Don't Tip Your Hand (and other project fallacies)

Written By Jason VanLue
Posted on

Working with new clients can feel a lot like a high-stakes poker game. Sunglasses on, each sitting at one end of the table, let's take a quick peek at our cards, but make sure they don't see. Straight-faced, stoic, giving nothing away, the last thing we want is to tip our hand. We can't let them know what we hold, and we know they think the same thing. The flop, then the turn, finally the river, the victor rakes in the chips and the loser shrinks to a corner.

Too often, consulting projects work the same way. It's an awkward dance of sharing just enough information that neither party gets burned, and hopefully we somehow end up with a successful outcome. But that's no way to work together.

I've been in client services for over 14 years, and one of the most important lessons I've learned is that I'm not in the web development business — I'm in the fear alleviation business. Our clients come to us with a bag full of fears. And while our job is more than simply helping our clients feel better, it is certainly not less.

We are in the fear alleviation business.

We shouldn't be surprised at our clients' fears. This could be the biggest project they've ever managed, their job could be on the line, they might be spending a lot of personal money, or they've been burned badly before. One of the most valuable (and sadly, under-utilized) skills we can bring to any project is empathy. Empathy requires both a knowledge of what our client is feeling, and a visceral connection to why those feelings matter. It's both a "what," and a "why."

Last year our family bought a new house, and spent 5 months renovating it. I thought I would be exchanging dollars for things like drywall, plumbing, and new floors. And to be fair, I exchanged quite a lot of dollars for those things, but it didn't take long for me to realize that I was not ultimately paying my contractor for the work — I was paying him and his crew for peace of mind.

Empathy requires a "what" and a "why."

I want to know that my money is well spent, that I won't have to fix the sub-floor in 5 years, that by moving the master bedroom downstairs we add value, and that we made good decisions. That was my fear — that by not knowing what I don't know, I'd make poor decisions, and have a lot of regrets. My wife's fear was that the work wouldn't be done properly, and we'd be wasting money. The point is we came to the project with fears, and our contractor's role was to understand those fears, mitigate those fears, and get the job done.

Here are some common fears that clients have expressed to us over the years, and how we work to alleviate them:

Fear: That they'll be screwed over

Alleviation: At the beginning of the project, ask your client what they will consider a success, and what they will consider a failure. Address each failure head-on with how you've mitigated it in past projects, how you'd mitigate it if it happened in this project, and/or provide a guarantee of your work. For example, my contractor guaranteed that if I ever had an issue with my floor, he'd come back and replace it...whether it be in one year or ten.

Fear: That they'll lose money

Alleviation: Clients will often say they fear "losing" money, but in reality what they are saying is that they don't want to be surprised. If you've accurately quoted the project, your quote is the number your clients will keep in mind — so if that number changes, and especially if there are "hidden" costs, clients will feel like they're "losing" money. Prevent this by improving your estimating skills, and more importantly, have a transparent process for how change orders will happen. Explain all of this in detail before any work begins.

Fear: That they'll lose time

Alleviation: Like money, clients don't really "lose" time. Usually, this fear falls into two camps: if the project is delayed they either have opportunity cost challenges (e.g. they miss out on potential revenue), or internal pressures (e.g. they miss a big event, or they miss a boss's deadline). The former is usually solved through a transparent process and open communication, as opportunity cost can be rather fluid. For the latter, it is vitally important that any internal pressures be identified before the work begins — hard deadlines and budget ceilings are the two most important constraints to identify at the beginning of any project.

Fear: The fear of missing out

Alleviation: I resonate with this fear, because I experienced it in our house project. I'm a 3 on the Enneagram which means I fear making wrong decisions which leads to regret. This fear corresponds with the fear of failure, which means the solution is similar — talk about it. You have experiences and expertise that your clients do not, and when presented professionally you can shine a light on potential failures, and explain how you'll fix them.

Fear: Lack of knowledge

Alleviation: It's human nature to fear what we don't know. Most clients will not understand the intricacies of web or software development, and that's okay. I don't touch plumbing or electrical stuff, because I like staying alive. But that means there's the potential for insecurity when I talk to a plumber or an electrician. We are educators just as much (if not more) as we are engineers. It's important that we come to each project with a humble expertise.

Fear: Previous baggage

Alleviation: You might be a therapist. The chances that your client was burned by a previous consultant is high. That means they'll approach the project with all sorts of baggage that can be toxic to your relationship if not addressed head on. This isn't a time to bash their previous consultants, but it is a time to let them know that you are a professional and unprofessional behavior has no place in your work. You can empathize from a position of humble strength, providing a therapeutic experience that often makes them a client for life.

Fear: Internal / Self-Imposed Pressures

Alleviation: These can run the gambit from overbearing bosses to personal insecurities, but the reality is your clients will feel pressure from somewhere. The solution follows a similar pattern of identification and empathy. As is often the case, fear shies away from light, so shine some light on it. Identify those pressures, and talk about how your experience, expertise, and process can help mitigate them.

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It comes down to a shift in our perspective. New clients, by nature, will have some sort of defensiveness they bring to the table. They think they can't tip their hand. If we approach projects with what we can "get," rather than what we can "give," we feed this defensive posture. The reality is, we can tip our hands. We can be honest, transparent, and kind. And the result will be a much more open game, which is more fun to play.

Our clients are human, just like we are. Our projects and relationships don't happen in a vacuum. The more we recognize the humanness of our work, and double down on kindness, the more effective and enjoyable our work will be.

What are some common fears your clients have expressed to you? Let's chat about it on Twitter