By Tom "Bald Dog" Varjan
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It's not a new discovery that the reason why so many technology projects fail is the lack of 100% commitment from buyers.
Why does it happen?
I believe one of the main reasons why this is happening is because technology companies are too busy serving their clients and too relaxed on reinforcing expectations laid out in the specifications of the engagement. And when I'm talking about reinforcing expectations, I mean reinforcing both what clients have to do and what the technology company has to do in order to successfully complete engagements.
And while all these expectations are clearly laid out in the Project Charter and the Project Scope documents, more often than not, extra attention must be paid to make 100% certain that they actually get executed in a timely manner.
It's normal human nature to look at a project task's time allotment and say, "Oh, piece of cake. I've got a whole week to do this." And six days later I realise I haven't even started.
I know because I used to operate that way.
And then I started university in 1992, everything changed. As a part-time student I was doing my course on day release basis. That is, I would go to school once a week from 8:00am to 8:00pm and at the end of the day I would go home with a bunch of new assignments. So, it was pretty intense. Right on the first day in school, I met Dean, Jeff and Ross, and we formed a little study group.
Dean and Ross were the type of guys who would jump on assignments right away. We would go home from school with a new assignment with a deadline one full month out, and within a week, Dean and Ross were doing the final touches. Jeff and I were still fiddling about getting started. So, we were forced to get our arses in gear to keep up with Dean and Ross. So, I established a new habit which I still follow. Whenever I get a new assignment, I jump on it like a hen on a ringworm, and get the donkeywork done as quickly as possible.
But let's take a quick look at the...
Serving clients is about giving clients what they want the way they want it. I reckon, you too have had clients who have told you something like this...
"Help us to produce better results but don't change anything."
They are like the dental patient who says to the dentist...
"Get rid of my toothache but don't ask me to open my gob."
However, reinforcing expectations is something completely different. It's like the difference between working towards client satisfaction or client success. They require two different approaches.
Client satisfaction comes from following a process that is familiar to clients, so they don't have to go out of their comfort zones. Basically the focus is on creating a warm and fuzzy feeling that creates emotional satisfaction in clients.
But my question is this: Does client satisfaction necessarily lead to client success?
Hardly ever. Client satisfaction comes from staying within the comfort zone. But staying there is the cause of the problem in the first place.
Every result is an outcome of certain decisions. And every decision is based on complex criteria, like values, internal politics and various systems. It's pretty idiosyncratic and it's different for every client.
And while client satisfaction can help us to create emotionally satisfied clients, when we look at the overall outcomes, we may not like what we see. And the problem is that when someone, like the clients' spouses ask them what they have to show for the investment they've made, they have nothing specific to show. Not even a sausage.
And when the warm and fuzzy feelings eventually diminish, clients are left high and dry in the same state they were before.
Let's think about the many companies, like Nordstrom, which is a "customer is always" right culture, and they can return anything for a full refund even if they didn't buy it at Nordstrom.
And while this approach may work in retail, although Harrods, the undisputed Aston Martin of the retail industry, doesn't do it, it definitely doesn't work in the world of technology. One of the reasons is that in most cases buyers are not technology experts. They do want the benefits of technology but don't understand the intricate details.
If you watch Scottish celebrity chef, Gordon Ramsay's programmes on TV, then you can see how many so-called chefs don't understand even the rudiments of quality cooking. For many of them the number one tool of the trade is the microwave oven. They may know that it's unhealthy and turns food into suspicious-looking lumps of crap, but they use it to produce more volume. They don't cook per se. They merely thaw up some pre-made and frozen food, heat it up in the microwave and sell it. Or try to sell it for most of these restaurants suffer from a serious lack of guests.
And when Gordon points out the obvious, these "chefs" start vehemently defending their own stupidity. Several of them have claimed to be culinary geniuses and call Gordon an idiot and a loser.
And Gordon has huge arguments with most of them. That is, he doesn't care about client satisfaction. He goes for client success. And in order to create success, the process must be changed, which is inherently a painful thing. A process is based on habits and routines. To change the process, people have to change their thinking, and their habits and routines. And that's bloody hard.
Very often technology companies believe they get hired only for their technical expertise. And no doubt, this is partially true. But in the nipple-piercingly incredible maze of technological advancements clients can get lost before they can say Jack Robinson. This is why it's a problem to go for client satisfaction. In that scenario clients tell technology experts what they want, and the technology experts just give it to them.
And you can't blame technology companies. This is what sales trainers all over the world teach their seminar attendees...
"Find out what clients want and give it to them."
But I believe that's the wrong approach.
Really and truly we should give clients what they need, based on a collaborative diagnosis. What clients want is usually based on the symptom they are experiencing. They believe it because they're emotionally connected to their businesses and therefore tend to jump to conclusions too quickly.
It's like many wives when their husbands do overtime. Husband comes home a tad late, the wife assumes that he has an affair and she starts throwing a tantrum. And in these situations the emotions overrule the intellect. She can't think reasonably because her emotions are running on steroids and are destroying every shred of reasonable thought in their paths. Or it happens the other way round.
And this emotional state that makes service providers to believe that clients need satisfaction, yet another emotional state.
I've recently written a bio for the CEO of an engineering company. It was based on another bio I wrote about a year ago for another CEO whose company, as a result of the bio, received a very nice Wall Street Journal coverage and has already made millions in new sales, not to mention the free publicity.
When I write I bio, I know what to include and in what order to create the perception of credibility. Yet, the engineering CEO looked at the bio and said he didn't like it. He was evaluating the bio based on his own emotional state and totally didn't care about the perception the bio would create. It took me a bit of explanation to clarify to him how his market evaluates his firm's credibility and capabilities based on the bio. Eventually, he gave in, and the bio worked out rather nicely.
So, we have to find clients who are after success not satisfaction. They can get satisfaction from their spouses in the bedroom. But between clients and service providers it must be success, but there is a problem here...
And this is what makes the difference between blazingly successful technology companies and the also runs. The successful companies have ideal client profiles and don't accept clients who don't fall into that profile.
Also runs are happy to have clients. And any client is good enough. As long as they can keep themselves busy, it's great business.
The other part is the collaboration bit. It's like the collaboration between doctors and their patients. They are equals in the equation of healing, but it's the doctor who "leads the dance". Patients have the micro view of their issues and doctors have the macro view.
What that means is that patients are far too close to consider all the underlying issues of their illnesses. They are too focused on the body part in pain. Just think of lower back pain. The location of pain is the lower back, but the origination of the pain is the thighs and the cause is tight hamstring muscles. But the tight hamstring muscles are caused by extensive wearing of very high-heeled shoes.
But with lower back pain most people go to their chiropractors who adjust their spines and then throw up their arms, "I have no idea what causes it."
The collaboration means that patients reveal the full context of their issues to their doctors, so they can jointly diagnose the situation based on 360 degree information. And also note that while the diagnosis is done jointly, it's the doctors who lead the process.
And if patients refuse to participate in the diagnostic process, then good doctors throw them out of their clinics. Only mediocre doctors tolerate that behaviour.
While I was living in the UK, a new law was introduced for the National Health Service. Doctors whose instructions their patients didn't follow, had the right to deny the treatment of these patients. For instance, Fred goes to the doctor and the doc says, "Fred, you have to quit smoking because you're running the risk of lung cancer."
If six months later Fred comes back for more treatment, but he still smokes, his doctor has the right to kick him out and red flag his file "This patient refuses to follow the doctor's instructions, and is likely to become an unnecessary and significant burden on the healthcare system and society. Obviously he's a moron, and no one should touch him even with a 10-foot pole."
And Fred will die in a ditch because no one will treat him.
Is that right or wrong? I think it is right. Some people cannot be helped, so no money should be wasted on trying to help them. We can help only those people who are willing to help themselves.
Of course, first we have to remind clients that they hired us for a specific reason in the first place, but if they feel they know it better, then we can just pack up and bugger off into the sunset.
There are people out there who resist being held accountable to certain expectations, but they usually are the losers. Their performance is so low that they are scared shitless to be reminded how useless they are. So, they say they just go with the flow and work the way they feel like.
And when we hold others accountable to certain expectations, we express that we care about them. We see in them what they don't, and we want to bring out those capabilities. So, it's not about punishing or micromanaging people. It's about helping people to step up to a higher level of performance and overall existence.
And this accountability thing must be a healthy cocktail of nurture and "torture". The nurture of a caring parent and the torture of a hard-arse son of a bitch who keeps demanding more and more from us. As we increase our expectations of clients, they step up higher and higher, and in turn they improve their performance. Well, the smart one. The dumb ones will start complaining and demand that you relax your standards. But one of the reasons we've got hired is to plant and nurture the seeds of excellence in clients, so then it can grow and achieve amazing results both in their personal and professional lives.
All I ask you is to look at the people who've had the greatest positive impact on your life. What is the source of the impact? Is it sweet-talk or rah-rah type psyche-up? I doubt it. It is most probably incredible demands inflicted on the members of the project team in the form of shrunk deadlines, a couple of all-nighters and a few work-till-you-drop sessions.
And just as coal turns into diamond under heat and pressure, coal-grade performance turns into diamond-grade performance under the heat and pressure of previously not experienced levels of expectation, accountability, discipline and commitments.
And this is how we help our clients to grow.
Regardless of what we're selling, be it technology, second-hand coffins or horse-drawn air balloons, one significant way of improving our clients' condition, and the biggest improvement we can achieve, is that as a result of working with us, they have acquired a new mindset that helps them to perceive their worlds at a higher level thinking, and in doing so they can fulfil their missions in their businesses and fulfil their deepest values in their lives.
The "How" includes both the business development and the project management processes.
The way you are perceived depends on how you acquire new clients. If you chase them and hunt them down using cold-prospecting drudgery, then you're likely to be perceived as a dreaded peddler desperately hungry for the next deal. And yes, you can have clients if you offer your arms and legs in the deal, and do so for peanuts. You'll be facing endless haggling sessions from lowlife bottom feeders and bargain-hunters.
Instead of chasing, we attract prospects with the value of the content we put out, and prospects can self-qualify themselves through a largely automated qualification process. We don't even talk to prospects until they pass a certain stage of the qualification process.
This goes against the traditional approach of investing 100 plus hours to write proposals for suspects who've casually mentioned, "Hm. That sounds interesting!"
And this mindset is not about presenting and closing the sale but diagnosing the situation and establishing whether or not there is a business case for prospects to change. Every purchase is a change initiative, and there must be a demonstrable ROI prospects expect from the change effort. There is no point in changing just for the sake of changing.
So, sellers have to start establishing expectations to their prospects from the first minute of the very first meeting. I personally prefer to skip the whole rapport-building process and let my diagnostic process establish my credibility.
I tell prospects that the way the meeting goes is that I'm facilitating a joint diagnosis for the decision-making team, and together we establish whether to go ahead or go home.
And if prospects make a fuss about my questions or process, I tell them that I have a reason for asking these questions, but if they don't like them, then it's over and we all go home.
One of the recent issues of the Consultant's Tip of the Day, published by US Institution of Management Consultants, contained this statement:
"The dominant value of management consulting services is in diagnosis, not necessarily in implementation services."
And the same applies to technology services. Let's face it, anyone can do the muscle work your work is involved. What they can't do is the brain work. What they can't do is the diagnosis, and developing a solution based on the diagnosis.
But you can't do it either. That is, not alone. You can do it only with prospects. But just like a doctor it's you who facilitates the diagnosis. And after the diagnosis, it's up to them what they do. You just have to make sure you get paid for the diagnosis.
This is where buyers and sellers must be on the same page, so they are not accountable to each other, but to certain documents they jointly develop.
Then later on every piece of misunderstanding is referred to the document, so all team members can be kept on track.
Merely serving clients really means is that we do what they tell us to do. And this is far too often something they could do for themselves.
"Don´t ever do nothing for nobody that they can do for themselves." ~ Saul Alinsky´s Iron Law for consultants
Alinsky, a master political agitator, tactical planner and all round American Radical, is regarded as the father of community organising.
Why don't they do it then?
Because there is no one tightening the noose of accountability around their necks. Clients often expect miracles from their technology providers but fail to realise that they should be part of that miracle too. As ultimate decision makers only clients can materialise these miracles.
And with this point we've arrived at a crucial junction. It's about firing clients that fail to keep up with the agreement they've entered into with your company.
Sometimes clients may complain:
Client: "You're like a slave driver. You should let up a bit because I have other, even more important, priorities too."
Technology provider: "I'm doing this to achieve what we set out in our agreement to achieve. You've hired me to help you to diagnose your current situation, so we can identify the bottlenecks and create an action plan to remove these bottlenecks and improve your situation.
And this will allow you to better achieve your business goals, which include becoming a market leader in your industry, increase your profit margins by 15-25%, and become the default go-to company for the premium segment of your target market.
So, let's discuss your commitments and accountabilities to make sure we're on the same page.
You pay us to create a condition that brings forth your desired improvements. And this can't happen unless we implement the action plan we've created."
Client: "What happens if we fall back and miss some deadlines?"
Technology provider: "That's not a problem as long as you notify me ASAP, so we can adjust time frames and expectations. Just make sure it doesn't happen often and you notify us.
Just think about it. What would you do if we fell into the same habit?"
Client: "We would end the contract, fire your arse and hire someone else."
Technology provider: "Well, in all fairness, we would do exactly the same if you didn't perform as per our agreement. We can't afford to tarnish our reputation with uncommitted clients. And we definitely don't want to waste your time."
Uncommitted Client: "How dare you? Who do you think you are. I pay you and you do as I say. You'd better remember who calls the shots here."
This loser is to be fired on the spot.
Committed Client: "Fair enough. Thanks for the reminder. Let's keep going."
This is a real client.
Many technology companies feel uneasy about holding their clients accountable during the change process of their projects. However, it's vital. One of the reasons clients hire you is to demonstrate leadership during the change initiative. One part of this leadership is to hold clients' hands to make sure they don't stumble and fall too hard and to keep the fire under clients' feet and arses to make sure they get things done and move forward according to the action plan you've jointly developed.
So, that's all really about switching from plain, pedestrian, garden-variety service to expectation and accountability reinforcement.
Attribution: "This article was written by Tom "Bald Dog" Varjan who helps privately held information technology companies to develop high leverage client acquisition systems and business development teams in order to sell their products and services to premium clients at premium fees and prices. Visit Tom's website at http://www.varjan.com.
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