Outsourcing

Cooperate rather than compete with your fellow consultants

Independent consultant Chip Camden reveals why he no longer feels obsessed about competition for his clients, and why he encourages his peers to cooperate to meet the client's needs.

During the early years of my career as a consultant, I often found myself facing competition for my clients in the form of another independent consultant, or a consulting firm, or even a vendor of a packaged solution. I felt like I needed to prove that my way was better, and that the client should choose me instead of those other folks. When speaking to another consultant in the same market, I would guard my conversation to avoid giving them any advantage over me. That has changed in recent years, for at least four reasons.

First of all, I have enough work to keep me busy. In the early days I was hungry for new clients, and none of my existing clients had been with me long enough for me to feel secure about keeping them. Our industry has grown, too. It seems to me that there's enough work for everyone if we're willing to take it. Therefore, there's no advantage for me to cut my fellow consultant's throat.

Second, I'm more secure about my abilities. When you first start out as a consultant, you're not sure you'll be able to make it. Any question mark gets blown out of proportion in your fears, and losing a client is the biggest question mark of all. The Impostor Syndrome kicks in, and you begin to expect your entire business to collapse at any moment. Now that I've been doing this for 20 years, I've had my share of failures among the successes. Guess what: none of them were fatal. Furthermore, I've stopped fretting about comparing my abilities to those of my competition, or proving that I'm somehow better than they are. Everyone brings a different set of things to the table, and what I bring has value. Value is not a linear quantity.

Overcoming those obsessions has allowed me to focus instead on the best result for the client. That often reveals more choices than "them or me." Why shouldn't the client use each of us for the things we do best? Why can't we cooperate to meet the client's needs, instead of competing to see who "wins" the job?

Client attitudes are changing, too. I got the sense on some of those early occasions that the client had staged the conflict in order to audition consultants, gladiator-style. A decade or two ago, ruthlessness passed for a business virtue. These days, the more successful businesses seem to value straight-up communication, the unique contributions of individuals, and the dynamics of their cooperation. They're much more likely to dole out pieces to the best person for each job, rather than to award a megalithic nuts-to-soup contract to the lowest bidder or the best politician.

All of that serves to make me more relaxed around my peers. We can discuss our business as colleagues, rather than as opponents. I'm happy to give out tips and encouragement, because I expect it will come back around to me in one form or another. Besides, building a network of capable colleagues means that I may be able to indirectly provide solutions for a broader range of my clients' problems. That's what our business is about, after all.

About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

8 comments
PMPsicle
PMPsicle

Personally, I've always found more competition from clients and recruiters than from other consultants. After all, no matter how tiny your niche if your customer (and recruiters are customers) do not recognize the niche or the need for a niche player you end up competing with the half-pricers anyway.

prh47
prh47

But does it actually work out in practice?

Justin James
Justin James

... then my chosen niche is too broad. Here's the way I see it... would I rather do something that lots of other people are doing, which means that I have to scramble to find customers, I get stuck in price wars with the general market, and the customer's kid niece who "knows how to setup an iPad, so I trust her opinion about technology" says I don't know what I'm talking about? Or would I rather have a nicely defined niche that is narrow enough that the list of potential customers exceeds the capacity of consultants to meet it, allowing me to charge rates that are mutually beneficial (because I'm working to capacity instead of spending half my time marketing and trying to close sales, forcing me to charge not only for time working but time not working for a client!), not having to be forced into a price battle with others, etc.? J.Ja

BALTHOR
BALTHOR

Never ever argue and always smile.You'll wear them out and you'll have them as allies.Some can only do it with arguing.It's how they access mind sections.Your group is mind segmented.Some are libido centered,some are pure logic,some are bubbly and child like,some grand aloof and some are pure street.You need them all to see success.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

If you look to them just like every other alternative, then that's your competition. Differentiation is key -- and it has to be perceived.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Of course, there are lots of potential factors that could break it: being really hungry for work would make it hard to practice, for instance. As Justin said, having too broad a niche puts you in competition with a lot more people. Not being able to sell your expertise means you look like everybody else, etc.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Narrow enough to drive demand, but not so narrow that you have to go hunting for the three people who'd be willing to give their firstborn child for your services.

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