Project Management

Professionalism vs. approachability: A consultant's dilemma

Adopting a professional image that presents clients with the message you want to put out there can be tricky. Read consultant Chip Camden's advice on marketing yourself.

My good friend and fellow TechRepublic contributor Chad Perrin (aka apotheon) recently relaunched his consultancy under an LLC, which has led him to ponder how best to market his new identity -- a topic we should all consider regularly. Chad asked me specifically about how to present a professional image without becoming unapproachable or pretentious.

First of all, it's important that we avoid a false dilemma here. We don't have to choose between the two, nor do they necessarily lie on a continuum in which increasing professionalism means decreasing approachability or vice versa. Much of what passes for a professional image includes a formalism that draws rigid lines in business relationships, but that's not the only way to act like a professional. In fact, with a nod to a well-known term from Chad's specialty, I'd like to label that kind of behavior as "professionalism theater."

On the other hand, clients expect a minimum of convention that to trespass raises eyebrows needlessly. Torn jeans and sandals might be your preferred working clothes, but as the genie says in the Disney movie Aladdin, "What are we trying to say? Beggar? No. Let's work with me here." Conversely, though, remember that despite his princely accoutrements and flying carpet, Aladdin had to learn to be himself before he could achieve ultimate success. Even if when visiting some customers you have to wear a suit, you don't have to act like a suit.

The uncomfortable truth, though, is that some customers want unapproachability. This group generally overlaps with those who willingly pay too much for services and find comfort in reams of paperwork, scheduled meetings, and design by committee. They feel safer when they throw more resources at a problem (whether or not anyone manages those resources well). To them, bigger means more, and stand-offish means bigger. It's the reason why $10M projects go down the tubes where $10,000 projects succeed. Unfortunately, there are plenty of consultants who are willing to take a share of that $10M as it heads for the toilet. You have to decide whether you're one of them. I'm not.

In fact, I make that choice part of my professional image. The message I like to present to my clients is "Cut the bull, let's get down to solving the problem." A large part of what consultants do is educate their clients, and that education extends even to basic principles of business. One of the fallacies I must often dispel is the "Bigger is better" myth. Smaller is almost always better. One to six people can design a much better system faster than 20-100 people can. The trick is finding the right handful of people. That's where the fallacy creeps in, because clients sometimes mistakenly think that if they get enough people involved, they can't possibly all be wrong. The truth is that a larger group is much more susceptible to running off a cliff en masse, because no one individual in the group feels like they have the power to do anything about it, including the person at the top.

Because I adopt a no-nonsense image, my self-marketing follows that principle. I believe in speaking directly, choosing few words that get to the meat of the matter with a minimum of garnishments. Especially avoid buzzwords and catch-phrases. Strike "enterprise" and "world class" from your vocabulary (except for your jokes). Use the active voice -- it's not just good form, it makes you express yourself more actively and responsibly. Much of the marketing material I read seems to come from someone who thinks of their words as bricks in a fortress they're building to impress their readers. I think of my words as a knife for extracting jewels.

Directness makes approachability simple. When you always speak the truth the best you know it, it's impossible to project an image in which you're somehow better than other people. Believe it or not, genuine friendliness doesn't require as much effort as setting pretentious boundaries. We erect those boundaries ostensibly to prevent abuse of the relationship, but I've found that habitual frankness works better. When someone projects an image of inapproachability, they may be compensating for an inability to assert themselves frankly.

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...

32 comments
apotheon
apotheon

Some comments do not appear at all. When I click the submit button, they just vanish. In fact, I've seen this happen a lot. The particular thread where we have been discussing this is the first I've noticed where an entire subthread just vanished. Luckily, your response to me still showed up in my email notifications.

TomMerritt
TomMerritt

I thought we were not allowed to construct a sentence without using the word 'experience'.

andrewgauger
andrewgauger

I'd like to thank both of you for your openness regarding your consultancies. Being new to this side of the coin, it is nice to have some decent role models. Keep up the writing--there are people listening!

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

...and then avoid the use of any buzzword read therein. I've always sold myself as relatively low cost (but not cheap) and efficient. Less is more. I dress to the client's expectation, which could be anything from a 3-piece to (not torn) jeans. Every conversation is ended with "We will solve this problem" as fact. If I say something, the client believes it.

cdasso45
cdasso45

I do not normally post opinions, just read and silently agree, disagree or somewhere in between. This one, though is so true and what I practiced during my 25+ years as a consultant, and now as a director of development in a large financial firm. Honest directness is always the best as is small is far better than large.......well put Mr. Camden.

reisen55
reisen55

You have to be both. I have traded time and work with two local franchise consultants for the past 18 months, learned their rates and their skill set. One is limited, the other highly technical and still a good resource to work WITH but not FOR. But their hourly rates, while standard - $125 and $109 respective for corporate - are soon to be murdered in this economy. I believe that my BEST option is to market myself professionally as the lower cost provider of services. I make no bones about that. I am good, I save my clients money and I am not the highest bidder of the pack. My wife, of course, bemoans my hourly rate sometimes but the business is growing and I commend eating a bit less to gain a bit more in the long run.

Regulus
Regulus

This is a big 'Thank You'. In this format, you moved a bunch of 'stuff' (Tweet button, FaceBook Button etc.) from between the title & text to a side bar. To me, this means that if I copy/paste the article to a .doc, I don't have to edit all of that stuff out of the article. And again, Thank You !

minstrelmike
minstrelmike

We just had that conversation at lunch today. I pointed out that in a bureaucracy, status comes from the amount of money in your budget, not from any measure of efficiency in using the budget. (Our little group probably has the lowest transaction costs per server hardware of any of the groups but all that means is our budget is the smallest so therefore, we are the least important. That metric would not be true if they measured by transaction cost instead of total budget.)

penelopeelse
penelopeelse

Such a shame that so many projects that we pay for, directly or indirectly, fall into the 'running off a cliff en masse' group. Perhaps we could legislate for a 'no bull' approach to projects. I think $10M should cover the research.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

That's one benefit of being *cough* prolific - I get lots of empirical data to sift through. BTW, I'm really sad I missed this thread when it came out. I guess I was busy with other things. This is good stuff.

allan_godfrey
allan_godfrey

If you use the more button on the side bar, and print to a PDF printer such as Bullzip, the pdf version is always available without the junk. This is also able to be cut and pasted into a .doc document if required, but for the most part, items I want to keep I leave in the pdf format as this also gives me the source of the information for future aknoledgement if I choose to use some of the information. In relation to the string - I fully endorse what has been said as I have been on projects in both spectrum. Even on the larger projects it is better to break down the project into a series of sub projects and control them as a sub project. There is still a requirement for an overall integration of all the sub projects which does not always take place. This can result in multiple work efforts on similar obects which could be combined to reduce overall project and future maintenance effort. This is one large area where I have seen larger projects come unstuck. Integration and standards are important and need a no nonsence type of leader (consultant and/or client) to take the reigns and ensure this happens.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... I can do without. It's unfortunate that the people at your client's office get caught up in that. But I suppose it affects their pay as well.

apotheon
apotheon

It's nice to see people I respect share my values.

apotheon
apotheon

Sterling's articles are always good stuff, as far as I recall. If I could just subscribe to his articles by name at TR, I would.

apotheon
apotheon

For articles, one must figure out how to address one's intended audience -- and that sometimes means intentionally failing to coddle the egos of people outside that intended audience. There's very little in the way of an opportunity to try a gradual approach to changing minds in an article, testing reactions to things one says and adjusting further discourse based on those reactions. Article writing is not the most interactive communication channel, after all. As for discussion -- that's another matter. I tend to try to take the friendly, find-common-ground approach at first, and only turn to more incisive debunking when the person spreading BS and FUD shows zero interest at the moment in reasoned discussion as an exchange of ideas. A recent example was hippiekarl, or whatever was the guy's name -- responding in a manner that misrepresented what I said, then acted like I was trying to censor his opinions when I tried to correct that misrepresentation. That's not to say that I'm always successful in choosing the best approaches in such circumstances. In fact, much of the time it's my desire to assume good faith on the part of others that gets me in trouble, miring me in what turns into a flame war with a troll. After all this time, I still find myself trying to assume good faith on the part of santeewelding, after all.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Debunking is a surefire way to earn enmity, because it's very hard to debunk something without calling someone (present or absent) either a fool or a liar (or both). Bear with me for a sec. It is an art-form to cut through the knots in the information, without cutting through the egos holding them. I think the passion for helping others is great, but passion can be threatening when cutting so close to the ego... so if the passion can be held back, and be only what makes you care enough to bother... that can make it easier to navigate the situation.

apotheon
apotheon

This is why I'm not as popular as I could be, I suppose. I could name some other TR contributors who take the safer, more marketing-friendly approach of confirming biases by repeating the favored BS and FUD.

apotheon
apotheon

I was doing some similar troubleshooting and research to try to determine why my comments were disappearing, but eventually gave up on it under the theory that TR wasn't paying me to troubleshoot its technical issues and the effort expended had exceeded the effort involved in work-arounds.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

then rewrote it, copied it to clipboard, reposted to see if it disappeared. After that he fed it line by line to see when if it would disappear. After finding the offending line, he split that one into words. That's what I surmise from his description at least. Turns out it was Tammi's entering of the word ugg (as in ugg boots) into a kill list which caused it. Apparently the list takes no context to mean any context. I wonder if there are other words like that... Should be fixed now.

apotheon
apotheon

I just like to help people, which -- among other things -- tends to involve debunking BS dissembling and FUD that might otherwise lead people astray. Whether that ends up defending a choice of mine or not is usually incidental.

apotheon
apotheon

That's bizarre. There must be a gigantic friggin' slimy hairball of code back there somewhere for such an absurd, lame, stupid, unbelievably harmful bit of Heisenbu+g+gery to crop up. I use the word that starts with sug, ends with est, and has a g in the middle, quite often. It would explain why so many of my comments have gone the way of Constitutionally protected rights in the US. Maybe I should look for my lost comments in Guantanamo Bay. Sterling: I guess Palmetto found out the same way I eliminated a lot of possible reasons -- painstaking testing of the semi-random way it seemed to select comments for disposal. He just got lucky in finding something that stood up to testing, where I did not. It's a heck of a lot of work, and after a while I have to give up and move on. Nobody at TR is paying me to troubleshoot the system, after all.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... but I am very self-critical, too. Perhaps my not needing to defend my choices comes from having accepted my uncertainty as inevitable, and even desirable.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

but fact in motion? Sounds good, that too. :D BTW : user:Palmetto found that any post which has the combination of letter s u g g (without spaces) will be disappeared by the back-end. Also when added in an edit. Hopefully it will now be fixed soon... until then, avoid "sug gest" and all words of the same root.

apotheon
apotheon

. . . just as soon as I'm on some kind of regular writing schedule again. If I don't get started quickly, I may end up writing fiction before I start writing articles regularly again.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

I'd like it if you'd let me know if you post somewhere. About the topic of this thread, I think what impresses me the most about Chip is that he's very calm. It's the calm that comes from accepting one's own choices - and so, not having to defend them against anyone. That's something that inspires trust. I know I am too critical of myself, because I am - on some level, somewhere - unsure of my choices/stance. I do have moments of zen, where the barbs of the world and of mine just slide off my mental skin. These i recognize as my best, most honest moments.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... and I felt the same way about your articles, Chad, back when you were writing for TR -- especially given all the other noise in the channels in which you posted.

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