It's like deja vu all over again. The first thing out of your prospect's mouth — no, wait... the first thing was "Hello" and introductions, the second thing was "Would you like a cup of coffee?" So the third thing out of your prospect's mouth was about how the previous consultant screwed everything up. They want to know if you can fix it.
I always feel a little bit like the Next Duchess in these conversations. While I know that the prospect holds high hopes that I'll be their saviour, they'll also be watching my progress with a jealous eye — ready to strike me down at the first hint of trouble. It's pointless to try to tell them that I'm not like that other guy. I've got to prove it.
This wouldn't happen if the majority of consultants performed their duties conscientiously. If a bad egg floated to the surface now and then, we'd have no worse reputation than regular employees. As it is, the characterization of the consultant as a fly-by-night, highly paid intruder who waltzes in, sprays his scent on everything, and then leaves the mess for others to clean up evokes recognition in just about everybody who has ever engaged one. That's a sad state of affairs.
Many factors contribute to poor performance on the part of consultants, but here are four of my favorite stereotypes:The Incompetent. This person has gotten his or her mandible filled beyond maximum mastication. But they can't admit it, because they began the engagement overselling themselves as the "expert". They'll flail around on this project like a fish on the deck until they get tossed out or filleted. Consultants often fall into this category even when they possess skills that could be useful to their clients, simply because they paint their own superpowers in such vivid colors that they can never live up to them. The Sloth. Here's a person who can probably accomplish the work, but has no motivation to get with it. These types can often be found working for large consulting groups on projects for huge companies that can't concentrate their oversight to know when they're being abused. The Sloth will regularly overbill the number of hours they've worked, because nobody will challenge them on it. To a big client, an extra few thousand here and there doesn't sound like much. A year and a few million later, the client begins to wonder why nothing's finished. The Prima Donna. This consultant comes with the highest recommendations and regularly demonstrates exceptional skills. The only trouble is that he doesn't find the client's problems very interesting. When asked about them, the Prima Dona just flicks his backhand and says "No problem." Then he changes the subject back to what he wants to talk about: the latest methodologies or the coolest new frameworks. Over time, the Prima Dona produces a lot of work — but the original problem remains unaddressed. The Doctor. Not all medical doctors are like this, but I use the stereotype as an illustration. This type of consultant hurriedly gets things done, and does them well. When they're all finished for the visit, they ask if you have any questions, then leave before you can reply. Perhaps they even make a point of waiting for an answer, but you get the feeling that one foot is already out the door and their tee time is waiting. Because they don't listen to the client when the client is ready to talk, something always falls through the cracks.
These personas manage to survive (and even thrive) because consultants often view an engagement as a temporary relationship. They don't invest themselves in each client, because when the contract is done they're out of the picture. While it's true that the client/consultant relationship is not permanent, that's also true of all human bonds to a degree. If we focus on building a future with each client, then we won't be tempted to abuse them in the short term. The result: more business in the future — and a stellar reputation for service.
Thanks to TechRepublic member Bob Eisenhardt (reisen55) for yet another great topic idea.
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 blog, he also contributes to [Geeks Are Sexy] Technology News and his two personal blogs, Chip's Quips and Chip's Tips for Developers.