On the front lines, when you're eye to eye with clients, communication is crucial. When, for example, you're supporting a small-business owner—either as an independent consultant or as an employee of a Value Added Reseller (VAR)—communicating effectively is essential to winning that client's respect and loyalty.

As an IT consultant, it's easy to become jaded and complacent about clients' problems. To you, a bad hard disk or a faulty memory chip is just another piece of hardware that you must replace. But to the small-business owner, that hard disk might mean the life or death of his or her business. How you communicate with clients can either reinforce the notion that you truly care about their problems and are devoted to finding solutions or it can contribute to the perception that IT consultants are aloof and indifferent to clients' views and opinions.

If you want to build and maintain long-term relationships with clients, make sure that you completely understand their views, concerns, and expectations. Reassure clients that you understand what they're saying by paraphrasing their concerns back to them. Only after you're sure that you have a complete grasp of what they want should you try to explain how you can help them. Make sure clients understand what you're saying by using their language when you communicate with them.

Try to give clients the sense that their relationship with you and your company is a collaborative effort. If you succeed, clients will not only be happy to work with you, they'll also be eager to recommend you to their friends and business associates.

Many consider effective communication an art form, but it's also a skill that you can easily learn and apply. One of the best books I've read on the subject is Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends & Influence People" (Simon & Schuster, 1998). The book's title has become a cliche, but its contents are extremely valuable.