Friday, February 4, 2011

Networking With Consultants: The Sound of One Hand Clapping

Online platforms have been good to me in regards to networking. I am not where I want to be in my career yet, but I get the impression that when I do get there, it will have a lot to do with the relationships I built starting online, as opposed to the ones in person.

Such platforms, despite their pitfalls are valuable to me because they eliminate all the bullshit. (And no matter what anybody tells you, 80% of traditional networking is nothing but bullshitting, end of story.) If I see a blog post I like, I leave a comment on it. It's self contained and obvious what the blog is about, and it is clear that the author is expecting people to approach them about it. They respond to my wonderfully specific initial contact, and in many cases, instant new network connections result. I can right away start opening up my highly inquisitive mind and ask all sort of questions about what they do, who they are, how they arrived at their opinion. Right to Final Jeopardy without the pointless cocktail party small talk for warm up.

But when it comes to learning about specific topics and discussing the nature of one's field, there are certain types that are very difficult for me to engage online or offline. One such group that often puts up barriers to my preferred method of exploring a new relationship are consultants. To be more specific, consultants in such categories as social media, public relations, marketing, and other mostly intangible fields.

What follows is a professional, not a personal assessment. It has nothing to do with how wonderful a person you may be if you are a consultant. But I do continue to hit a snag professionally whenever I try to get to know one. Try to network with them, as it were.

The difficulty I have with establishing a relationship with these people is that one can't really explore the nature of their work, aside from the basics. They can talk about previous accomplishments, and perhaps show me a portfolio of their work which I suppose is sort of okay. It tends to get boring after a while, though, as I like to talk to people not resumes. But many consultants passed a certain point won't discuss ideas or brainstorm with you because they "don't work for free." Given the nature of their work this barricade is often thrown up even in social situations that would otherwise be unconnected with career advancement. It is an understandable but very unfortunate defense mechanism that consultants throw up, which tends to discourage people like me.

And therein lies the problem with networking, or sometimes even socializing with consultants. Unlike other occupations, they have to place a limit on how many questions they can answer about what they do. What is worse, they have to place a serious cap on answering questions pertaining to what they would do in any given situation. And that type of conversational limitation can really dump cool water on a developing idea exchange with me, because I love asking people, "if this happened, how would you handle it in your position?"

Not to mention it tends to sound the slightest bit smug when somebody says, "I can't offer anymore on that unless you pay me," during a conversation. Fair as it may be to one's personal bottom line, taking this position is going to sound unfriendly and rude to a lot of people.

I'll illustrate my frustrations.

Let's say I encounter a nature photographer on Twitter. I can ask her what sort of camera she uses. The type of photos she takes. She can actually show me some of her pictures. I can ask her, without feeling under threat of taking food out of her mouth, "I always have a hard time taking pictures of moving objects, what shutter speed do you suggest?" Matters of her art, her science skills, how she picks subjects, what she would do in that tasty hypothetical situation I mentioned. The answers to these questions often determine how interested I am in establishing a relationship. And unless she has other reasons, she is perfectly at liberty to answer all of them. Because she is paid to take photographs, not to talk about photography. Ergo, by talking about what she does, and what she can do, she isn't robbing herself. She and I can feel free to brainstorm about taking pictures. (And if she reciprocates, I can brainstorm with her about, say, writing a novel.)

Ask that same set of questions to an internet marketing consultant. The conversation would be much shorter. Because they are paid to brainstorm. They make money by assessing a situation and coming up with solutions. The exploration of photography I had with the photographer would be something for which I would have to be charged by the hour with the marketing consultant. That is because the exploration of the ideas is the very thing for which the consultant gets paid. And whether I opt to pay the consultant for her hour's worth of suggestions and ideas, or if I opt to bid them good day and discontinue the conversation, I'm bound to feel let down by the whole experience.

"You'd never ask your photography friend to take pictures for your magazine for free would you? So why the hell should I as a consultant offer my services for free? Answer me that, Mr. XYZ Guy."

Okay, here is your answer. No, I wouldn't ask a photographer to take pictures for free. And I wouldn't expect a consultant to work for free either. The issue isn't the legitimacy of charging people. I could charge people for the right to shake my hand. There is nothing stopping me. But it would certainly put a damper on my social life.

The difference between the photographer and the consultant is I am free to explore the expertise of the photographer through the most basic of human functions; by speaking to them. And by being directly exposed to the artistry, the acumen, the aspirations and advice of the photographer, even if I don't have a prayer of matching her in skill and accomplishment, I am improved. Inspired. With a consultant, I am warned I may be on the clock. Makes it tricky.

Look, many consultants do great work. Like any profession, kind, generous, helpful, brilliant people consult for a living. And they naturally have passions outside of their chosen field. People are more than what they do for a living. God knows I shout that truth every chance I get. But in professional as opposed to the personal arena, where our toehold is often established through conversation about our contributions and why we make them, I think consultants are at a bit of a disadvantage. They are when it comes tome, anyway.

Maybe if they eased up somewhat on what they will and won't talk about off of the clock. In order to network effectively they may have to actually give away some of their products and services for free during the course of regular conversation. After all, to an extent even the photographer does so. I may not own the photo, but once I see it, it's in my mind and in my heart wherever I go. If photographers attempted to charge for every time that happened, they'd be out of business.


Kachina said...

I agree with the concern of this post. To be honest if, as you notice, consultants in general make it difficult to form valuable relationships online or offline, I wouldn't focus my networking efforts on them. Since I can get similar or more valuable information from other professionals, it's the consultants' loss not mine.

Seeking to become a consultant (in urban sustainability) and a part-time coach (in networking and career development for graduates), I am interested how to resolve the financial dilemma. I believe in giving away advice for free as often as possible, in person or in public online spaces such as a blog or newsletter. This is a way for someone to test out your philosophy, your credentials and your persona, to decide if they would be a good match as a client.

In that case the clients come in if the quality of the content is good enough. When a coach or consultants' client base grows to the extent that they have a waiting list of requests and huge demands on their time for advice, they may choose to provide limited feedback. And this is fair. There simply aren't enough hours in the day. More importantly, there are only so many clients that one person can focus on. In essence, you aren't paying a consultant for their time, you're paying them for their attention.

As long as a consultant provides some free content, either through generalized articles posted to a blog, or offering solutions to consultant questions but not going into the details of implementation, this should benefit everyone involved. You get free information, the consultant gets clients that will benefit the most from their time.

You say you can pay a painter for their art and that allows you to converse with them for free, but imagine talking with an artist all day or asking them to teach you to paint. At some point everyone is allowed the choice to cut short those activities that drain their energy from the tasks that support them.

Jamie Nacht Farrell said...

I love the distrinction you make between traditional and online. You say 80% of traditional is BS, I say it’s probably more like 95%. It’s also so surface. In traditional networking, others are not only influenced by things like “what someone is wearing” or “who else they’re speaking with”, but things psychological idioms like “group think” can also have a massive impact on how someone treats someone else.
I think your point about consultants, while a bit general, is dead on for the majority. In my opinion, one of the reasons people may become consultants is because they don’t have enough of that “personal” or “real” side to them; they are good at cutting a deal / getting a client, solving a problem or launching a project, and then they’re out. They don’t take the time to really get to know or personally involved with the people they are working with. For me, I became a consultant for the opposite reason. I became too personally involved with people at work; there was no separation. I wanted to learn to detatch more from the ‘people’ and the ‘mission’. It’s been a bit over a year and while work has been fun and exciting and I’ve met a ton of great executives, I’ve also learned that one of the things that made me successful was my love of people; passion for colleagues and the mission.
Perhaps I’m a bit different because I do work for free; and many people may say, “to my detriment”, but that’s not how I view things. I won’t do something for nothing, but my ‘reward’ may not always be monetary. If I see a project I love or find a person I want to learn from, I work with them; the reward for me is simply the personal growth or learning. In some instances, the reward may come down the road in the form of a different project. It’s a hard balance as there are numerous projects I would love to work on for free, but unfortunately – time IS money when you’re a consultant, so…have to find a balance.
If a consultant ever said to me, “"I can't offer anymore on that unless you pay me,", I would know immediately they are NOT my ‘type’ of person; as my type of person appreciates the learning and growth that comes from working with others and building relationships. I don’t think that’s the way to build a relationship. Now, simply not having the time I can understand, but the consultant should be honest, “I’m swamped right now – can we put this conversation on hold” – that’s my feeling.

Conor Neill said...

I was a consultant (at Accenture) for 8 years. I am now an entrepreneur and a professor at IESE Business School in Barcelona. I saw this post via a tweet from Jamie Farrell.

As a teacher at a business school I get a lot of requests for "lunch" or "coffee" from students wanting to speak about their careers, their business ideas, their problems... I have been teaching for 7 years now and have never found the right balance between saying yes to everybody (and having no time to work on stuff that is important to me like writing posts, comments, articles, books) and no to some or no to everybody.

I assume that a certain amount of coffees is "part of my role" but have a real difficulty identifying the criteria to use to decide when to say yes and when to say no. For a while I had an office 20kms from the business school so I would say "wonderful, I would love to meet - I am free this Friday at 7am 20kms from here" and this was a powerful filter for those who really were going to use the time valuably vs those who were just lost and looking to feel better about themselves. If someone said yes, I would then say "look, I am here on campus next week and we can catch up for lunch".

I don't know what is the right answer. I definitely wouldn't use the answer "yes, and my fees are $100 for a 15 minute coffee" even though money is a real simple clarifier of what something is worth to somebody else - it just has a "dirty" connotation in this type of "transaction".

So... 8 years consulting, 7 years teaching... and I haven't got a simple answer from the consultant side. But I do have a simple answer from the human being side - I say yes to people who smile, who offer to help me first, to people who have already taken responsibility for the simple stuff, to people I can learn from - to these people I give all the support that I can.

Great post and an important philosophical item for any budding "consultant".

PS As a consultant I always wanted to work on leading edge stuff - not re-selling stuff done last year... so was always happy to give away last year's stuff to anyone who asked.

PPS I give away most of my business school material as well on my blog. Maybe I am just like Jamie - too generous to be a rich consultant, but maybe that is the route to be a fulfilled consultant?

Ty Unglebower said...

Thanks for your comments. I appreciate that there are consultants out there who are trying not to behave in this manner. And what I am getting from these replies is that being more open about the subjects at hand, with less "on the clock" time can be beneficial to building relationships. Especially if one seeks rewards beyond that of mere monetary compensation. I'm not a consultant, but I tend to agree with this sentiment.