Knowing when it's lose-lose

I’ve been a consultant for over five years now and I’m just beginning to learn some basic things. One of them is how to spot a lose-lose customer relationship. I say I’m just beginning because I continue to find new lose-lose scenarios that I don’t see coming.

If things are set up such that nobody can succeed, it’s best to walk away from the deal. With 1400+ customers now, you might think we haven’t walked away from many deals, but that’s not true. We are very careful to choose our customers. They don’t just choose us, we have to say yes in return. I used to be the sole sales person and even in the hungry early days I politely declined or referred a lot of people elsewhere.

Some interesting rules got written on the wiki, such as never do business with someone who confesses to being drunk. This applies also to people who’ve been up all weekend desperately changing things at random, drinking Red Bull, and can’t even remember what the original problem was or stop their minds spinning long enough to describe it clearly. I cut my losses and backed out of one such case, after essentially solving it and not billing for it, because I could see that I’d already lost, and was going to lose more and more badly the longer I stayed engaged. That person still posts online occasionally about what terrible service he got. Public criticism is another no-win situation: you can never take troll bait and come out ahead. (I’ve let myself be goaded into responding a couple of times. It’s hard not to do.)

Another of my rules is that anyone who insults one of your consultants is trouble. I remember someone who thought Vadim’s Ukrainian accent was another nationality I won’t mention, and demanded to talk to a senior person, not realizing who Vadim was at all. It would have been funny if it wasn’t so bigoted.

I remember a disputed invoice from someone who claimed that he couldn’t understand the consultant, who was European (and had successfully completed the work). The customer had a strong rural Southern accent, so I dropped back into just a little bit of my own native Southern accent to imitate him, and said “I know, it can be hard to understand a [nationality] accent.” The man immediately warmed up to me and confessed that “I’d, you know, I’d hoped someone from America would do the work, because, you know, well, I support our troops, you know what I mean?” Racism is racism, y’all.

Then there is the customer who hires you because he (or she) can’t deliver the results he’s supposed to for his business, but has insisted internally that his approach is the only right one. He’s painted himself into a corner, with no way to save face, and now he’s looking to make you the scapegoat. If you give him the advice he actually needs, he’ll vilify you for not solving the problem he asked you to solve, because you’re making him look bad. If you figure out that this is happening, and agree with him, the project will fail and he’ll blame you then too. All he wants to do is get you to demonstrate that it’s not his fault he can’t satisfy his boss’s impossible demands.

Still another scenario is when you end up working with people who didn’t hire you and who don’t buy into your consulting at all. They may resent the boss bringing in the outside help because it implies that they’re incompetent, for example. Or you may have the support of the technical staff, but not buy-in from the upper management. I remember one instance when the administrative staff simply kept changing the access credentials. By the time we got access again, all of the systems we’d been working on were gone and replaced by new systems, and the landscape was completely different, but nobody would tell us what the new situation was because they were too busy doing their “real” jobs, which didn’t include babysitting the consultants.

There are probably dozens of other war stories about situations that are set up to fail from the start. Some of them, in hindsight, could have been managed differently and ended up as customer love stories. But a consultant who can handle an extraordinarily difficult technical problem combined with a delicate interpersonal situation is a rare one indeed, and it’s hard to predict whether even the most skillful consultant can rescue a difficult situation.

For example, it’s sometimes possible, with great interpersonal skills, to win the trust of the technical staff in situations such as the “revolving door VPN access” customer. If you get a toe in the door, you may be able to demonstrate that you are helping their careers without taking any credit for it yourself, for example. The book The Trusted Advisor talks a lot about this type of personal relationship building. But this is a touch-and-go situation at best, and only the most talented and observant consultants in the best of circumstances are likely to succeed.

In the end, consulting is a personal relationship. Businesses don’t have relationships; people do. And you have to choose your business relationship partners carefully, just as you choose your friends and romantic partner. Developing the ability to spot a person or situation that’s stacking the deck against you can be a valuable asset. It’s much better never to enter a poisoned relationship than to have to leave one.

About The Author

Baron is the founder and CEO of VividCortex. He is the author of High Performance MySQL and many open-source tools for performance analysis, monitoring, and system administration. Baron contributes to various database communities such as Oracle, PostgreSQL, Redis and MongoDB.