Applying Remote Technical Consulting to Your Business

rowing product companies constantly face the challenge of scaling their consulting practices. Besides organic growth, that depends on several macro and micro economic factors, these companies look for partners to whom they can outsource their consulting needs to some degree. Alternatively, these companies seek to build a remote offshore consulting model that can help them with cost efficiency and quality delivery. Each solution comes with its own set of advantages and disadvantages.

This article focuses on building a remote consulting practice. Challenges are abundant: quality of work, processes, travel, synchronization, strategy, etc. After reading this article, you should have a firm grasp of how to create a successful low-cost consulting group that remotely complements a local group in the region.

Any remote delivery model requires thorough planning and execution. A product consulting model calls for a customized approach on top of a remote delivery model. First, the local and remote teams must define their respective responsibilities. A good way to start this process is by using a Responsibility Assigned Matrix (RAM). One such RAM is called the RACI model; it assigns responsibilities to stakeholders using the following symbols:

  • R = Responsible
  • A = Approver
  • C = Consulted
  • I = Informed

For example, consider the process flow for a managed technical project from inception to delivery. In this case the project manager is in the US, and the technical consultant is remote in, for example, India. Table 1 shows how the RACI chart for this project might look:

Table 1. RACI Chart: This RACI chart shows the people and their level of involvement for each step.
 

R (Responsible)

A (Approver)

C (Consulted)

I (Informed)

Requirements gathering

Project Manager (local)

Project Manager (local)

Technical Consultant (remote)

Delivery Manager (local or remote)

Technical implementation

Technical Consultant (remote)

Project Manager (local)

Project Manager (local)

Delivery Manager (local or remote)

The RACI chart provides a good reference for various local and remote stakeholders associated with the delivery or the project.

Building a Working Model

This section defines a working model that includes the various aspects of running a remote practice, discussed/defined in more detail below.

Vision and Strategy

Vision defines the core that the group is trying to achieve, while strategy defines the long-term scope and direction toward achieving those goals. Vision and strategy together give a direction to the members of the group, as well as to the senior management.

Example: The remote consulting practice of Group X is aligned to and provides resources for local practices. The resources are an integral part of the consulting group, providing world-class technical delivery. Enabling local practices builds better customer relationships.

Core

It is useful to highlight the core of the model in case one needs to understand the working structure. Essentially, in any technical consulting organization, there are four recommended levels of services: Implementation, Integration, Consulting, and Productized. The first two levels can be done remotely, and should be targeted. Customer satisfaction and product pull-through are the two most audacious goals of any consulting organization, and considering consulting and productized services remotely can be risky. Positive net operating profit after taxes comes out of the latter two levels of service, so they should be avoided remotely, because customer dissatisfaction over the long term can outweigh any short-term cost savings.

Examples:

  • Remote consultant is part of integrated field team
  • Primary success factor: Pooled model to cover multiple small accounts, named model to cover select big accounts
  • Specialization within: Product A, B, C and English-speaking geographies
  • Local manager responsible for resourcing and utilization targets
  • Custom methodology depends on customer, project, and region but must include, at minimum, requirements gathering, design, implementation, and testing
  • All remote projects should be at least 10 hours long, because shorter projects can be done locally much more effectively
  • Time zone coverage: 6pm EST to 9am EST for pooled team, providing 24×7 coverage, and customized hours for named team

Funding

Funding needs to come from local practices that deploy the remote consultants.

Example: USD 20000 per remote consultant.

Reporting

You can see this information in the RACI chart shown earlier.

Example: See Table 1.

Growth

It’s good to have a business plan for the entire year, along with a “Go-To Market” for the next three to five years that includes organic growth plans. It’s also useful to assess career planning for the remote consultants along with local project managers.

Examples:

  • Assess candidate A mid-year for promotion.
  • Hire two people for key account growth.

Scaling Model

While growth is needed, a scaling model is imperative to sustainable growth. It should clearly elucidate how the remote practice intends to scale.

Examples:

  • It is key for remote consultants to remain customer-facing; that includes exposure to meeting customers on site.
  • Cultural differences can be mitigated through experience and adequate training.
  • Scaling can happen for English-speaking customers only.
  • Attrition planning should be in place.

Metrics for Success

Metrics define how success or failure can be measured. A remote consulting practice calls for an additional set of metrics that provide an ongoing picture of performance and efficiency to senior management.

Examples:

  • Utilization and billability targets
  • Utilization contribution to region, and billability contribution to local practice targets
  • Revenue targets directly roll up into practices

Notes

In this section, try to capture any and all areas that cannot be covered elsewhere but are important for your model.

Example:

  • Maintain a balance between local responsiveness vs. cost efficiency.
  • Local manager and remote manager should sync up on at least a weekly basis.
  • Avoid hiring less experienced candidates.

Remote Model Best Practices

With a model defined, here’s a review of some best practices that can help make things function smoothly in a remote model:

  1. Use Email Templates: These can be quite useful when trying to drive consistency. Email templates provide a great mechanism to echo consistent and familiar language to the customer. They can be used, reused, and modified for each situation. Email templates mitigate the risk of poor communication to a great degree by providing a consistent communications base.
  2. Set Expectations: Failure to set expectations appropriately or acknowledge communications is a key failure in remote setups. Imagine a situation where a project manager sends a task to a remote technical consultant—who is physically 12 hours away. The consultant is about to retire for the day. He sees the task email, but leaves for the day without acknowledging it. The project manager is left to wonder the whole day whether the task was received. He gets panicky, and starts working on it himself. The technical consultant arrives the next morning and starts working on the task too. At the end of the day, the project manager and technical consultant both discover that they have been working on the same task! A simple acknowledgment such as “I received the task and will work on it tomorrow morning” would help. Similarly, expectations should be set, met and honored with constant communication, because missed expectations can cause the same type of pain as non-acknowledgement if not handled well. In remote consulting, it’s far better to have people frustrated by over-communicating than to have them constantly wondering about progress.
  3. Synchronization: Along the same lines, it is useful if one of the two remote persons stays late or wakes up early, so you can have a regular synchronization meeting. Particularly in models where engagements last less than 100 hours, you should plan to have a daily synchronization meeting.
  4. Conferencing: Having a web conferencing and/or audio conferencing setup available helps to tease out operational logistics issues.
  5. SWOT Analysis: Prepare a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (SWOT) analysis that highlights the key strengths and weakness of the model. This is useful to drive tactical decisions with senior managements when considering growth. Also, opportunities (external) and threats (internal) should be mitigated on a constant basis with the dynamics of the organization.

Balanced Scorecard

A balanced scorecard provides a measurement from four different angles on the success of a model or business. It is a tool to take the vision and strategize it into reality. Applying a balanced scorecard on this setup provokes thought and puts essentials into perspective. The four dimensions in the scorecard are:

  1. Financial Growth
  2. Internal Process Improvement
  3. Learning and Growth
  4. Customer Focus

Use this scorecard and define your objectives, measures, targets and initiatives on each dimension for growth. There are a plethora of templates available on the balanced scorecard. Table 2 shows one such example.

Table 2. Balanced Scorecard: This balanced scorecard example shows two objectives, the current scenario, issues for change, the changes needed, the new scenario after the changes, and a description of the expected situation after the changes.

Category

Current Business Scenario

Issues

Key Changes

New Scenario

What’s Better

Financial Growth

Consulting on products A and B

Product C consulting is in resource crunch

Add consulting for product C

Scale one resource every half year

Cost savings, more revenue, better margin

Internal Process Improvement

QA is challenging, with limited resources

Resource crunch, high cost of hiring local resource

Add one QA remote resource

Dedicated service just for QA

Defined QA methodology

Learning and Growth

Employees not aware of culture differences

Culture sensitization issues

Training on culture

Better culture awareness

Better expectation setting and working synergy with global team

Customer Focus

No measure of customer satisfaction

Improvement of customer satisfaction is subjective

Measure customer service on key parameters

Share metrics on a weekly basis with senior management

Better focus on customers, resulting in better quality of delivery

Travel Model

The model of having a local project manager makes it easier to visit customers, while the remote technical consultant can focus on technical delivery and implementation. Communication with customers in this mode happens over the phone, web, and via email. However when the situation requires the remote consultant to travel, it is good to define a model. Also, it’s key to the success of this model to maintain a tightly integrated team, and useful to organize a summit where people can meet each other and build relationships. Having a travel model sets a foundation for travel philosophy and keeps the budget under control. The remote consultant should travel no more than once or twice a year, unless required for a customer visit.

Vacation and Work from Home Models

Similarly, you should have consistent models for vacation planning and for employees who work from home (WFH). Ideally, you should notify stakeholders well in advance when vacations are planned. However, in some cultures, vacations are not planned in advance—and that can cause disruptions in the system. In such cases, the organizational culture has to override the local culture and define a vacation model that all consultants must follow.

For WFH, you must ensure that the WFH work strategy is part of the organization’s philosophy, and that consultants leverage the freedom of WFH rather than abusing it. In addition, you must ensure that adequate facilities are available for WFH workers.

Culture Differences

Culture is a set of accepted behavior patterns, values, assumptions, and shared common experiences. It dictates the behavior and attitude of a person. When people from different cultures begin to interact, it can take considerable time and effort for them to understand each other. In time-limited situations, it helps to be culturally aware. Cultural awareness is a subject in itself, but some valuable general information is available. For example, Figure 1 gives a glimpse into Hofstede’s dimensions for various countries. This can help you relate to the behavior patterns of a person from a different and unfamiliar culture. You can refer to this graph to get a rough idea of the culture you’re working with.

 
Figure 1. Hofstede’s Dimensions: This chart shows a comparison of various countries’ scores on five dimensions.

Recruiting the Right Talent

Hiring a consultant is different than hiring an offshore developer. The skill set required is not just technical; soft skills play an equal role. At minimum, look for following attributes when hiring a remote consultant:

  1. Good communication skills: accent, grammar, clarity of thought
  2. Culture fit: attitude, commitment
  3. Role fit: good technically, firm grasp of basic technology concepts, trainable
  4. Personality: agreeable, conscientious, open to challenges, emotional stability, extroversion
  5. Consulting skills: asking questions, discussion-oriented

This article captures the practical details of a working model for remote consulting delivery. By building and following such models, you can avoid serious problems with your remote consulting business.

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