If you’re an entrepreneurial practitioner who’s trying like the dickens to find new clients while you hang on to the not-always-ideal cast of characters whose projects already put money in your pocket, you’ve probably seen more than your fair share of consultants’ websites, tweets, blog posts, articles, white papers, podcasts, conference calls, etc. The one thing all these consultants have in common is that they claim to be able to help people like you do a better job of avoiding going broke. That, and the possibility that all of them hail from some planet even the Hubble Telescope can’t see.
For a fee, they’ll listen to your questions, diagnose your workflow problems, tell you what not to do, and lord it over you when you don’t follow their advice.
Or at least that’s how it can seem sometimes.
If you’ve checked into what they offer, you’ve started to figure out that consultants come in all shapes and sizes, from single-person firms to bigger enterprises.
And we’ve seen the gamut they run. To save you time, we’ll share with you the handful of basic categories into which most of them fit. (Not that any of them would acknowledge the names we apply to them, but hey, they do what they do, and we do what we do. Which in our case is as little as possible.)
The Great Big Whizbangs
Reality check, Bad News Bear: You almost certainly can’t afford to hire one of these firms, which typically leverage the experience of someone who began as a solo practitioner and turned that pluralizing thing you do to fake people into thinking you’re bigger than you are into a real consultancy with more than one living body in the seats.
That “we” thing. You know. “Sure, we do that!” You’ve said that many a time.
Except they actually have a “we.” And they only deal with other real “we” people.
Which you’re not. Their idea of a “we” has enough employees to field a softball team. And cheer for it.
How can you tell they’re above your pay grade? Visit their websites and try to figure out how much their services cost. Once you have to dig down more than three page levels to find any actual dollar figures, the old adage “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it” applies in spades. Some of them only provide rates once they prequalify that they’ll actually work with you. Remember, they have offices with real overhead, along with expensive hobbies and international vacations to pay for.
Even so, most Whizbangs offer a combination of four things online at no charge, which is one of the two high-class, expensive versions of free, along with “complimentary.”
- An expression of their desire to help
- A prequalification that if you actually need them, as in can’t-pay-the-mortgage-without-increasing-my-cash-flow need them, you’re not their type of client
- A warning that you may not be savvy enough to recognize your real problems
- Some downloadable content. Sure, you have to fork over an e-mail address to get to the white papers, and most of the advice turns out not to apply to you because you’re not big enough and can’t afford to implement it, but you can read a bit and pretend you’re a Real Client. Besides, even these guys need to find new prospects, especially if they’re good at what they do, because then, their clients wouldn’t need them forever.
Think about that last one for a bit while you try to figure out who actually can afford to hire them.
Yes, it really is tempting to imagine that someday, you’ll be successful enough to have problems you can afford to pay one of these guys to help you solve. Kinda like the way aspiring novelists dream up rosters of A-list actors to play characters in the movie versions of the novels they can’t get up the nerve to start writing.
But realistically, if you’re a solo practitioner who adds “and Associates” onto the end of the firm name you invented to make yourself sound bigger than one person in a room somewhere, then becoming a client of a Great Big Whizbang is about as likely as finding an online configurator for Rolls-Royce Motor Cars and trying to decide whether you want burled walnut or oak inlays in the dashboard of that Silver Spur you’re pricing out.
Face it. These guys are out of your league. Besides, you might not like them very much if you could afford them. That’s sort of their point, come to think of it.
Prepare to be “held accountable.” After a while, you’ll begin to feel like a puppy that had an accident on the brand-new living room carpet because its owner wouldn’t let it go outside.
Part drill sergeant, part armchair psychologist, this consultant class is big on making clients “own” the failures that many small-scale practitioners make of their professional lives. (Who else wants to own your dang failure, anyway? Can you sell it online to the highest bidder? Does it come with a transferable lifetime warranty?)
Long on admonishment and short on charm, Authoritarians raise a virtual eyebrow at anything you say that doesn’t pass their undocumented smell tests. “Oh, really?” you’re asked when you try to explain yourself, right before you’re accused of making excuses. Whatever you did or didn’t do that they find evasive gets brushed away like lint. You probably had better luck getting a forged absence note past your high-school guidance counselor.
The problem is that you have a problem, and you want their help with your problem, especially since, after all, you are actually paying them. You don’t want to play a cross between 20 Questions and Be the Psychic. You don’t want to become a case study in the next white paper they write about their clients’ self-delusional thinking. You want someone to say, “Gee, that looks wrong, and here’s why.” Instead, they skip the “here’s why” part. At least they’re cheaper than an actual shrink.
As to online freebies: Authoritarians often build themselves audiences and empires at conferences aimed at the types of service practitioners they target. The conferences emphatically and even eye-poppingly aren’t free, but the Authoritarians do give away a teaspoon of advice here and there, typically through blog posts announced on Twitter.
Unlike Great Big Whizbangs, Authoritarians offer some paid services that even people who have to ask the price can afford. The question is whether you really want the services to begin with. That is, unless you’ve got that puppy-who-peed-on-the-carpet thing down to a science. Warning: These folks tend to spout jargon, including terms like “solopreneur,” which is fake French for “lonely wannabe trying to run a business.”
The Empathetic Friends
The Friends stick to dispensing advice that’s reminiscent of what you’ll hear from other consultants, but their personalities set them apart from the rest of the herd. These wise chums want to help, but often get fixated on things that fall outside the realm of what you’re trying to address. Sure, it’s possible that you’ve misjudged what your problems really are (see “Great Big Whizbangs” above), but wouldn’t it be nice to talk about something you actually want to discuss?
By the time you’ve had a few chats with an Empathetic Friend, you’re ready to trade some of the chummy charm for a teaspoon of practical advice. Like what you’re supposed to receive for the money you’re ponying up, besides a buddy you have to pay to talk to. If that’s all you’re going to get, maybe a psychic hotline would be more help. Paging the ghost of Miss Cleo!
Online, the Friends offer some free conference calls or podcasts, a few bits and pieces of white-paperish stuff through a blog and on Twitter, and the occasional short one-on-one free phone chat, which entitles you to receive their e-mailings for life after you get between 15 and 60 minutes of their time, during which they try to convince you to pay for more than that.
The Expert Amateurs/Amateur Experts
You signed up for a free teleconference to audition one of these consultants’ shtick and spent the first 20 minutes of the hour listening to a meandering but exhaustive biographical humblebrag. Can’t these guys visualize the thin line between establishing their relevant expertise and making you feel like a totally unaccomplished loser next to their consultative magnificence? Apparently not, or they mistake their standard spiels for introductions to relevant advice. They’re also perfectly willing to ’fess up to a sin or two of their own, in a “we’re all people here, right?” way that’s full of chatty charm. Of course, some of those “sins” consist of telling you about how they closed down a successful firm and walked away from amounts of business you’d kill to have, but hey, to each his or her own in the sin department, and for them, that success, for which you’d auction your left arm and various other body parts, had become a burden.
Bolstered by the apparent humility of one of these Expert/Amateurs, you venture to his or her website, only to find that it’s full of stream-of-consciousness writing that reads more like a transcript of someone talking to him/herself. Not so reassuring as the first thing you see on a paid professional’s online venue. The design looks like a basic blog template that threw up on itself, and some of the links lead to dead ends. Not to mention that the domain name seems to change on every page. It’s “WoweeWhoopDeDoo.com” in the e-mail message you received, “LaDeDahClients.com” on the home page of the website, and “TweedleDeedle.com” on the “About Me” page. Holy Identity Crisis, Batman!
The content’s not all that thick on the online ground, either. You find a few pronouncements about what people do wrong, a few hints about what to do right, and more confessions. After a while, you begin to wonder if you’re there to get advice or give it, and what you’d get if you actually were a paying customer.
It gets worse. You see typos. You can do typos without paid help. You bail and go back to reading TVLine.com. At least there you get content that makes sense, even if it doesn’t make you any dollars.
The Modern Digital Experts
Unlike many of the preceding consultant categories, the Moderns typically start off as Web or software programmers. They earn a killing of sorts in a field that rivals plumbing and HVAC for its ability to make its practitioners some coin even when other people are pinching pennies. (And before you say that Web programmers lost their shirts in the Dot-Com Bust and the recent recession: No, the really good ones, and the ones who convinced really rich people they were the really good ones, kept making money.)
So the Moderns invented a Web app or a smartphone app, or programmed really complicated websites, and turned into company owners with actual employees. They made umpteen mistakes, figured out what they should have done, and started selling their advice.
Started out on their own, made money, figured out what not to do: Sounds like you, minus the unsuccess. Just the people you want to diagnose your private little patch of unprofitability, right? Except that along with a few small-ticket items that other consultants give away, Moderns have a nasty habit of selling advice packages that cost more than you can afford to part with.
Well, not without going on a hunger strike and taking your entire family with you, pets included.
Not to mention the way their friendly e-mail messages brag about the expensive advice they’re paying for, now that they’re officially climbed the hierarchical ladder to Bigshot Level and can afford to hire Great Big Whizbangs to keep them honest. Way to make you feel like dirt, right? Besides, shouldn’t people who sell advice realize that a small dose of apparent infallibility makes them look more deserving of the money they want you to spend on them?
But they’re such good eggs, to use a saying from back in a day in which none of what they do would make any sense to anyone. They send you such cheery messages about how much they really want you to succeed.
Problem is, of course, that you have to be able to afford their advice. And feel OK about helping them pay for their Great Big Whizbang service packages.
The Social-Media Superstars
Don’t confuse these guys with the rest of our categories, every single one of which uses every social medium imaginable to badger you ceaselessly into buying into its brand of advice (except the Great Big Whizbangs, who belong to the cult of minimal advertising). The difference is that Social-Media Superstars headquarter the majority of their activities on the sites that give them their names. Sign up for a LinkedIn group that focuses on some aspect of your or your clients’ profession, and chances are excellent you’ll find a Superstar lurking in its midst, ready to send you a connection request. You’re so thrilled to be approached by someone oozing with new-era fame-itude that you immediately accept, thinking you can mine the Superstar’s network for prospective clients.
That’s when the fun begins. Your online in box gets inundated with messages inviting you to find out how you can increase your income by a factor of trillions, if only you’ll sign up and pay for this Superstar’s great big secrets! When you finally see the price of the advice, you’re convinced the secrets really must be great big. Like take-a-look-behind-the-wizard’s-curtain big.
Even if you say no to the initial invitation, you’ll keep receiving more and more of them. The Superstar uses the same tactics that clutter your e-mail spam folder, minus the outright lies about fortunes awaiting you in impoverished countries. The appeal blends the “But Wait! There’s More!” of the infomercialist with breathless hints of mega insights, right up there in importance and secrecy with the location of Jimmy Hoffa’s burial plot. And wouldn’t it be nice if someone spent as much money on you as they do looking for poor old Jimmy!
The Superstars have actual advice to offer, buried in there under the spammy tactics, but it’s tough to get past their methods of approach and the slime-a-delic sensations they leave behind. Maybe one of these folks should trademark “Ew.”
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