Tuesday, May 22, 2012

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All of us are consultants in a sense. We offer and apply our expertise to others in hopes of making a connection and receiving some form of compensation. This is the fundamental principal of networking. We have something to sell that someone else needs. Whether we call ourselves consultants, independent contractors, suppliers, vendors, or partners, we contract our services to another entity as a "non-employee" expert.

This is an important distinction as it tangibly defines the working relationship. A consultant is not an employee of his client even though the work may be vital and approach full-time levels. An employee has certain structures and rights that a consultant does not - steady paycheck at regular intervals, access to an HR department (or due process), protective labor laws, work environment and tools, and a platform for regular and steady open dialogue with the employer.

Further, the IRS applies a test that measures three areas - behavioral control, financial control, and the relationships of the parties - to define a contractor from an employee to ensure the engagement is not an attempt of the client to avoid payroll taxes.One key IRS point focuses on how the contractor is supervised. In general, the client has limited say in how, when, and where the contractor delivers the service. This creates a greater formality and distance between consultant and client. The consultant is never quite a full member of the family.

Breaching the formality (to close the distance) is a line in the sand that most consultants do not cross. On our side of the line, we offer and promise, and, repeat the mantra "no problem," as our client asks for more. Yet, we are afraid to speak up for ourselves, our needs and expectations. We fear we are totally at the whim of our client.

The frustration of not openly communicating can grow to an unbearable point, yet the consultant will remain silent, fearful of damaging the relationship if he speaks up.

Over the years, I have talked to and listened to the frustrations of hundreds of consultants in my network - consultants that work in many industries and deliver many different services to their customers. Keep in mind most contractors love their work. There are not really complaining. They understand much of drama goes with the territory.

Also, keep in mind that no client engages a consultant with the intent to abuse, confuse, and flummox. Clients, at worst, recognize their need for specialized help but don't know how to skillfully engage and manage the resource.

Having spent many years as an executive who hired consultants, I can see how my behavior may have caused some frustration. I didn't always look out for my contractors and their needs the way I should have. I'd stick the invoice in the A/P "pay in 30 days" basket without a thought as to urgency. But I've seen the light! Consultants are special. With a little more thought, I could have easily made their engagement less frantic.

So, pressure builds and consultants vent to themselves with imaginary dialogues with their clients. Ever wonder what consultants wish they could say to their clients but don't? Here are a few silent screams:

o Measure my fee by the value I provide. Don't tell me my rates are too high or you'd love to use me but you think I'm too expensive. I'm running a business and I have to manage it like you manage yours. I have overhead, rent, equipment to purchase and maintain, expenses like healthcare premiums, and self-employment taxes. Plus, I use my profit to live on.

o Please pay me at the times we agreed upon. When you pay late, it can cause personal problems for me. I really can't wait 30 days or more after a project concludes for my payment.

o You are an absolute priority for me but sometimes I cannot be available as I attempt to be all things, to all people, at all times. Remember this when I agree with a smile in my voice to schedule our weekly call on Sunday evenings at 10:00 pm after you've put your kids to bed.

o Let's define the scope of work you want me to do. I understand the need to be flexible, agile, and roll with the punches, but a direct relationship exists among scope, time, and fees. When you add to my workload I have to invest more time. Understand, I do want all of your business that I can manage, but I may have to charge more if I take on additional work.

o Let's agree what success looks like for me . . . and for you. If we agree to expectations and goals, I will have a clear target to exceed.

o Know how to use me before you hire me. Be available to me. We're in this together. Don't engage me and fade away leaving me to wonder if I've disappointed you.

o Don't be offended if I put our agreement in writing. While I believe in the strength and the integrity of the handshake, as time goes by, the detail of what each of us agreed to may fade.

o You're asking me to reduce my profit? When you read my proposal you asked for a reduction in price but weren't willing to reduce the scope of the project. Same work for less money. The profit margin is what I use to make my house payments, buy groceries for my family, gasoline, clothing, and pay college tuition.

o I'm in the service business, but I'm not a servant. I am as expert in my fields as you are in yours. Engage me for my expertise because you are convinced I have something you need.

o Have the courage say "No." When I'm pitching your business and I get "buy" signs, I will show my eagerness to get started. I'll float new ideas to you. Generate work product to show value. When you suddenly stop answering the phone, I feel used.

o Let me do the work you hired me to do. Empower me with your team. Don't put me in a position where I have to defend my services to your team and fight for implementation or to be heard.

o Don't hire me for my expertise and tell me why everything I propose won't work. You wanted "fresh eyes" and my advantage is I'm not bogged down in the weeds of inertia. I'm not politically paralyzed. I can see the forest and the trees! At the same time!

o Don't withhold information from me during an RFP. I'm a newcomer to your business and to really develop a strong proposal that will benefit you, I need your help. Don't get so hung up on supposed "fair bidding practices" that you forget we are all bidding for the chance to make your business better. I can't offer you the full impact of my expertise without specific and complete information. Information makes me strong. You want me strong. This isn't a game. RFPs should never be about "I want to see what you come with." Two weeks after you award me your business and I'm into the project, I'll be a lot smarter. You'll see me work my magic and be glad you hired me. Until that point, bury me with information to make my proposal stronger.

o Give me a shot at something small but tangible to start a relationship. If you have an incumbent supplier you like - good for you and good for them! I fully understand you've invested intellectual capital in that relationship and are hesitant to start over. And they must be doing something right. But, someday, you'll want a fresh approach or your supplier may not have capacity or availability for something you need done. Invest in me for tomorrow and I'll be waiting in the wings without need of a ramp-up.

o Understand my value as well as my price. Someone who always say they can do it cheaper. Look beyond price to my reputation, to my satisfied clients, to my position in the industry. Factor your risk. Cheap is cheaper but seldom better.

o I'm in this business because I want to be. I believe in you and your business or I wouldn't be pitching you. I'm defined, in part, by the status of the clients I serve. I'm proud to be working with you. I genuinely feel I can make a difference in your business and I will do anything to become indispensable to you. So, run to me. Open up to me. Embarrass me with your praise when I astound you. Because, together we can do amazing things.

Great business is based on relationships characterized by moments of inspiration and moments of despair. Relationship implies a personal as well as professional connection, emphasis on connection. It is important for both Contractor and Client to hear what's spoken as well as to sense what's not being said.

To thrive in a business juncture, we must develop a connection of trust, openness, and respect, understanding that as humans we often don't say what we feel. Yet, it is this trait of feeling that differentiates us and makes us vibrant in the business world.

Feeling makes us care. Caring makes us passionate. Harness that energy and you can accomplish anything. Think of the power we could generate if each of us was open and truthful to each other as we leveraged our combined passions, because, need I remind you . . . it all starts with us!

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