Outsourcing

IT consultants' four overselling mistakes

Chip Camden identifies common overselling mistakes consultants make and boils down the basic formula for avoiding this practice.

Andréa Coutu recently posted 6 easy mistakes consultants make, which led me to ponder what other mistakes she may have omitted from her list. I think one of the most frequent and pernicious mistakes in consulting is overselling. It's easy to slip into it, yet it benefits no one. But what do we mean by overselling? I can think of at least four dimensions to that practice with regard to consulting.

1. Overselling your abilities

Consultants tend to be a bit competitive. Nobody is going to fight for us but ourselves, so if we want to survive in this business we have to be a little aggressive in our self-promotion. Therefore, when a prospect asks if we know a specific technology or methodology, we're under immense pressure to say "yes" even if that only means we know how to spell it. Or perhaps we follow that "yes" with an unspoken "I know how to use Google and Wikipedia to get me through." Sometimes we really can pull a rabbit out of our hat, and execute on the client's requirements without them ever knowing how much we had to scramble for it. But often we find out too late that we used the wrong hat. That kind of risk taking with our commitments relies on a best-case scenario, in which learning something new doesn't involve learning that you grossly mis-guessed the scope of the project or how much you would need to learn in order to achieve competence.

It's far better to be honest. "I've never used that technology, but from what I've heard about it I think I should be able to learn it. Tell you what -- give me until tomorrow to investigate further and I'll let you know." We're afraid to say that because we think the prospect has "Expert in technology X" at the top of their checklist. Maybe they do, but if so we certainly don't want to try to impersonate one. I'd rather meet with their disappointment before they've invested in me, rather than when they sue for non-performance.

2. Overselling your availability

I have to work on this one all the time. I'm naturally optimistic about how quickly I can get things done, so that optimism carries over to how much time I think I'll have available for other projects. I also suffer from the illusion that no matter how busy I am, I can surely figure out a way to squeeze in one more project.

This mistake proceeds from the fear of the empty pipeline. It's somewhat comforting to have more work lined up than I can possibly execute. I know that I'll be able to bill every hour I can keep my eyelids open. But creating false expectations of delivery can't be good for client relations. In recent years, I've begun to learn to say "I'm sorry, I just won't have time for that project," and then help the prospect find someone else to do it.

3. Overselling a technology

We geeks get excited about new technologies. A new language or framework can often seem to lift the veil from our eyes, making us feel reborn into a whole new world where everything suddenly makes sense. We can get so wrapped up in reinterpreting our craft in terms of the new paradigm that it becomes the proverbial hammer for every nail, double-sided tape, or Faberge egg. When a client asks for our suggestion for solving their requirements, we lead them in the direction of our current passion. Never mind if it isn't meant for 99% of what they need, we're sure that there's a Right Way To Do It that involves our newest silver bullet.

The preventative solution for this mistake has two sides. First, imagine worst-case scenarios in which your favored technology horribly fails -- what will be your fallback? Second, actively look for better fits. What solutions out there, if any, address this specific class of problem? Above all, keep the client's best outcome as your goal, rather than proving the superiority of your new shiny toy.

4. Selling more than the customer needs

We consultants suffer several temptations to commit the client to a bigger project than they strictly require. First, and most deplorable, is the desire to generate more business for ourselves. Second is the mistaken notion that we need to achieve full abstraction of the problem and create a solution that will apply to all possible scenarios -- that may be true of widely applicable products like compilers, but not for the majority of projects. Third, we may simply fail to see that a simpler solution is available. Here are some other reasons why we might push our clients to do too much.

We can learn something from Test-Driven Development (TDD) here. One of the steps in TDD is to write the simplest code to pass the test. Likewise, in proposing solutions, we should ask ourselves, "What is the simplest way to meet the prospect's requirements?" It doesn't hurt to start with the naive, and then refine it to meet all the requirements. That's more likely to have a positive outcome than trying to start with something that perfects the art of programming.

Conclusion

All of these overselling mistakes share at least one common feature: they're putting some other priority ahead of finding the best way for the customer to meet their requirements. If we put the customer's needs first, and see technology and ourselves as tools to that end, we'll naturally avoid the pitfall of overselling.

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...

14 comments
loren.saunders
loren.saunders

I have often found that if the client says "OK" when I say "I don't know that technology well but I can spend some time and ramp up... let me see what I can do" then they are a great client. If they say "oh well then if you don't know it then we'll get someone who does" then they're a crappy client anyway and it's not worth the effort... this is in the case where what they are really looking for is someone who can solve problems... and you are trying to develop a long term relationship. As for selling and selling... I've found that solving problems efficiently and cost effectively is the best way to go... that coupled with always interfacing and working with the C-levels... if you work with C-levels and make their business run smoother, while saving them money, they will always come back for more. My credentials: almost 10 years ERP consulting in Architecture and Engineering industries with clients as small as 30 employees to 500 employees... have clients in USA, Canada, South Africa and Hong Kong.

reisen55
reisen55

I am honest with myself as to the things I do NOT do, such as support Linux servers, that does not mean I would not work on one but I also have a pool of co-consultants I can properly farm such a project off to if I had to. My most recent unsolicited hell was a severely damaged Sonicwall in a small medical office. I have never worked ON one but it is an industry requirement now that experience here counts, so in out field we can GET experience sometimes the hard way, as I learned but i defeated the monster. If we are honest and count ONLY what we have worked on, then the consultant cuts out learning opportunities. Our clients are our most important resource. I discovered a wonderful backup program for Windows servers, BackupAssist, and I commend it strongly. Again, something a client had that I had not worked on before. I do believe that the Sonicwall was a case of the previous consultant overselling the client. Badly too.

coyotech
coyotech

Yes, I've mad most of those mistakes, and the under-bidding hurts especially. Another mistake is to oversell (usually unintentionally) what you're willing to do for a customer, to not be clear about the scope, the limits and any conditions in the beginning. You can end up with a pretty sour customer relationship that way. What's obvious to you isn't necessarily obvious to your client. I've gotten jobs where the client told me what made them angry about their previous consultant...and realized that I might have done the same if they hadn't complained about it.

Greg Miliates
Greg Miliates

Underbidding--intentionally or not--is a common mistake, and it's a really tempting mistake to make, since you want to snag business. However, if you underbid, you'll end up losing money, and can also sour client relationships. What's more, once you realize that you have to complete a project with essentially non-billable time, your motivation can plummet, making it even more difficult to complete the task when it's competing against billable projects for your time. And having these kinds of outstanding non-billable projects creates stress, since you want to procrastinate working on them and yet know you need to finish them. It's a big trap I've seen consultants fall into--myself included. Greg Miliates StartMyConsultingBusiness dot com

Megabyte1024
Megabyte1024

The Consulting company I worked was a very large one with a lot of employees and experts across the world. So, Virtually they can even built Rockets. However, Whenever there is an opportunity for new work, the company says "Yes to all" and accepts any sort of work no matter how inexperienced they are. From software development to Cloud Engineering. The challenge lies in the execution. They face lots of difficulties but in they end They just Do it somehow! And the whole project gains to their experience for the next challenging project. Doesn't this sound interesting than resist in accepting overselling work?

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

A client who values the productive relationship is the best client you can get -- and they'll also get the best results for themselves. The "must have expert in X" client is the one who'll slap a bandaid on every wound until they're completely mummified.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

A perennial problem. And of course the paradox is that the more they need your help, the less they'll be able to communicate their requirements effectively. Digging out the real need and clearly delineating a solution is the fine art of consulting.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

It's one reason why I avoid fixed-price contracts if I can. For me, it isn't just about snagging the business, it's also about being over-optimistic. The trouble is, even if I triple my estimate, it still ends up too short.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

Most of Chip's readers are either independents or 1st or 2nd stage consulting companies (i.e. a few consultants). If you're large enough you will survive any mistake. EDS/HP/IBM etc. are prime examples.Many of the large companies who are their prime customers won't deal with anyone smaller. Like calling to like as it were. Those of us who don't have the size or clout of a KPMG have to be more careful of our reputation. Glen Ford, PMP http://www.vproz.ca

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

... for what it's worth ... Is that someone always loses on a fixed price contract. Either you loose because you underpriced or your customer loses because you built in enough profit to cover your estimation errors. The only advantage to a fixed price contract is that in markets where they don't know what a fair rate is (i.e. they really don't understand their costs), a fixed price allows you to charge whatever rate you feel is fair. And hopefully, you know your costs. The bad news is that you'll probably find someone undercutting your fixed price because they don't know what their costs are either. :-(

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

But it doesn't come without a cost. The more agile clients shy away from these big, lumbering beasts because they don't want to purchase stability with immobility.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Of course, the client can sometimes feel like hourly is giving them the shaft because the consultant has no incentive to get things done quickly. We have to overcome that suspicion by always producing results. The truth is, the more efficiently you work, the more work you'll get. Churning just leads to getting dumped as soon as the client finds another alternative.

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