Don’t Let Your First Consulting Gig Fall Apart Horribly
Recently, my good friend, Dave, asked for my opinion about a situation that he couldn’t understand.
The issue was related to an important project for his startup company, where he worked as a consultant for the very specialized software that he had recommended to the customer. The project was going fine and his relationship with the customer seemed great. Then, overnight, he became the one who was blamed for everything. To say that he was shocked would be an understatement.
Suddenly, a good portion of his day consisted of proving that each little problem that occurred wasn’t actually his fault.
One moment, everything looks perfect. Then, all of a sudden, you are blamed for everything. Where’s the catch?
His situation reminded me of my first consulting gig, a long, long time ago. In fact, we might have even made the same mistake, and ended up with the same consequences.
When I was on that “first consulting gig,” I felt that everything was going great. The customer was friendly and enthusiastic, and I was given the freedom to do what I thought was best. After a year had passed, everything that had been going smoothly was suddenly a problem. My company ended up being the one that took the blame. I remember being astonished, because I had followed the contract to the letter – nothing had been overlooked! My results were of high quality, and my process was completely transparent. It was exactly the same situation as Dave had experienced with his recent project.
Something obviously didn’t make sense in either scenario, so what was the catch?
That project was certainly not the first time that I had been consulting on something important. However, it was the first time that I acted as a customer’s “right hand” for something crucial for her company. I hadn’t realized at the time that there was a whole world of difference between the two.
It’s all about expectations.
My focus was on getting the job done, to the best of my abilities, which was far from easy. The customer’s expectations were different, however. She observed my work for a short time, and after being satisfied with what she saw, took me on as her ally. She had complex problems, and she had found the one guy who just might be able to fix them.
I accepted the goodwill, but only completed the job that I had signed up for, so to speak. All the related organizational problems remained, so the customer eventually sobered up and started looking for someone to blame. Trust turned into tension and disappointment. It might not sound rational, but it’s perfectly human.
So, what should I have done instead?
I was hired to solve a problem that was only one part of a bigger issue. These other problems were organizational, and the subject of internal conflicts in the customer’s company. Should I have tried to untangle the whole thing?
My advice is both yes and no.
Beware of a “blank check”, it’s a trap. If you accept it, you are effectively promising that you will take care of ALL customer’s problems.
You can’t just ignore the whole thing, or it will inevitably explode in your face. At the same time, you are not paid (and probably not qualified) to wield a magic wand and solve problems that are far out of your jurisdiction and pay grade.
First, let’s examine the exact mechanism that got both Dave and I into trouble. Then, perhaps we’ll know how to prevent the same thing from happening again.
The Underlying Mechanism Is an Emotional (!) Progression
Emotions are powerful, and they can also be irrational. What happened in our situations is that emotions initially grew in intensity in a positive way, but then just flipped to their opposite extreme like a coin: trust flipped to suspicion and enthusiasm shifted to hopelessness.
The interesting thing is that when emotions change so drastically, they often increase in intensity. So, contrary to intuition, you want to avoid embracing or stating overly positive emotions if they are not actually justified.
On certain triggers, emotions can just “flip” – while retaining their intensity.
This means that you should watch out for these two crucial signs:
- Excessive emotions
- Unjustified emotions
Emotions can easily go over the top on projects, because enthusiasm naturally comes after initial good results. However, that same enthusiasm is often unjustified; it is basically a celebration by people hoping that the real problem will somehow magically disappear.
When the basis for an emotion is unjustified, something is bound to crush that imaginary picture sooner or later. Then, the emotion flips to its opposite, and where you had felt strong relief, for example, an unbearable sense of tension would take its place.
It’s interesting, isn’t it? I believe that psychologists would have a lot to say about this, especially because the mechanism always seems the same, in different people and different places, all over the world.
So, what do you do?
The solution is easier than it looks, especially when you try it and see for yourself that it doesn’t hurt.
Turn the Progression Around: What does “Under-Promise and Over-Deliver” Actually Means
You use the same mechanism, but simply turn it the other way around. Aim for low-intensity emotions, regardless of whether they are positive or negative. However, just make doubly sure that their positive side will be justified in the long run.
When the emotions are positive, that’s great; you can build from there. Also, when they are negative in the short term (for example, you might be perceived as too cold or rigid), you will easily exceed the expectations and switch those emotions to their positive side. This is how you will be able to build a fruitful, long-term relationship.
You have surely heard this mantra: “Under-promise yourself but take care to over-deliver.” That’s exactly the same thing. This advice generally sounds good, but I am certain that the author had exactly the same problems as those that I have described above.
In the beginning of your project, you need to ignore all of the pressure that will be surrounding you. Avoid being overly friendly; communication should be kept strictly professional. Make sure to emphasize what it is that you are there to solve, and that everything else is someone else’s problem.
Avoid being overly friendly, you are here to solve a specific problem.
This could lead even to mild hostility, in the short term. After all, you are essentially refusing to be their friend, and you are also refusing to become involved in a problem for which you were not hired. The crucial detail here is that no one will fire you because of that; furthermore, this is how you will have the time to do your actual job properly. If you keep your promises and over-deliver, then it will be clear that you can be counted on. When that happens, the negative picture of you that you may have cultivated in the beginning, will switch to a more reasonable one. For example, your image can quickly change from the “cold consultant who is only here for the money” to a “respectable expert for a long-term business relationship.” At that point, you can be as friendly as you want.
Keep your promises and over-deliver, then it will be clear that you can be counted on
It is the same mechanism, but the result is completely the opposite, which is good news for your career.
Start friendly and you risk ending up as a scapegoat. However, if you begin by being a bit more reserved, you can let your results define your relationship.
- Check the infographics I’ve made on this particular trap for consultants.
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