Friday, January 06, 2006

Don't Fire the Messenger

Recently I had a conversation with a prospective client in which it became apparent that a sales engineer had given them bad advice. It fell to me to explain the shortcomings of the SE’s recommendations, as gently as possible, to an IT manager who had only a very short time frame to impelement a large, customized SharePoint solution. He didn’t take it very well, so needless to say, I don’t think I’ll be getting the engagement.

I see this happen quite frequently and it always ends up with the consultant being the bad guy. I hate to break this to the world at large but SE’s aren’t always right; in fact, I used to be an SE and I’ll admit to being wrong on several occasions. The problem with the Account Manager/SE arrangement is that the two primary contacts the end user is engaged with have little, if any, real-world field experience. Their job is to sell licenses and be generalists; they have neither the time nor the motivation to be specialists with in-depth product knowledge gained by sweating it out in the trenches. I can tell you first hand that most SE’s work with the products they promote only in lab environments and have very little time for problem solving or immersive knowledge. I humbly admit to getting much of my knowledge during my SE days from product documentation and lab trials; I know for a fact that this is how it’s usually done.

Before all my SE friends flame me to death, understand that I’m not pointing fingers; it’s not your job to know this stuff, it’s my job - that’s why you sell the product and I make it sing and dance. Unfortunately, the client takes the SE’s words as gospel. On those rare occassions where the SE gets it wrong, I’m in a no-win situation - I have to tell the client that the solution is not going to work. There is no way to overcome the client’s response of “Well, that’s how Microsoft/Oracle/Cisco/IBM/Whomever said to do it” unless you have a long-standing relationship with that client. I can’t afford to nod my head and go along with it just to get the gig – not only will it destroy my credibility with the client and eliminate any chance to do business with them again, it also means that I won’t be able to use that project as a reference (and we consultants live and die by our references).

So if you’re a consultant caught in a similar situation, what do you do? In my mind, there’s no question. You politely and respectfully tell the client why, based on your experience and knowledge, you think what they’ve been told is wrong. You also preface it by saying that you yourself may be wrong and there’s only one way to find out for sure - test the recommendations to see if they work. But you can’t dance around the subject or equivocate; doing so will eventually end your consulting career. You probably won’t get the assignment, but you will have a clear conscience and, when the client does try to implement the misguided suggestions and fails, your stock will go way, way up (no, they won’t call you in to fix it, but they might call you for the next project - just be sure to avoid the irresistable urge to say “I told you so”).