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.