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.