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Consultant's Defense Kit.

Every week, I get a bunch of letters (mostly favorable, except for a couple of wiseguys) about this topic or that topic. This week I got a letter that deserved a response. No, it was so politely written that it deserved more than just a response. It deserved a public response. This letter made me realize that we spend a lot of time talking about selling STUFF on the internet, without giving due to all those people who sell their talents and time via the net.

We call them consultants.

It's tough being a consultant, because you sell your expertise, which is intangible in nature. The rules are totally different than when you pick, pack and ship widgets and doodads all over the country. And because you can't hold "hours billed" in your hand, some people think that it's easier to stiff consultants than the online merchants at www.widgetsanddoodads.com.

Doing a good job consulting is a lot like painting your house: it's all in the prep work. If you diligently get everything clean up front, you're almost always going to end up with a beautiful finish. Skip the preliminaries, and you end up looking cheap, dirty and flaky.

So for all of you who make your living on the net by selling brains instead of buns, I hereby present the Consultant's Defense Kit, in hopes of lessening the risk of getting stiffed by unscrupulous clients intent on taking advantage of your kind, gentle and generous nature. For additional tips on how to keep your ass out of even MORE trouble, I suggest you download Our Top Ten Ways of Saving Your Butt, conveniently located one click away at the Frankel & Anderson web site.

Inthe meantime, here are a couple of guidelines you may find useful:

1. ALWAYS GET AT LEAST HALF YOUR FEE UP FRONT: This is mistake number one, most often made by consultants who feel awkward or insecure about asking for money before they actually start the work. But let me be very clear on something:

Expertise is like the proverbial genie: once its out of the bottle, it's gone. So if you don't get half up front, you run a huge risk of being stranded by the more unsavory types the minute you deliver your information.

But more important is the realization that people who aren't willing to pay you half up front are usually people who have no intention of doing business with you, anyway. The upshot is that the client called YOU, for YOUR expertise. That means THEY don't have it and should be willing to pay for it, the same way anyone else pays for anything. If a client balks, simply ask them if they can afford to run their business that way. And if they say yes, give them an address where they can ship $10,000 worth of THEIR product without any down payment.

Uh-huh.

You have no idea how much business I pass up with prospective clients who want me to get started right away, but won't come up with cash. I try to be polite and tell them when they have the money, I'd be thrilled to work with them. Most never call again, and that's just fine: if I'm not going to make any money, I'd rather do it by NOT working, thank you. It's a lot less aggravating and makes me a total hero with my kids.

2. CONTROL THE GAME: A client hires consultants because he/she's too busy to handle everything else involved in his/her business. So realize that clients need you as much to CONTROL what you contribute as as they need you to contribute what you contribute. Mistake number two is letting the client control the relationship.

Don't get me wrong: a good consultant knows how to be a team player. You both contribute to the effort, you both do better work, you both benefit. But don't let good team playing erode into bad business. If the client stiffs you, he's dumping the team strategy and switching to a man-for-man offense. If you leave the ball in his court, you're giving him control over when -- and if -- you ever get paid So if the game plan changes, put the ball in play on your terms: either they pay by a certain date, or it's off to court we go. Period.

Now, I don't know where you're geographically based, but in my neck of the woods, any disputed amount under $5,000 ends up in small claims court. It costs maybe $25 to file a claim and another $25 for a very large, six foot seven inch marshal with a gun to stride into your target's place of business and slap him with a summons. No lawyer is going to waste time with a matter that small, which is why small claims courts exist. If your client doesn't show, you win. And if your paperwork is in order, chances are you win. And if you win, they've got to pay, unless they go into bankruptcy, in which case you're better off chalking up the whole thing to experience.

3. GET YOUR PAPERWORK STRAIGHT: Did you get your client to sign off on an estimate BEFORE you started work? Did that estimate outline everything you would do for a stated amount or rate? Again, if you have that stuff, you're way ahead, because you have your business documented. Clients who understand -- and authorize - what they're buying tend to be respectful, good-paying clients. If you don't have good, clear paperwork, you're hosed, having to rely on circumstantial evidence to piece together your story in front of a judge.

4. BE PREPARED TO FIRE YOUR CLIENT AT ANY GIVEN TIME: I know, this sounds really combative, until you turn it around and realize that virtually every client has the same notion about you. The fact is that as a consultant, you begin to lose a client the minute you sign them. So never allow any client to dominate more than 30% of your billing structure. That way, if one pulls the rug out from under you, the others will cushion the fall.

5. DON'T GAGE YOUR VALUE BY SOMEONE ELSE'S ESTIMATION: No matter how much you charge, there are only two people in the entire world who think your billing rates are fair: your mother and your spouse. Everyone else thinks you're too expensive and will try to hondle your rates. If you allow yourself to be hondled, it really means that you aren't terribly secure in your worth, either. Even worse, it communicates to your clients that you aren't worth what you're charging and you'll find rates falling in a downard spiral.

The hardest thing in the world to do is walk away from bad business -- especially if you're in the middle of a dry spell that inevitably hits every consultant. Hell, I've had times when I've asked the operator to see if my phone was out of order. Everyone goes through that. But even if you have to mortgage your dog, stay away from bad business. It's really easy to recognize when you see it coming -- you just have to wipe the desperation out of your eyes.

You're running your business. You're in charge. If you find yourself in a situation where you're about to get stiffed, chances are there's only one person you can hold responsible: the person staring at you in the mirror.

 

Rob Frankel

Copyright 1997, FRANKEL & ANDERSON * Advertising, Marketing & Killer Creative * http://www.RobFrankel.com * Toll-Free in USA & Canada: 1-888-ROBFRANKEL * Telephone: 818-990-8623 * FAX: 413-778-0909 * http://www.frankel-anderson.com

 
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