Giving advice: If you were my brother ...

This is a page from my book, “A Survival Guide for New Consultants”

“The way is not difficult. 

Only there must be no wanting, 
or not-wanting.”

Chao-chou

Once you’ve become the high-paid, top-level consultant you desire to be, an important of your work comes down to giving advice. Once the big decisions have been made, there can also be a ton of detail work to be done -- but it all starts with the big decisions.

In the programming field, the big decisions are known “architecture.” For instance, is it better to use Java, Ruby, or a Microsoft or Oracle technology on our current project? How will we handle the massive amounts of data we’re looking at? How will we handle redundancy?

In the web design world, the big decisions are “How will we organize the site?”, “How will navigation work?”, “How do we incorporate the brand?”, and so on.

As mentioned, once these big decisions are made, there’s still a lot of work to be done, but as Mr. High-Paid Consultant, these are the decisions you’ll be involved in on a regular basis, so the question becomes, “How do you become worthy of making those decisions?”

“If you were my own brother ...”

Imagine this: You’ve just been promoted, and you’ve finally made it as a high-paid, top-level consultant. You finally get a chance to play with the big boys.

In your new role, you’ve been working hard on a particular problem, and you have three possible solutions to the problem, A, B, and C, and they’re all good solutions. How do you decide which one to recommend to your client?

In the first chapter of this book I wrote that you should be honest, and in this chapter on “giving advice,” I’ll take this a step further. I highly recommend that when you’re considering alternatives and trying to decide on the one right solution, you should consider the client as being your brother, sister, or best friend, and then imagine standing in front of your client and saying these words:

“Mr. Client, if you were my own brother, I’d recommend ...”

To be clear, I’m not saying you have to use these words when you introduce your solution; I’m saying that when you’re trying to decide between solutions A, B, and C for a particular problem, you should think of yourself as giving advice to your brother, sister, or best friend, someone you really care about, and then make your decision. If you then want to use these words in your presentation, that’s fine, they’re powerful words, but I also recommend not overusing them. If you use them once in a presentation to a specific client that’s fine, but if you use them in every presentation, they can easily become overused.

I’ve found that this way of thinking clarifies my own thought process, and it also helps me sleep at night. By thinking this way, I have complete empathy for my client, and as the words infer, I’m giving them the same advice I’d give if they were a family member.

Advice to my own family

Years ago, during the Christmas of 2008, I ran into a small situation like this with my own family. My nieces wanted (needed) a new computer for Christmas, but they wanted a Windows PC. By that time I had become a Mac user, and in fact I hadn’t used a Windows system at all for two years. Although my nieces thought they wanted a Windows system, I knew that Microsoft was in the middle of the Windows Vista debacle, and I felt in my heart that Mac OS X was a much better operating system than Windows. Also, because I knew I’d end up being the support guy, I felt like it was important that I gave them something I could support, so in the end I bought them an iMac from Apple.

After some initial skepticism at my decision, I’m glad to say that several years later, they’re very happy with the decision I made for them. (I ignored what they thought they wanted, and gave them what I thought was the best thing for them.)

Advice, not fact

Notice from this story that someone else -- maybe a Microsoft employee or Windows network administrator -- would have given their nieces a Windows PC. The point here is that there was no clear factual decision. It’s not as clear as having an infection and then having a doctor say, “Take this penicillin, and your problem will absolutely go away.” At the time of that decision, Microsoft owned something like 95% of the PC market, while Apple’s share was only 5%, so the majority of people in the world would have opposed my decision.

But because I used the two operating systems daily for several years (before finally giving up on Windows), I was in a situation to see what many others could not: In my opinion, Macs were much better than Windows computers at that time. What seemed like a scary decision to my sister and her nieces was an obvious decision to me, so I treated them exactly like what they were, my relatives and friends, and I made the decision for them: “I know you wanted a PC, but in my opinion that would be a mistake, so I bought you this Mac. In the words of Adrian Monk, you’ll thank me later.” (They did.)

Understand your client’s goals

There’s one other point to consider here: You can’t really understand “the best decision” for your client unless you completely understand their goals.

In the case of my nieces, I knew the most important point was that they needed a computer to do their homework on, and I knew the Mac would let them do that. Of course they also had secondary goals, such as being able to browse the internet and sync music with their iPods, and I knew the Mac would let them do these things as well. Finally, I also felt that if they used Windows PCs at school and a Mac at home, they’d be better off for that experience.

When there is no good (or obvious) solution

Somewhere around 98% of the time I can tell my clients what I think they should do, and I’m very confident when I make my decision. But every once in a while you run into a situation where there’s no easy answer.

For example, way back in the earliest days of the internet — 1994 or 1995 — I worked as a consultant to a telephone company who wanted to become an Internet Service Provider (ISP) as fast as possible. They asked us to have the entire system online in 90 days, but definitely no more than 120 days. So, working on their behalf, I ordered modems, servers, software, T1 lines, etc., everything needed to become an ISP.

Remembering that this was in 1994 or 1995 when we only had slow modems and most software was delivered on diskettes or CDs, a major problem involved the software the client wanted to provide to their customers. The client wanted to ship CDs to their customers in a manner similar to what AOL was doing, and we needed to find a way to install at least a web browser and email client to their customers that was preconfigured to use my client’s new internet service.

Netscape was an obvious choice as a web browser, but the problem was that Netscape didn’t offer an email client at this time. So in this 90-120 day window that we were working with, we had two choices:

  1. Provide the Netscape browser in combination with someone else’s email client. (I don’t remember the email client alternatives at that time.)
  2. Provide a “web browser + email suite” offered by someone else. I don’t remember their name, but it was a reputable company, but they didn’t have the marketing hype that Netscape had.

I put off this decision as long as possible, hoping that Netscape would release an email client while I waited, until the day came when the client said, “Al, we need an answer.” The correct answer was that there was no perfect solution to this problem. Netscape was saying that they would have an email client within six months to a year, but we needed an answer today.

I told the client that there was no great solution today, but I knew they needed an answer so they could start configuring and burning CDs, and therefore I’d have to recommend the integrated solution the other company was offering. This approach would give them the “bundle” they were looking for, and in theory, the setup and maintenance costs should be better.

I also told them that everything on the internet was changing very fast, and they’d probably want to revisit this decision within the next three months to a year. I told them this so they could have some negotiating leverage with this other company they would get the software from. (To show you what a difficult decision was, I can’t remember the name of this other company, but I do know that they are no longer in business.)

The important part of this process for me was being honest with the customer:

  • “Mr. Customer, there are no perfect solutions available right now. These are the two best choices I know. Based on your criteria, this is what I recommend on this date and time.”
  • “P.S. — I recommend keeping an eye on this situation, and revisiting the decision as soon as it becomes more clear.”

Thinking about this situation more than twenty years later, and knowing what I know about what this client wanted, even though that second company is no longer in business, I think I would have made the same decision. Having a bundled system they could offer their clients was extremely important to them. They wanted to do what AOL was doing — shipping CDs to everyone to get them to sign up to their service — so even though Netscape would be the dominant browser for the next few years (until they were wiped out by Microsoft’s Internet Explorer), this was the best decision I/we could make at that moment in time.

Summary

In summary, you should (a) know your client’s goals, (b) treat them as you’d treat your best friend, and (c) make your decision.

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