Guilt by association
July 15, 2005
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Over the years of my high-tech career, a disturbing trend
has appeared. More and more potential clients have started to treat me
as an adversary with which to negotiate rather than a partner in their
success. They question my motives; my estimates and my hourly rate from
the first meeting and continue to treat me with skepticism in the early
stages of our relationship until such a time as we all get to truly know
each other. Despite my efforts to deal fairly and honestly with clients
up front, I find that I often have to spend days and weeks breaking through
this wall and convincing new clients that I am not trying to “take
them for a ride.” I am sure you have experienced the same. Even
worse, though, I know exactly who to blame for this increasingly common
problem...the incompetent, unscrupulous and unworthy high-tech workers
of the world.
Once bitten, twice shy
The fact is, the reason that so many clients are skeptical of our work,
is that many have indeed been “taken” in their past dealings
with technology. The faulty computer that never worked right. The web
site designer who disappeared without finishing the site. The high-tech
snake oil salesmen who promised millions in sales and delivered nothing.
Nearly everyone has a story about how technology and those who sell and
service it have let them down.
I can’t count the number of clients who have brought me in after
they have given up on other consultants. I have been treated to the horror
stories of inept people losing data, damaging computer and printers and
even, perhaps, stealing from their homes. While their bad experience can
make them even more appreciative of my services, initially there is a
wall that must be broken down between us.
One of the most striking effects of this trend is that all technology
workers are treated with disdain and skepticism. No matter how well we
might perform our work, there is a level of “guilt by association”
that must be overcome. Human beings tend to paint the world with a very
large brush and even good technology workers are caught in this trap.
We are forced to jump through the same hoops and survive the same tests
that unscrupulous technology workers face even though we have done nothing
to deserve it. In the worst cases, you may lose a client because there
is no way you can ever prove to them that you are not unscrupulous in
some way. They will ignore your recommendations or develop “analysis
paralysis” over the smallest technology questions. They will vacillate
between this option and that, never making a decision. They are trying
to assure themselves that no one will ever take advantage of them again,
but in doing so, they push away the very people that could help them.
What to do?
The most troubling fact is, if you want to build your high-tech career,
you will have to deal with many people like those described above. You
will find them everywhere -- as your clients and in your companies. If
you want to be successful, you will have to deal with these issues.
Of course, being aware of the issues is a good first step. Someone who
is just getting started may wonder why potential clients are so skittish
or seem combative. They don’t have an understanding of the technology
workers who may have preceded them in the job. They don’t know how
these clients were treated.
My own favorite tactic is to be painfully honest in every dealing with
a client, even if it means delivering bad news. Don’t sugar-coat
the situation and don’t attempt to conceal its gravity. You might
worry that this would drive clients away, but I can assure you that it
will, instead, go a long way towards dismissing their skepticism and fear.
If they get the sense that you are willing to lose them as a client in
order to tell them the truth, they will appreciate it and your relationship
You should also state your motives clearly and concisely. I often talk
to my clients about the vision I have for them in the future. I don’t
try to tie them tightly to my services, forcing them to call with every
small problem. I seek to build them into self-sufficient technology users
who call me when they want to learn something new, not because I purposefully
hid information from them.
The fact is, there are too many unscrupulous high-tech workers in the
world today and we all suffer for their failings. The only way to combat
this trend is to be aware of it, understand it and do everything we can
to show our clients that we are a step above the people they may have
previously encountered. A successful high-tech career requires more than
just technological skills -- it also requires integrity.