nasty email accusing him of wasting my time. A few weeks after that, I got a call from his wife. The guy passed away suddenly. I felt like a jerk. So, remember... they might not be intentionally ignoring you. Something may have come up. Just move on. Followup a couple of times, then let it go. Peacefully and professionally.

So, John, I hope this helps to answer your question. And thanks again for the lobster and Sam Adams. Hope to have lunch again with you soon. :)

More to come...

Q&A

Here are some questions people have asked me related to the topics above.

Q: It seems that many people including myself do not know the real potential and capabilities of MS Access. If I master Access, Excel and SQL server and integrate them together. Can I make a good living? Or at some point I will be stuck and must go forward to C# and ASP.NET? -Mohamed

A: I've made a career out of Access, Excel, SQL Server, and VBA. It all depends on what you want to do. If you want to be an independent consultant, find your own work, set your own schedule, and build databases, then Access is the way to go. There are always small businesses looking to have custom databases built. I turn down dozens of projects a month.

On the other hand, if you want to get a corporate job with some big company, then C# or one of the new, hot technologies might be more for you. They seem to want those skills (and Certifications), and they frown upon Access as "not a serious database," which couldn't be further from the truth. SQL Server and SQL Language skills will always come in handy, in both camps. But as long as you have that entrepreneurial drive, you can always find consulting work.

Do you want a 9-to-5 with a paycheck, or do you want to be your own boss, make your own schedule, and build your own business. I chose the latter. And if you can't find development work, people are always looking for training too. I spent many years in the classroom teaching Word, Excel, Access, etc. Just don't do video tutorials on YouTube. That's my gig. LOL. No, seriously, there's plenty of business out there for everyone.



Q: Hey Rick, just kind of curious when you were doing consulting how you handled them? I have like 6 of them stacked up again from new people and people coming back. Do you try to work on them simultaneously or do you think it's easier to just focus everything on one of them and then move to the next? I'm trying to do a little bit of all of them at once and it feels chaotic, maybe I should just do them one at a time and tell them to make a waiting line. Curious how you did it before. -Adam

A: It's almost impossible to finish one customer and then move on to the next project, because that customer is going to have questions, want changes, etc. So you have to perform a sort of juggling act. And yes, it's chaotic at times. The life of a consultant isn't always glamorous.

I would at least not try to have more than one active project in development at a given time. There's usually three phases of a project: (1) consultation phase, (2) in development, (3) followup work. The first is where you're still going back and nailing down the specifics of the project, getting to know what the customer wants and needs, and negotiating price. Once that's all agreed upon, you now start building it (in development). Once that's done - the bulk of the work is completed - then I would move the next project in the consultation phase queue up to development.

You may have several projects in consultation, and several in followup, but try to only have one maybe two projects that you're actively working on. Scheduling is key. Knowing your limitations is important. I would often look at a new project and be like "no problem, I could bang that out in a weekend." Yeah... you probably could. If that's all you did for that weekend. Don't forget everything else... emails, other clients, LIFE, etc.

Just remember what Scotty says... always overestimate your development time by a factor of three.

 

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