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Posted by on May 18, 2019 in Consulting | 0 comments

The Free Consulting Problem, Part II

The Free Consulting Problem, Part II

In a previous post I left an issue hanging, and true to form left it hanging about a month (maybe more).* I meant to just hyperlink it, but WP does this trick now where you get a whole block preview of it, like this:

And to quote myself on that issue to save you from going back and reading it (although you really ought to, it’s pretty good), I said:

I’ll give you my thoughts on how the proposal should promise resolution and define the methods, NOT be a fleshed-out plan.

G. Smith, consultant

So here’s the thing: knowledge work, or proposing to write a plan of action and/or organize work on someone else’s benefit for a valuable result, is a bit different than, say, offering to pour someone a new driveway. The person who pours driveways for a living comes out, looks at the driveway, scratches his or her head, hopefully writes some things down, goes back to his or her truck, Miata, Dodge Viper, or the like, and either writes a proposal on the spot or goes back to an office and writes one up.

Either way, the next time you see him or her they will be proferring a piece of paper with a monetary number on it. And if you write a check corresponding to that number, the engagement will now begin. There is no smooth, subtle transition from one to the other. In the proposal phase they are, much like I am, looking at a piece of paper or a electronic document, fiddling with a calculator, pencil, and /or some kind of spreadsheet(s), and so on.

In the implementation phase they, or someone working for them, will be working with lumber, saws, carpentry equipment (to set up a form), pouring a literal ton or three of concrete from a concrete truck,** smoothing the resulting mess into a flat surface with expansion joints, and praying it doesn’t rain.

And here’s where their path and mine diverge. There is a diagnostic phase in a consulting engagement, and then there is an implementation phase, and in both phases I am talking with the customer, scratching my head, hopefully writing things down, and going back and forth to my car and/or office.

The transition is a much more shallow one, much less apparent, and in fact may be drawn in a different spot for different clients. But unless there is some strong “brother-in-law” effect at play,*** some sort of understanding about compensation needs to be established sooner rather than later. For me it’s at about the 3-5 hour mark. If I can’t see a reasonable course of action I can lay out for the client after looking at it that long, I probably shouldn’t do any work for them. I should be able to say by that time:

  • What 2-4 items the client needs to work on in their business
  • How I can help them achieve those goals
  • What I anticipate for effort (and therefore what I’m asking for a retainer)

Having laid that out for them, it’s really time to shut up. I’ve struggled in this area for two reasons: I sometimes enjoy the sound of my own brilliance a bit too much, and the client does not have an incentive for me to shut up, as long as what I’m saying seems helpful to them.

But those three items as listed above are adequate. I don’t need to explain and keep discussing how I would do it. Instead, I need to be supplying concise testimonials on how I have done it for others.

* it is a principle of this more casual blog, as opposed to my more commercial site, that I will not look things like this up except in extreme situations.

** I actually have no idea how many tons of concrete it takes for a typical driveway job. But I was smart enough not to call it a cement truck.

*** I have no sisters, and I married an only child.