Staying one step ahead of the client –

Much of a consultant's job involves researching information. After all, your clients hire you because you know things that they don't. But what if you don't have all the answers they're looking for? Very often you will only have a piece of the puzzle at your fingertips. The rest you will have to research. In the last several years, the resources available for research have expanded astronomically, and many of them are on the Internet. But as we'll see below, the Internet will only take you so far. You will still need to read textbooks and speak with real human beings. The key is to use a variety of methods.

Before you even start researching, you should be much better informed than the average person in your industry. I start every day seriously reading trade periodicals and online news. I save copies of everything relevant to what I'm working on or expect to be working on. But for most projects this just gives me a running start. Next, I usually head to the Internet, often to a general-purpose search engine. Currently, I turn first to Google (see the Resources section below for links to this and other sites mentioned in this article), but I regularly experiment with other engines. Learn to use the advanced search features to narrow down your searches. Be clever with the keywords you search with and use judicious combinations of words.

Next, find out what is available on the Internet for your particular industry. Most technical publications have Websites with search engines for their news archives. This will narrow down your search quickly. For example, if you are in technology, check out CNet. Researching the computer industry in Asia? Find the Website for an Asian computer publication. See if there are fee-based services that specialize in your industry. I'm a wireless networking specialist, and find my subscription to WirelessNetNow worth every penny of the $450 annual fee. The archives are excellent, and every day I get an email containing comprehensive news about my industry.

Look also at publications with thorough business coverage, such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Business Week. These have good Websites with powerful searches for their archives. There are also aggregators of market information, such as and InfoTech Trends, which sell their reports. Pay services such as NewsEdge provide thorough searches of news publications, press releases, and other sources. You get the idea, so look around. For technical information, don't neglect actual standards and specifications, many of which nowadays you can obtain from Websites, sometimes for free, sometimes not.

And -- surprise! -- not everything is on the Internet. I have a good library of reference books and textbooks, and I regularly look for new releases. These are not cheap at about $100 each, but are often the best way of developing a foundation in a new area. Since there are so many textbooks to choose from, and their depth varies so much, it's helpful to browse through them first at a good bookstore.

Are you done? For complex research projects, following all of the suggestions above usually results in a huge pile of raw information. Your task, however, is often to assess trends and directions, and the best way of doing this is through an active dialog with key people in your industry. This is the time to leverage your network of contacts, including people in companies and other consultants. Don't waste their time asking for basic information; you should already have found that yourself. Get their views on industry directions, issues with technologies or markets, and the competitive landscape. Collect opinions and then blend them with your own experience and information to develop your own insights. Rely on intuition, but back it up with facts.

What about off-the-shelf marketing studies published by research firms? I don't purchase these, as they are usually bought by companies as an alternative to hiring a consultant. Often, key findings of such reports are included in press releases about the report, so I save those. Sometimes it's possible to contact the report's author and discuss the report. A good place to talk to a lot of people is at trade shows and conferences. Just make sure you go with a specific agenda and specific questions you need answered, or you will be overwhelmed by irrelevant information.

Finally, write articles. Doing so will improve your writing skills, will give you good market exposure, and will give you plenty of practice in perfecting your research skills.


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