2015 Main Conference Talk
Topic(s): career development
Being a design, IA or UX consultant is hard. Most new consultants struggle just to stay busy. In this panel, expert practitioners will share their wisdom on what it takes to be a master consultant. Panelists with many years of consulting experience will share their insights on winning engagements, dealing with clients, and the different skills needed for internal and external consulting.
If you’ve polished your UX skills extensively, but are struggling with clients or internal stakeholders, this session will provide insights into the consulting soft skills you need. We’ll share our secrets to help you become a more effective leader and a happier consultant.
Attendees will learn tips and trick for consulting from the multiple perspectives of each panelist. They may not always agree.
Here are some examples:
- Consulting is about delivering – be clear about your deliverables – if you’re just offering “advice” clients will have a hard time seeing your value after you leave.
- Don’t do the hard work of writing a proposal until the client already knows your planned approach and has agreed to a ballpark budget. The work should be mostly sold before you write up what you’ve already talked about in the proposal.
- The roles of internal consultant, external contractor, and external consultant are all very different. Each of these roles requires different behaviors. For example, as an external consultant, you need to be able to effectively “project manage” your work and hold clients accountable for their action items, while as an internal consultant or contractor, you’re often part of a larger team managed by the client. If you’re not good at managing projects…take note. On the other hand, as an internal consultant, you must be great at navigating the political waters of the organization.
- External consultants need to HAVE A CLEAR RECOMMENDATION. Don’t be wishy-washy (saying “it depends…”) or give clients too many options. You need to be an expert. That’s what they hired you for. But that doesn’t mean you have all the answers.
About the speaker(s)
Dean Barker has 22 years of experience in software product development and professional services. He is currently VP of User Experience and Agile Coaching at Optum/UnitedHealth Group. He is Technical Expert for the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) committee responsible for developing standards for Software and Systems Engineering. Dean is also co-author of the book Designing Effective Speech User Interfaces and author of numerous published articles.
Lou Rosenfeld is Rosenfeld Media’s founder and publisher. Like many user experience folk, Lou started somewhere (library science), made his way somewhere else (information architecture, then user experience), and has ended up in an entirely different place (publishing). Lou spent most of his career in information architecture consulting, first as founder of Argus Associates and later as an independent consultant. He co-founded the Information Architecture Institute and the IA Summit. He helps curate the Enterprise UX and DesignOps Summit conferences. And he does know something about publishing, having edited or co-authored five books, including Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, and Search Analytics for Your Site.
Lyle Kantrovich is a UX Team Leader, having founded Vivid Mojo, a Minnesota-based User Experience consultancy, back in 2011. He regularly advises UX leaders in large enterprises, and enjoy coaching, mentoring and assisting product teams with challenging projects and strategic planning. In the early 2000’s he helped found the first Chapter of the User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA) and also served on the Board of the international Usability Professional’s Association.
Lyle presents regularly at conferences and enjoys teaching workshops to client organizations.
Samantha Bailey has been leading user-experience projects, directing teams and guiding professionals in their career development for over fifteen years. She has experience managing interdisciplinary teams at Thomson West, Wachovia and Argus Associates. She is currently Senior Director of User Experience at Merrill Corporation, and taught at Kent State University.
Lyle Kantrovich: Good morning. Can you guys hear me in the back? Back there? My name is Lyle Kantrovich. I want to tell you a little bit first about how this idea for this panel came up.
I’ve had a lot of folks that have asked me about consulting over the years. People who are starting consulting, thinking about consulting, maybe people who have been doing it for a little while and having some struggles. They’ll ask for thoughts and advice.
I just was thinking about this topic and how do we help others who are in that mode. I remember from college that in speech I learned that a good presentation always involved visual aids. I have visual aids and props.
Lyle: I brought my props with me. That’s what this is about. I thought, “I’ve got to get some smarter people.” These are the smartest people who were available for this time slot…
Lyle: …who’ve done some consulting. We’re going to talk a little bit the secrets of mastery as consultants. Our panelists are Dean Barker, wave, Samantha Bailey, and Lou Rosenfeld.
A little bit about our panelists, Dean’s done a lot of consulting over the years. He plays a mean — 15 instruments, I guess. Currently, he’s working at Optum, heading a pretty large team of internal consultants. I’ve worked with him as an external consultant. He’s run his own consultancy. He brings a lot of experience to the panel.
Lou, I don’t know, he’s done a couple of things. He started the first IA consultancy. I believe the first one, definitely one of the most renowned. He’s consulted independently. He knows a lot about polar bear behavior, I guess. He’s a hit with geeks around the world.
Samantha has also done a lot of consulting, both internally and externally, and has been at Wachovia, Thomson. She’s currently now at Merrill Corporation.
We’re going to talk about some different questions. I’ve done a little consulting myself so that’s a slide about me. I currently run a small consultancy, but I’ve also been internal and worked at a larger consultancy externally. Before we get into the questions for the panel, I want to do a little poll of the audience. For a show of hands, how many of you would call yourselves an internal consultant?
How many of you would call yourself an external consultant? Some of you did it twice already. How many of you are thinking about being a consultant? A few of you.
How many of you hire consultants? Can you guys all put a Post-it Note on if you’re the prospects in the group? Everybody else will hit you up for work later. How many of you hate consultants? Great.
Lyle: How many of you hate polls? We’re going to start off with some questions. If you’ve got questions along the way, if you disagree in a major way with something they’ve said, feel free to pop up and we’ll get a mic to you. We want to make this interactive.
I’m going to start with the question, beyond technical or UX or IA skills, what skills are most critical for being a successful consultant? We’ll start with Samantha.
Samantha Bailey: Ultimately I really feel like there’s kind of a hustle factor that’s most important for being a successful consultant, and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, but you have to be willing to put yourself out there, be willing to face rejection, you have to look for opportunities and figure out how to, oftentimes, wedge a foot in the door and guide people along to help them figure out what they want to pay you, hopefully significant amounts of money, to do.
Audience Member: You said hustle, is that right?
Audience Member: OK, at first I thought you said hostile.
Lyle: Not hostile.
Samantha: Hostile is not recommended. When we were talking about it earlier, I was feeling like “Hustle seems a little…I’m not sure that’s a good word to use.”Maybe it just really is networking, and that’s a component to it, but I think it’s networking plus the willingness to put yourself out there.
Audience Member: What’s the opposite of hustle? What can people who go into consulting do and they don’t have the hustle factor, what does that look like?
Lyle: Yeah. There’s a question back here, GD.
Audience Member: If you don’t think you have the hustle factor, maybe you weren’t born a hustler. My cousin was born a hustler, he had that lemonade stand, and he was selling things to his friends. I’m not like that, but I’d like to be able to compete with those kinds of people. Is that possible?
Samantha: I think yes and no. Because I’m not a natural, instinctive hustle person. I’m very good at finding people who have hustle and drafting off of them effectively.
Lyle: Lou, do you have something to say to that?
Lou Rosenfeld: Yes. When you asked the question, I was thinking of channeling my inner Montero and talking about “You have to be able to tell people to fuck off! You have to be able to walk away from deals!” and yadda yadda yadda. I don’t know that we should be looking at hustle or no hustle, that everything fits on a single spectrum.
I think one of the things that we don’t often hear about is just having enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is not hustle, and it’s not not-hustle. Enthusiasm is just enjoying the work, which I think pretty much everyone in this room already does, and you give yourself a great disservice if you don’t consider that enthusiasm as something that, A, has value, and B, has value even more when you frikkin’ share it.
That enthusiasm that you have for the work, whether you’re building a team internally, whether you’re working with potential clients, whomever you’re collaborating with, that enthusiasm is going to get you a long distance forward.
Lyle: I would say too, if you feel like you don’t have the hustle, think about starting internally. Learn the rest of the gig so that that’s the one thing you need to work on, and also don’t quit your day job and go independent unless you have work lined up. It’s just risk management. Dean, what do you think on skills for a consultant?
Dean Barker: When we looked at this in advance of the panel, the first thing that jumped out, to me, are just general communication skills. It seems simplistic, but I remember when I started at CompuWare years ago, there was a manager who said to me “We draft talent on the basis, largely, of soft skills. You have to be able to speak, you have to be able to write, you have to be able to put together presentations. We can teach you the technical stuff. We can teach you to do usability testing, we can teach you about computers. We’re not really in the position, or set up to teach people how to communicate effectively.”
That’s always sort of stuck with me and resonated with me as I developed talent and recruited to build teams over the years. I really think that that’s one critical success factor. Another one is kind of related to hustle, it’s a kind of drive and enthusiasm for learning, for always developing yourself professionally. Our field is such a big tent, it’s so interdisciplinary, that you could have seven careers and never learn everything there is there to learn.
Plus, it’s dynamic in that it’s always changing. We were talking a little bit early this morning about some mobile stuff. That’s really rapidly changing things and we’re struggling a little bit to adapt to that. I’ve got somebody who’s evolving a specialization in accessibility. It’s not a strength of mine, and [indecipherable 07:59] so we’re really cultivating that person, and he’s really got an enthusiasm for that as a specialty.
All the people who’ve work on my team are dedicated to lifelong learning, and those that really excel at that are some of the people who excel in general in their jobs.
Samantha: One other thought I want to add to that is that my whole career, but particularly in my consulting work, I’ve had a firm rule with myself of never saying no. Whenever I’ve been given an opportunity to do something new, to learn something new, to put myself out there no matter how terrified I have been — and I have frequently been almost paralyzed with terror – I have just not been willing to say no. That sort of “Never say no” mindset, similarly to enthusiasm, will get you very far.
Dean: To piggyback on that, we have a rule internally when we come across opportunities, and it scares my guys to death, but I always say “Say yes, and then we”ll figure out how we’re going to do it afterwards.”
Dean: Yeah, sometimes that will bite you, but you will find that you can become an instant expert in any number of things, and there are a lot of transferable skills that we have in this field and our kinds of positions. It’s kind of related to that crossover presentation this morning.
Lyle: But keep in mind that no means no. Just no confusion on that, right?
Lou: Can I add another angle here, which is the nature of the work we’re doing? We’re talking about what it means to be a good consultant, and I think one of the things that we forget is that consulting is not the same as contracting, and contracting is not the same as consulting. In fact, I want to do something just like…I don’t know what to do. Here.
[something slams on the floor]
Lou: Do you hear me? Did you pay attention? Consulting is not contracting. I feel like it’s something that nobody gets. You say you get it, and yet, you don’t.
Sorry about knocking your [indecipherable 10:13] there. What is the difference? Consulting is when people ask you to help them, but they respect your opinion and you tell them what to do. Contracting is when people ask you to help them and they tell you what to do.
I feel like a lot of us are still in the mode of thinking of ourselves as contractors and that means we’re not calling the shots in the work. That means we’re not taking enough money for the work that we do. That means we’re in a kind of submissive position that we really shouldn’t be at. You can pull this apart, there are all kinds of cultural and historical factors about why we don’t always stick up for ourselves like we should in this field.
We don’t need to get into that today but I will say, every time and you’ll bear me out, I believe that we raised our prices and we actually said no to things back when we worked together at Argus in the late ’90s.
Every time we raised our rates, we got nervous, but life got better. The work got better. Everything about what we did got better and it was because every time we raised our prices, people stopped seeing us as HTML monkeys that they would tell us what to do and would start seeing us as people with value.
As we started to peg our rates to those of lawyers and doctors and accountants, instead of low level technical and clerical people, life got better. You know there’s a lot of demand for what we do out here.
If you’re feeling unsure, maybe this is the time to raise your prices and see what happens and see life change for you. It’s about being a consultant and not being a contractor.
I’m not going to stamp again. Hopefully I made my point.
Dean: I’ll take the [indecipherable 12:00] .
Lou: I got it.
Dean: We hire a lot of contractors, more than we do consultants. I think it’s noble to provide that service. But you need to know where you stand. You have to have a very clear mental model about what you’re providing and how you’re providing it.
Maybe there’s a certain transformation from contractor to consultant as you go through your career, because you need certain experiences before you can be a consultant of a certain level.
I’ll just speak from the point of view of running a large, internal UX group and needing to hire people. We do need good contractors on a consistent basis and they’re hard to find, and the rates are pretty good. There’s definitely work there.
Samantha mentioned the whole thing about being hungry. It’s OK to take some of those wire-frame jobs if it’s the difference between being hungry or not.
Lyle: You could be contracted externally as a contractor to work internally as a consultant?
Dean: Yeah, for sure.
Lou: Don’t you feel that if someone starts as a contractor that sets the mold for their career with that organization, that it’s hard to necessarily move into a consulting role?
Dean: Yeah, I think that’s a fair point. In that organization, for that period of time, to take those skills and leverage them, take that experience, do something bigger if you will. You’re going to be pegged in that organization.
I’ll go back a number of years ago. I got a contract at American Express. It spanned the time I was working for CompuWare and then [indecipherable 13:41] the UX group for prime candidates from time to time.
Then I went independent by owning my own firm. I had a contract with American Express that spanned that period, so I was with them for 4 years on a half-time basis.
It was wonderful, because particularly as a soloist, it gave me that financial foundation, so I had 20 hours a week that I was billing that I then could go look for other work, do other projects.
That was very much a contractor engagement but it was a life saver for me from a financial position of it. Did I do consulting with them? No, not so much but it was a basis for other true consultant work.
Lyle: I’m going to change the topic here. Successful consultants have to be able to sell their services or their company’s services. What’s the secret to winning a proposal, Lou?
Lou: I’ll be a little contrary here and say that the secret is not to write proposals, or responses to proposals. I think that many consultants, if they see an RFP, something’s gone wrong. They’re really not the right people to be receiving RFPs.
You should not really be writing proposals. You should be having conversations that lead to maybe writing contracts or agreements that are short and are basically saying, “Yes, we’re going to go ahead on an engagement together.”
But if you’re responding on RFP, typically it’s a horribly written effort on the part of the client to solve the problem, which is ultimately what a consultant’s supposed to do for them. I just want to encourage people to not respond off RFPs.
Sometimes, by the way, I found this to be a very useful approach. When I’ve gotten RFPs, I often contacted the source and said, “I’m not going to respond. I don’t respond to RFPs. However, you are about to spend a lot of money and your RFP has a lot of problems.
I will help you find a vendor. I will be your helper. I will help you rewrite the RFP. I’ll help you develop a process for evaluating proposals and interviewing candidates, candidate companies and evaluating them and so forth.
You’re going to spend a quarter of a million dollars, whatever. Spent $25,000 on me and you’ll see that quarter million dollar investment go much better.” I’m not saying you shouldn’t ignore them. There are opportunities there. But you should probably not respond to them as they have requested.
Samantha: Yeah, I agree with that completely. I don’t know that I’ve ever had a positive RFP response outcome. I often look at an RFP as a sign that the organization has so many internal issues.
It’s already hard enough to do user experience work for organizations. That work is hard enough. But if you’re working off of an RFP, you already have enough organizational issues that it will be virtually impossible to do good UX work for that company.
Then similarly, I try to avoid scenarios where I’m writing proposals. I have upfront conversations and then I try to scope up work. I’m only going to invest time and energy outlining a project if I’m 70 percent certain that I’m going to win the work or that I’ve in essence already won the work, unless I’m hungry.
Samantha: It’s also really important to keep in mind that you orient yourself differently at different times. There is going into consulting because you have a burning passion to be a thought leader and you have something that you want to share as an advance person, moving into companies.
That isn’t actually why I went into consulting most recently. I would say that is why I got associated with Argus, but I went into consulting from a very pragmatic perspective of I needed to dial back my career so that I could put family first for a few years.
That was really frightening, but I could not work a 10-hour day for a period of time. I wasn’t willing to work a 10-hour day for a period of time. In that time frame I consulted for about seven years.
There were some times when I really had some good opportunities to go in and do thought leadership work that I was very proud of. But there were also times where I took work that was more of a contractor flavor or work that was really not stretching my abilities the way I would have wanted perhaps in an ideal world.
But it was keeping my foot in the door and it was paying the bills.
Dean: I’ll take the internal perspective. I have a fairly large team, 50 UX’ers. We assign most of those to software development projects and [indecipherable 18:20] units. It’s largely what I would think of as staff augmentation.
Those rules are largely interaction designers and the right developers. We only got a few who are specializing in research projects. Most of their work is done on the basis of selling capabilities.
When we’re negotiating for an opportunity or a need that’s on the basis of really looking at a team and looking at a fit in terms of skill set and things that they need providing that. It’s somewhat self evident and it’s very voluntary.
The other thing that we sell, if you will, internally, are initiatives. These are the big ideas that we hook up. For example, we’ve done a major patterning library and a component library, and on top of them, where the whole business case was based on reuse of it. There’s certainly a usability benefit there, but the economics of it in the cost-benefit analysis were all based on reusability.
The sell for that was very, very quantitative. In those sorts of initiatives, even though the quantitative thing helps us sell it, what we really need to know within the organization is what’s their appetite for doing, or not doing, the thing that we’re thinking of.
There’s a great book by a guy named Gerald Weinberg. It’s called “The Secrets of Successful Consulting.” He’s got a whole series of books, including a couple of books on consulting. He’s a programmer and an expert in systems thinking. His systems thinking book is brilliant.
Weinberg’s got a quote in one of his books where he says, “You can take an elephant anywhere, as long as they want to go there.”
Dean: I think, at least for these internal initiatives, as I think of them, that’s very true. There’s got to be an appetite for them.
The job I had prior to what I’m in now was at Sage Software, which is a UK-based company. Running a team, a 15-person team in their CRM Division. We had, for a flagship [indecipherable 20:15] , which is a contact manager, about 200 users a year that I would rifle through for usability testing. A pretty robust program. We did a lot of it.
We got the budget from marketing, and, of course, UX has no budget. We were really able to do something, I think, pretty impressive with that research program. We got a lot of quantitative data out of that, white papers, and everything. It was a great program.
When I took the position at Optimum and I moved over here, I tried to replicate that. For a variety of cultural reasons, there was no appetite for it. I’ve been banging my head against the wall for a few years on this, making some progress. It’s getting better, and I’m going to continue to fight the good fight, but the organizational culture doesn’t have that same appetite.
However, something I never planned on as a line of business for us, if you will, was UI development. There was a strong appetite for UI developers. You could argue you should have put that in development management, or it should have been in UX, but we’ve chosen to take it on. We’ve built a little subteam, I’ve got half a dozen UI developers that we contract out, just because there’s an appetite and an opportunity and we follow them.
Lyle: Great. We’re going to pivot a little bit here. Want to learn what the panelists think about tips for getting a client engagement off on the right foot. Thirty seconds or less. Samantha, what would you say is your top tip there?
Samantha: Generally speaking, at the very beginning of a project is when you really want to be at the top of your game. You want to make sure that you are learning as much as possible as quickly as possible about the culture and the environment, because that’s going to have a big impact of how you’re going to orient yourself.
It gets really important to figure out where the money is coming from, particularly in relationship to the person who brought you in.
Lyle: Great. Dean?
Dean: Rapport. I think it’s really important to build rapport and often that means socializing. I don’t really, necessarily, have the time or the energy to work with people I wouldn’t want to have a beer with or have lunch with. You need to break bread and have some social interaction with people in order to really build that working relationship.
Not in an un-genuine way. You don’t want to be phony about it. You have those genuine opportunities and build rapport that way. Seek those out.
Lou: The beginning of any engagement is going to be very dependent on some sort of meeting. Right? Some sort of kick-off meeting, and then it’s going to continue primarily through meetings. For that reason, I’m putting a plug in for one of our books. Kevin Hoffman, who’s in the front row, is writing a book on meeting design for us.
I also want to put in a plug for “Gamestorming,” an O’Reilly book by Dave Gray and Sunni Brown and James Macanufo. It’s full of exercises that are game-like for running meetings in, hopefully, a fun way.
The couple that I really like, one I really use all the time, is the “pre-mortem.” It’s a great exercise. You know what a post-mortem is. Can you do a “pre-mortem” and make sure you get at what might go wrong before it does actually go wrong. That’s a great way to get meetings going.
Another one that I wish was in that book, and I’ll take credit for inventing this, is “banning words.” One of the things that I find in a lot of meetings with clients is they come to me and say, “We want to do something with our redesign.”
Or, ask about portals.
There’s a lot of words that our clients use that have absolutely zero meaning whatsoever. Yet, they’re cloaking their entire initiative behind these meaningless terms. It’s not plain language. It’s anti-plain language. It’s jargon that they don’t even understand. I’m not sure I know how to define any of those words.
Can you define “redesign” or “portal”? I can’t.
What I try to do is get at those words right away, identify them, and say, “Anyone uses those words, has to throw a dollar on the table. If I do, it’s $10.”
It forces people to start using actual language so that you can get more successful at diagnosing the actual problems at hand.
Samantha: I have one thing to add to that. I think that’s a really good point.
The other piece of understanding your clients and their organizations is learning their language where possible. I can’t tell you how many clients I have where customization and personalization mean the opposite for two different clients. I’ll have to remember that for Eaton, customization means what I consider personalization to mean. But, for this other client, it maps.
Just pick your battles. A lot of times with terminology, know the battles to pick and then the ones to just let it go.
When I started consulting, I used to always try to get people to go along with my definition. I virtually never do that anymore, unless I feel like it’s really impeding some kind of point that I’m trying to make.
Lyle: I’m going to stop you here. I’ve got one more question, and then we’re going to take questions from the audience. Think about what you want to ask the panel here.
What tips does the panel have for making sure you get paid in a timely fashion?
Lyle: How do we get our money?
Samantha: You’re the money man.
Lou: Not really.
Lou: I know that the standard advice that I try to follow when I can is to at least get a PO in advance, or at least partial payment up front.
In my line of work, at least the clients I work with, it’s not really been a huge problem. Often, you do have to do some nagging, but I don’t know. We haven’t really had much of a problem getting paid. I don’t know if that’s because of the clients or just because of the basics of trying to get some money or at least a commitment through a PO up front.
The other thing I’d say is don’t begin the work until you have an actual agreement in place. I’d love to do that stuff on a handshake basis, but, unless we have a very strong relationship in place with a client already, it’s just not going to be worth your while.
Most organizations are big enough that your client is not really the person who would sign. At some point, when things go off the tracks, you don’t want to be in a position to say, “Hey, you know, you never signed this and I’m starting to get worried about paying it.”
Then, they just say, “Talk to my boss,” or, “Talk to Procurement.”
Do you really want to be talking to a Procurement Department? You don’t want to get embedded into those horrible internal silos of dysfunction inside your client’s organization. Get it in writing first.
Lyle: Dean, I saw you had a thought there.
Dean: No, I’ll just reiterate or nod my head at everything Lou just said.
Samantha: I was going to add breaking amounts up into chunks and having them pay 25 percent either immediately following the kick-off meeting, or early, I think is a good way to establish that.
I will also add that my experience has been that the bigger the number, the easier and more likely that I’m going to get paid without hassle. The only cases where I have ever been nickled-and-dimed and had issues were for these little piddly things where I felt like I was doing them a favor. That’s an interesting conundrum. I’m not the only person that has experienced that.
Lou: It’s a really good point, because it ties back to the issue of charging more. When you charge more, you are typically dealing with a more senior person inside the organization. They can get stuff done and they can go stomp over to the Procurement people and say, “What the hell?”
Things like that. Again, raising your prices just makes so many other things that you didn’t even think about all that much easier down the road.
Dean: I would say one of the biggest issues I see for independents especially is they’re afraid to ask for money upfront. For some kind of down payment. They wait on an invoice and then he accepts 60- or 90-day terms, and suddenly they’re worried about paying their bills.
Get some money up front. Don’t be afraid to raise your rates. If they’re going to give you longer terms than you’re comfortable with, charge them.
Lou: Can I do an informal poll? How many of you have ever accepted terms of 60 days? [pause] How about 90 days? [pause] OK. Did you regret that decision?
Lou: It’s tough. You’re going to be hungry sometimes, but you still can’t eat the PO.
Audience member: With 90 days, it’s a nice surprise.
Samantha: Oh, I forgot about that work!
I will say that I do think that it’s a good idea to be prepared for cash flow issues. I did not expect to need a business line of credit.
For the first couple of years, I never even used 1099s with people in terms of bringing in subcontractors. Yet, I needed to use a line of credit my entire consulting career just to cope with the ebb and flow. I would make sure I wasn’t spending on borrowed money that I didn’t have, but there’s a lot of times where the time just isn’t going to map out to when the money comes in the door.
Dean: Weinberg says “be a camel.” Right? You’ve got to have some reserves. That’s critical, particularly if you’re solo-ing.
Lyle: I think it’s important if you’re a small business owner to have that plan for a rainy day. Know what you need and think about, “What if I don’t have work for three months?” Make sure you can handle that.
Lou: Also, while we’re on the subject of terms, just make a plea. Maybe this is like illegal, maybe this is cartelization.
We’ve got to kind of stand up here. Many of us are finding that the world’s largest corporations are telling us 60 days, and even 90 days. What they’re doing, if you haven’t really thought of it this way, it’s really kind of chilling, they’re making very small business people their bank.
Could that be a more terrible thing to do? Horrible for the economy, horrible for innovation that we’re supposedly bringing this economy. We’re supposed to fund them. I would really, really, as hungry as you are, try to really hold the line there. Maybe go down on your rates a little bit, but try to force a 30-day as much as you can.
Dean: Lou, let me just disagree a little bit with that. Sometimes, it’s just policy. Right?
“We always do 60 days.”
If you really want to do that work, figure out how to adjust your rates. If you would need to borrow money to get you by for that initial extra 30 days…It’s only 30 days different, maybe, than what you’d be comfortable with. What does that mean in terms of financial impact to you?
Work it into the price. Charge them back for it and just know going in up front that I’m going to have to wait a little bit longer, but I’m getting more money for that.
Audience Member: The other thing you can do is launder the money. Sometimes you can [crosstalk] .
Dean: You heard it here first.
Audience Member: Our company, and a lot of big companies that I have worked for, we do have standard terms. We also have preferred vendors, right?
I’m not in a position right now to be able to hire boutique vendors, but I can bring things kind of through, if I do it deftly, under other organizations. You can subcontract and then that subcontracting or that contracting entity is the one that actually pays you. You get paid, and they’re the ones waiting for the money. I’ve done that before when I was solo-ing as well.
Lyle: This topic will be much better over beers, so I’m going to table this. Questions from the audience?
Audience Member: I had recently, an organization I was working with, first time working with them, and I was new to being out on my own as a consultant. Their standard contract that they gave me, it was net 30 days.
I thought, “OK, that’s great.”
Then, it had a clause in it about I don’t get paid until they get paid from their client. I looked at it and went, “Oh no, no, no, no,”
“Well, but if I say something, that might kill the whole thing, and I’m hungry right now. I’ve got a gap. I’ve got to work. You know what? Damn it, I’m going to ask. I’m going to bring it up.”
All I did was I put it in business terms of saying, “Hey, you know, I don’t have any control over making sure you get paid, your payment process from your clients. I’m really not comfortable with this clause. What can we do about that?”
They sent me back an email saying, “Oh, thanks for catching that. Here’s a new version of it without it.” I was, “Oh, my god…
Lyle: Applause for that…
Lou: The moral of the story is you asked.
Dean: Yeah, negotiate. Let me just add, I have had other companies that wanted to hire me, present me with similar terms. Because they got majorly burnt where a client went bankrupt, they lost a bunch of money, they had to pay all their subs.
The problem is the client they’re choosing to work with, they have vetted. They have decided they’re financially sound and contracted with them. They control their invoicing dates, you don’t.
You’re absolutely right. You should not accept those terms unless you feel really comfortable that you know the end client well enough that they’re going to pay and that you’re going to get paid. Good job. Next question.
Kyle Susie: Hi. I’m very happy to have your advice here. My name’s Kyle Susie. I’ve been an independent consultant for 11 years. I struggle with this one issue where, as an independent consultant, it is just me.
It is only natural that you’re going to have highs and lows, because it’s flood or drought. It always is. When you’re in the flood, you cannot prospect because you need to sleep at some point.
My question is, what’s the best way to keep in touch with clients you’ve done great business with maybe four years ago and you haven’t heard from them, or two years ago? How do you say, “Hey, I’m here,” in that non-sleazy way, because I’m very uncomfortable with being, “Don’t forget me.”
Samantha: What I like to do is send them something that I recently read. I’m constantly, even when I’m in the flood, I’m still paying attention to headlines and I’m seeing things that are happening. Sometimes it might be relatively peripheral, but a lot of times I see things that I think really actually are point relevant.
That way I’m able to make contact with someone where I’m offering them something that may be a very nominal value but it’s not just, “Hey, I want you to remember I’m here.” It’s, “I want to remind you that I’m here and I’m the kind of person that is constantly adding value in our relationship.”
Lyle: That’s great.
Samantha: Stay on the radar.
Lyle: Another thought up here. Sonja.
Sonja: Can you give us an example?
Samantha: The most recent time that I did this actually wasn’t in a consulting scenario, it was in a job hunting scenario. But I had had a first interview. In the context of the first interview, we had talked about some issues that the organization was facing.
Within a week, I had seen several articles that were relevant. This was an issue of they do enterprise, integral basic talk care, but they are beginning to have to think about their software from much more of a consumer oriented perspective than they’ve ever had to.
I came across a couple of articles that were related to that. I was able to circle back. Instead of saying, “I’m just checking with if you’ve made a decision of whether you’re going to interview me again,” I was able to say, “I was reflecting on our conversation, saw this article, thought it might be of interest.”
Lyle: Great. We’ve got time for one more question over there on the wall.
David: Thank you all.
David: Hi. I’m David Penarelli. Quick tip on getting paid quicker, sample size of one, this is just something that worked for me. I invoice clients using Quickbooks. Now they have a feature to allow online payment.
I said, “I’m going to give this a shot.” It has really modest fees associated with it. But I don’t want to go so far as to say that when you change the interface of something, it changes people’s behavior, but it seemed to me that when I could have my client pay via an ACH bank transfer, suddenly they were more comfortable doing that more quickly.
They didn’t have to wait for the accounting department that’s going to cut checks on this day or those kinds of things. It really smoothed things because basically, it makes paying you as easy as buying socks on Amazon. Just a tip.
Lyle: That’s great. I think we’ve got a couple of more minutes here. Let’s take one more question. Over here in the middle.
Audience Member: Hi, folks. Thanks for the great panel. I’m wondering if you have any suggestions for somebody who’s new to consulting. Let’s say I were to tell you that I want to become a consultant and I’m starting from scratch and I know very little. What advice do you have for me?
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I ask you what advice do you have for me?
Lyle: Great. Who wants to take that?
Dean: Figure out what your super power is. Some niche, some specialization, some strength, some unique value proposition that you could provide and even doubling down on that, really reinforcing that.
That unique differentiation is critical and really provides value in building a reputation.
Samantha: I would say be on the lookout everywhere for opportunities. Oftentimes, you can kick-start some of what you want to do. I’ve had any number of conversations with people who are in non-profits, people who are associated with churches.
They’re telling me about the pain point. I realize that there’s something I can do to help them and then begin to parlay that. One of my great ones was that the public library interface just drove me insane.
I did a quick markup to show them why they had the button in the exact wrong place and just sent that to them. But that was able then to start a dialogue. Looking for opportunities to start small and to then get that practice with that hustle factor.
Lou: I’ll come full circle and say share that enthusiasm. You want to do it and you’re excited by it. If you are public about that excitement, other people will catch it.
We often forget that, I don’t know, some huge portion of consulting success has little to do with actual technical skill and a lot to do with are you just someone other people want to be around.
If you can be a fun, enthusiastic, interesting person who not only has something to offer but is willing to listen as well and be in effect, in many cases, a therapist for your client — you’re more an information therapist than an information architect.
Lou: That’s important. I think that carries the day, certainly when you’re going up against another consultant who doesn’t have those personality traits.
Lyle: I’ll just add a piece of advice I got from someone when I was thinking about going out on my own. I said, “What should I do?” They had been independent for years. They said, “Get clients.”
Lyle: I thought, “What?” They said, “Everything else, you’re smart enough. You’ll figure it out. If you can get the work, you’ll figure out the invoicing and the accounting and the taxes, all those things. You’ve got time to figure it out. But making sure you find good clients and good work is critical.”
Thank you everyone for attending. Please tweet any takeaways you got from this session. We’ll see you in the break.
Lou: Thank you.