Monday Consulting Questions: Time and Relationships

Q.  Have you abandoned your blog?  If so, is it because you don’t think it has marketing value?

A. Although I have undoubtedly neglected my blog, I have not abandoned it.  What it comes down to is time invested and value received.  Right now the project work is flowing freely and the amount of available non-work time I have is limited.  I’m afraid that blogging just hasn’t managed to rise very high on the priority list, which brings me to the second half of your question.

Despite all the hubbub about transparency and conversations and other positive aspects of blogging, I have to say that no, I don’t find that my blog has much marketing value in its current form.  I’ve gotten a few leads from my blog that have ended up yielding projects worth a low 6 figures over the past 4 years, but in the big picture the blog is just not a consistent source of leads.  Bear in mind that this blog is primarily read by other developers and consultants.  Now, I love my fellow developers and consultants to pieces, but you’re not the ones hiring my company for projects.  One of the things that I have been meaning to do this year (and haven’t managed to do yet) is re-tool my blog so that it offers information that is of interest and use to potential clients.  Right now this is jut a bullet point on a to-do list someplace; I do not have a plan outlining how to make this happen.

Q.  How do you deal with competitors undercutting you? A. For every consultant with pro-level chops who is charging market-level rates, there are 10 guys with skills ranging from horrible to brilliant who charge 50% of market rate or less.  Why is this?

First of all, some of these folks just don’t know any better – they might not know what market rate is, and coming from a W2 job it’s not that hard for a sub-par contract rate to sound like a lot of money.  Then you have the people who are just starting out and are charging sub-market rates to make up for their lack of experience.  Finally, you have the folks who are under-charging because they just don’t know how to make themselves stand out from the crowd.

I suggest 1 thing for competing against undercutters: create stronger relationships.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:  all things being equal (and sometimes even when they’re not), people will choose to do business with their friends.  Unless you’re making a completely wild pitch to a client, it is your relationship with the decision-makers that will either get you the deal or not.  We’ve all had the painful experience of losing a client to another provider who charges $10 less per hour, but the $10 is not really what’s at the heart of it.

Here is a common scenario that I see being played out between my company and clients:

  • Company A hires a questionable developer (we’ll call him Developer X).
  • Developer X misses deadlines, blows budgets, flakes on deliverables, produces broken code, and then suddenly disappears, stops responding to phone calls and eMails, or fouls up the project in some other critical way.
  • Company A gets frustrated and hires Cogeian Systems to take over the project and do some remediation.
  • We hit our deadlines.  We hit our budget marks.  We hit our milestones.  We fix all the developer’s mistakes.  We produce working product.  The client praises us up one side and down the other.
  • Developer X re-appears from wherever he’s been hiding.
  • Company A drops us and re-hires Developer X, despite repeatedly expressing to us that they’re SO frustrated with him, and his flaky behavior has been going on for SO long, that there’s just NO WAY they’ll ever work with him again.

Sometimes we go through this pattern with the same client 3, 4 or 5 times over a year or two.  How can this be?  Well, I’ll tell you how this can be:  Developer X has a stronger relationship (even if it is somewhat dysfunctional) with Company A than we have.  The people at Company A like Developer X better than they like anyone at Cogeian Systems.  In the short-term, their need to have business objectives met will trump the relationship for just long enough to have those needs met.  But over the long term?  If Developer A has been their boy for years now, odds are that he will remain their boy for years to come.  I’ve had business owners tell me to my face that yes, so-and-so is doing crap work and yes, it’s screwing up my business, but gosh, I’ve known him so long and he’s a real good guy, and I’m not going to fire him, so you just fix this up and we’ll be fine.  It really does boggle my mind – I’m a “performance over all” kind of guy at heart – but it is something that I have to deal with, so I have learned to understand this kind of stance.

Although I do my best to forge a good relationship with the client, it’s just not always possible to make that happen in as short a period of time as I usually have to work with on an in-crisis project.  Also, it’s not something you can force.  I could point out that spending another $1,000 with Developer X will end up costing them $10,000 in fix-it fees when they get fed up again and bring us in to get things working, but I suspect that would just reflect poorly on my firm.  This is something I am still working on – finding ways to develop strong relationships quickly.  My clients universally praise the work, but I suspect that I’m not doing enough to register on the Friend Meter.

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