Project Management optimize

What my father taught me about consulting

Don't sacrifice long-term goals for short-term gain is one of the many lessons about running a business that independent consultant Chip Camden learned from his Dad.

My father was not a consultant, but he taught me more about consulting than anyone else.

Dad worked in a variety of occupations throughout his life: tree surgeon, barber, cab driver, Russian linguist for NSA, and auto parts store manager, among others. During his tenure in the last mentioned activity, he found an opportunity to teach me the art of business.

When I was 12 years old, Dad encouraged me to take on a paper route. Having run a paper route himself as a boy, he advised me on how to run my nascent business. For getting new customers he suggested, "Order an extra paper from time to time, then give it away to someone who isn't on your route." He told me to concentrate on providing great service -- never be late, always put the paper inside the screen door, and smile when you talk (he'd already trained me to say "sir" and "ma'am"). All my customers loved me, and I never had a problem collecting my fee.

But delivering papers was still solitary work for the most part. Because I was painfully introverted, Dad worried that I might have trouble making it in the real world. So when I was 15 he offered to pay me out of his wages to help out at the auto parts store he managed. After I turned 16 and thus qualified for a work permit, he convinced the owners of the store to hire me for minimum wage. This job put me in front of the public for hours every day -- a public composed of people with problems, people who expected me to solve them. It was the perfect crucible for forging a businessman.

Here are some of the lessons Dad taught me as we worked together:

The customer isn't always right, but ultimately you must give them what they want within the limits of your business relationship -- or you won't have a business relationship for long. You can and should advise them to the best of your understanding, but sometimes people have to learn for themselves that you were right all along.

When you're wrong, admit it. It's often a hard thing to do, especially if you're suffering from the Impostor Syndrome and are therefore trying to convince yourself and others that you know what you're doing. But the choice is clear: you can either deny your fault and lose a customer, or fess up and probably win one for life -- especially if you offer to make it up to them somehow.

Every job can become an art. Respect your skills and hone them. Find better ways to do each task. I was in love with the car that Dad had given me when I turned 16, even though it was old and nearly worn out. So Dad suggested that during the slow periods at work, I should look up each and every part for that car. The idea delighted me, being a natural collector of information. I dedicated a notebook to the project. I visited catalogs I never knew existed. I learned so much, not only about my car, but about cars in general and how to figure out exactly what part each car required (this was back in the days before the VIN number unlocked everything). It wasn't long before I gained the reputation of being almost as good a parts man as my Dad.

The most important component of a business relationship is trust. Friendship helps to build trust. It's hard for people to trust you if you confine the relationship strictly to business matters. That doesn't mean that you need to get involved in their personal life, but take the time to converse with them on other subjects that interest them. Joke around a little. Be a fellow human.

Know how to set limits without being a jerk. Even though we always try to give the customer what they want, some customers will try to push it too far. When it gets to the point where the essential business proposition (fair exchange) isn't working, then you have to call a halt. But you can do so in a firm but calm and friendly manner: "I'm really sorry, but we can't do that." Once you've established that boundary, then look at the problem from the customer's perspective, and see if you can come up with another way to meet their real need.

Don't sacrifice long-term goals for short-term gain. This principle eventually led me to better opportunities, and away from working with my Dad. I went to college, where I first learned about computers. I developed my skills while working for others, then became an independent consultant. Along the way, a number of superb mentors have blessed my growth in the art of software development. But nobody has taught me more about running a business than I learned from dear old Dad.

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...

23 comments
mr_bandit
mr_bandit

I tried replying to Gabby22, but it didn't work. I want to brag on my father. He had three (3!!!) rules of consulting: 1. No matter what they say, there is a problem 2. No matter what they say, it's a people problem 3. You are getting paid by the hour, not by the solution 4, If you are doing arithmetic over third grade level, you are probably being too complex In the forward to Jerry's book "Secrets of Consulting", he thanks "Sherby" for the rules. (It was really spelled Sherbie). Sherbie had dinner with someone, who later had dinner with Jerry, who took the three (3!!!) rules and made a book out of them. (Disclosure: Jerry is a friend. He doesn't need me to shill his books; they do that by themselves.) "But!" I hear you say "There are four (4!!!) rules". Read the rule carefully :^) - it was also included in "More Secrets". My father taught me many things besides those rules. One is the impact engineers have on the world. His team built the first Spectra Physics UPC scanner. I think of him when I see a bar code - there are three (3!!) on the table right now. And rule #2 is almost always the root cause.

komal001
komal001

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Simon Nichols
Simon Nichols

Ok ,that headline may date me, but a lucky guy to have such an intelligent (no, actually wise) Dad,

Odipides
Odipides

"But you can do so in a firm but calm and friendly manner: ???I???m really sorry, but we can???t do that.???" Sadly that often doesn't cut it (in fact, very rarely in my my experience). Some customers are very difficult to deflect on the issue of contractual responsibilities even when it's obvious one the consultant is 'in the right'. IT contracts are often so nebulous and badly constructed that it can be impossible to identify whether a business/technical function was implied by the contract at all. Writing an exhaustive contract is two thirds of impossible.

Gabby22
Gabby22

When I decided to lash out into consulting (from Government, no less), the first book I read was by software guru writer and consultant Gerry Weinberg. Like all his stuff, it was very reasonable and a great introduction. Two things he said really stand out for me as being a little surprising and very true: - Always work towards helping your client to do without you. - Charge extra for goverment contracts - it will always cost you more.

PCcritic
PCcritic

A lot of it is common sense, but I particularly appreciate the last point: Don???t sacrifice long-term goals for short-term gain. In these days of scarce employment opportunities I need to remind myself of that regularly. I should not devote myself full-time to sending out job applications that won't necessarily get me anything or anywhere, but I also need to make time for my own work that could help to improve my professional standing and advance myself.

michaellashinsky
michaellashinsky

It reminds me of working in my Dad's butcher shop. He was a great dad! Whenever someone would make a snide remark to the effect of, "Butcher Shop, you must make a lot of money..." (which he didn't, but we got by,) he always answered, "I am very rich! I have five children, and they all love me!) He taught me to be courteous and friendly, and to always go the little extra to give good service and good merchandise. His customers were always his friends. He also taught me to dive into hard work and not stop until I was done.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

I too was put to work at an early age (10) in a situation involving the public. I learned a great deal from my father, uncles, grandfather and even my great-grandfather. (Imagine a 3 year old listening intently to a grizzled old baker lecturing about dealing with the public because he'd run out of things to say to a 3 year old!). In many ways, I'm sorry I couldn't pass the experience on as well as they did. Great article with a lot of points we forget. Glen Ford, PMP http://www.vproz.ca

gdburton
gdburton

Chip, Thanks SO MUCH for this! It is like a breath of fresh air to hear business advice which is based on serious common sense and common decency. So much advice is shrink wrapped and soulless. I particularly like "The customer isn???t always right, but...". Yes, customers deserve our respect, attention and best efforts, but not our mindless servitude! Absolute gold nuggets of wisdom, which have been proven in the real world of business. Also food for thought for all Dads. Well worth everyone's time. Thanks again.

mjd420nova
mjd420nova

I was always taught to be honest, fess up to your mistakes and don't make excuses. When dealing with customers, NEVER lie. If another vendor says he can't get a part for six weeks, promise to do it in three and then bust a hump to get it done in that time. Don't throw up your hands, roll up your sleeves. Everyone wonders how big a fool you are until you open your mouth and remove all doubt. Just a few gems that have seen to a comfortable retirement and innumberable friends, many who started as clients. My father the wise old man who guided me to success can take the credit but says it was just part of being a father. Now, at 89, he's a sterling example and a fond visitor to any VA location. May I live as long and be as wise.

bp1argosy
bp1argosy

... taught me how to throw a curveball during a long and hot summer in a small town in Ohio. From that, years later, I learned to give my clients something a little extra, something they hadn't expected in my dealings with them - deep, helpful research on a question they'd forgotten that they'd asked me; a percentage discount on a project to get it done faster (for both of us); savings through a new vendor on a part we both thought would originally cost more ... it's the little things that can feel like tossing a great curveball that excites a client and makes you feel major league!

The Dream
The Dream

Good Article. It reflects the approach I try to take with people. Leave them with their dignity, help them to genuinely trust you. For example: I worked tier 1 support for a web-hosting company a few years ago and because I did not know what I was doing at the time, I blew away her entire site. I was able to get the admins to restore from a backup (a rather old one mind you) and then I had to make that phone call of shame. Now here is the catch, this company openly encouaraged its employees to lie to customers but I was not going to do this. So I was straight up and honest and told her what happened. Surprisingly, the result was not what I expected. I thought I was going to get chewed up and spit out, which had happened a few times, and was not my fault on those occassions. But I explained what had happened, helped her get things back up and running and from that point forward I was her go to tech, when she called I was the one she requested and I did my best to take care of her. Thus I learned a valuable lesson about honesty and taking care of people, which has carried me into the work I am doing today. Coincidentally, this customer lives in the same city where the hosting company is based. So when I left that company for a different one in the same area, she actually sought me out for other technical issues over the years, and I have been able to continue to help as the need arises. Ironically, she still hosts with that and has been trying to get away for years, and was able to give her a few tips on how to get away without losing her site and domain, since this company has been known to hijack a domain name time and again. So while I am not a consultant I do appreciate the insights that you highlighted in this article as it realates to caring for customers in the best way, even when things are not ideal.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

My father had a profound impact on my life. Even though he was far from perfect, I appreciate everything he did for me. There's a lesson there for us fathers. Even if we can't be perfect, we can do meaningful things for our children.

apotheon
apotheon

"Cool" has been in regular use for a long time, and will likely continue to be so for some time to come. I'm not so sure saying Sterling's father was "cool" dates you, particularly.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... but if you have to resort to it and you still can't keep your client in line, then the problem isn't with the contract -- it's with the relationship. Better drop them and find somebody reasonable, or learn to stand up for yourself.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... expect delays, waste, and red tape. If you charge three times as much as normal, it still won't cover it. I avoid working with government agencies whenever I can.

apotheon
apotheon

It's always nice to see an honest worker's integrity lead to a happy ending. The problem you mention with hosting companies hijacking domain names sounds familiar, and the fact this kind of thing goes on is the reason I have adopted a policy of not only choosing my domain registrars very carefully (I use pairNIC, and advise everyone who'll listen to avoid GoDaddy, for instance), but also ensuring that my domain registrar and my webhost are not the same company. Putting both those eggs in the same basket is a great way to get screwed. It's worth remembering that even if a particular company treats you well now, companies change, and a brand you trusted yesterday may screw you over tomorrow. I wrote an article about that for TR some years back, with a title like "There's No Such Thing As A Trusted Brand" regarding that very subject, but linking to other articles from comments here has a tendency to make comments vanish, so I'll leave finding that as an exercise for the reader. If you do go looking for it, keep in mind that TR has changed its CSS in some backwards-incompatible ways over the years, and some of the article text formatting might be screwed up too.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... my Dad even used it. But I agree it still applies. Thanks, Simon and apotheon!

apotheon
apotheon

Just make sure your project has an elastic budget with agreements that when they stop paying you, you stop working, "no harm done". Then, they have to keep paying you enough to make it financially worthwhile to avoid having paid you a bunch to end up with nothing. You're probably better off just not taking the gov contract, though.

Gabby22
Gabby22

Gov. contracts can work well. I had one where I had to plan a quite tricky job, ie do the risk reduction, break it down into tasks, provide guidance and structure the work. My estimate was about 1000 hours - for them to do it in-house. A few months later out of the blue, they offered me the whole job - they had some loose contractor funds they needed to spend. I felt a bit guilty signing up to 1000 hours - the estimate was for *them* to do it, not me - so I negotiated an 'early completion bonus' based on half the remaining hours. When I came in at about 700 hours (+150 hours bonus), they still had the equivalent of 150 hours left, so they used that for another contract - with me. A commercial client would have just pocketed the difference. Andrew