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How can communication mixups sour an enagement?

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I recently had some communications mixups with a customer. It reminded me how delicate, communications are between customers & vendors. What’s more they can be challenging between developers & managers. It highlighted for me these challenges, and the strategies I’ve learned over the years.

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While I didn’t lose the project, the initial misunderstandings continued to eclipse the project, long after they were cleared up.

1. First a missed conference call

Early on, we setup a call to discuss the challenges. The time of the conference call had been agreed to, but somehow it didn’t make it into my calendar. So when the appointed day & time came, i missed the call. This was before any contract was signed, or even the engagement had gotten started.

Needless to say this is a very delicate moment, as everything we do sets precedents about our personality and working style.

While we were able to reschedule, it added some initial strain to the relationship. As you’ll see that compounded more later.

Related: Walking the delicate balance of transparency

2. Next arriving late to the kickoff meeting

I always pride myself on timeliness. I think it communicates all sorts of things to customers. First it shows you’re serious and will manage the project carefully. Next it shows you respect for others time.

As usual, I left plenty of extra time, so I would arrive well before the meeting. Arriving at the building 20 minutes early, I searched but could not find the entrance. Neither could google as it turns out. Strange I thought, what could be wrong? I walked into the building where the address should be, and asked the doorman. He explained that the company didn’t reside there. Perhaps they’re not located at Park Avenue, but rather Park Avenue South, he suggested. And then the lightbulb goes off. Of course!

Realizing I now have 5 minutes to arrive on time, I’m going to be late. So I attempt to call the manager leading the meeting. I get his voicemail, and leave a message. I then jump in a taxi, and head to the Park Avenue South address. Arriving 10 minutes late, I quickly head upstairs. I’m greeted by some grumbling, and frustrated looks.

Despite this being an understandable mistake, it comes on the heels of another mixup. So now I’ve set a precedent of lateness. Despite being a timely person, it’s hard to erase the stamp that is there now.

We continued to have strained relations through the engagement. While it did finish to completion, I believe it would have gotten extended were I not to have stumbled early on.

Also: When you have to take the fall

3. What can a mixup indicate?

There are many questions it may raise. Possible ones include:

o Is candidate too busy with other tasks?
o Is the person forgetful?
o Is one party bullying on their perspective?
o Is there finger pointing & blame game in the org?
o What is the culture of the organization?
o Is it one of understanding & working together or blame game?
o Is the person uninterested?
o Is the project not a priority?
o Is the company disorganized
o Is miscommunication endemic?

Some of these thoughts may bubble up consciously, and some may linger as a bad taste in your mouth. Regardless, they should be faced head on, with understanding and humility on both sides.

Read: Why i ask for a deposit

4. The weight of first impressions

Inevitably, when there is a mixup, of lateness or missed meeting, there is a technical explanation. In my story above, the *reason* is Park Avenue and Park Avenue South are completely different addresses.

o First impressions are KEY

Even with a reasonable explanation, there is a reaction that is felt.

o There is a visceral emotional reaction we all have anyway

Such a reaction is easy to cause, but hard to patch up. It will take time, and multiple interactions to set a new impression to people.

o Reactions can be incorrect & irrational sometimes
o They can color further interactions

With time impressions can be adjusted, but it takes much more work after an initial mistake.

Check out: How to hire a developer that doesn’t suck

5. Possible solutions

While there is no sure fire way to avoid mixups like these, there are some things that can work in your favor.

o maintain flexibility

That means accepting blame, and mutual responsibility in reaching the goal posts.

o maintain a sense of I *can* be wrong

Everyone can be wrong, and everyone makes mistakes. So don’t try to avoid blame. That said emphasize that everyone must work together. On communicating engagement details, on mutual agreed times, and time zones.

o look for a sense of we *can* be wrong

I think these types of mixups can also be beneficial. For they underscore the customers management style. Do they point fingers, or acknowledge reasonable mistakes. Both parties will make mistakes eventually, and understanding of this builds good faith down the road.

o “let’s work together to improve communication”

Framing the mixup as a shared problem is important. Although the address mixup above is technically my fault, it’s probably a common one. Park Avenue South confuses everyone in New York. So an understanding customer might offer to share a bit in this with you.

o hold frame of mutual responsibility and working together using the word “we”

The frame is key. It’s not *all* your fault, nor is it the customers if they mixup. We all need to be understanding, to a point.

Also: Can daily notes help you work better with clients?

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All Business Consulting CTO/CIO

How to find consulting clients?

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I get asked this question by people a lot. Whenever I attend conferences, meetups, or social events. How do you *do* consulting? I’d love to be doing that, how do I get there?

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From what I can tell, the most important factor is being hungry. How do you teach that? If you’re fiercely independent to begin with, you may be willing to have a roomate, or do without luxury for a while, in order to build up your nest egg. To be sure you need some cushion to get started.

But you also need customers. Where the heck do you find them? Here are some tips…

1. What not to do?

The first thing you’ll find is that recruiters seem to have a lot of “customers”. Maybe I can just go that route. Sure, but just remember, those are not *your* customers. Your customer is the recruiting company. They have the relationship.

Why does this matter? Because you can’t build a business this way. You are effectively working as an employee of the recruiting company. Nothing wrong with it, but it’s not an entrepreneurial path. You don’t really have responsibility nor control over the full lifecycle of your business.

So again I would summarize, don’t use “hire a freelancer” sites.

And don’t use consulting headshops or recruiters.

Related: When you’re hired to solve a people problem

2. Do socialize

So how then? Well you need to first *peer* with economic buyers. What do I mean by that? Well if you go to technical conferences, that’s fine, but your peers are other engineers. These are not buyers. At best you may get a weak referral.

Hiring managers, CTOs, directors of operations, all will attend events where their peers will be found. If you want to be a professional services consultant, these folks are whom you need to socialize with.

First, experiment. Go to a lot of different types of events, meetups, small single track conferences. And ask where others go? What’s on their radar? Also introduce people to eachother. This may sound counterintuitive, but it’s important. Don’t have an agenda of “I’m looking for a job” but rather, I have a lot to offer.

Network by interviewing. This may appear to be an odd one, but it sometimes works. Take any interviews you can. Discuss how you solve problems. Learn by failing a few. If you talk to ten firms that have a seat to fill, one of them may go the consulting route, even though that wasn’t their original thought.

Talk to recruiters. It may sounds at odds with what I said above, but it can be very valuable. Recruiters have their finger on the pulse. Even if their not physicians, they can measure the pulse. So too they may not know redshift from Oracle, but they’re hearing what the industry is looking for. They have a great perspective to share.

Go to non-peer events. Expand your horizons. Surprise yourself with who might attend other events. Tell your story. In the process, ask others where they spend time.

Ping all the people. Yes keep in touch with folks. You may create a newsletter to help with this. See below.

Keep the pipeline warm. Once you get a gig, you may quickly give up the socializing because you just want to do the work. But this will fail in the long term. You have to like the socializing and keep doing it. Even while you have an engagement or two going.

Always *GET* cards. Giving them is fine, but be sure to get the contact of the other person. 99% will not followup. That’s your job!

Related: When clients don’t pay

3. Build your reputation

When people search your name, they should find you. On social networks like Linkedin, github, twitter, google plus, Slideshare, StackOverflow etc. Create profiles on all of these. Link them back to your professional site.

You *do* have a professional site right? If not go get a domain right now. devopsguru.io, backenddeveloper.guru, whatever! The domain doesn’t matter that much, most traffic will come from google, and it won’t be going to your homepage anyway.

Speak at non-peer events & conferences. Lunch & learns. Co-working spaces, incubators. These all have events, they’re all looking for experts. You may also apply to CFP’s regularly. Hey you might even get some conference passes out of it!

As I also mentioned above, a newsletter is also a good idea. Add every single person you meet in your professional context. It gives you something else to talk about as you are socializing. 🙂

Related: Why i ask for a deposit

4. Positioning

This one is counterintuitive. Why can’t I just do the thing I love.

Well sure maybe you can. But finding an underserved niche is a fast track to success. To my mind it’s crucial. So find out what is in demand. I know you’ve been talking to recruiters, right?

So yes pay attention to the wind. And pivot as necessary. Keep reading and stay up to date on new tech.

Related: Can progress reports help your engagements succeed?

5. What you might find

Don’t expect to get in at large companies like google & facebook, or with defense contractors. There’s a terrible amount of bearocracy, and you would need a larger team to become an approved vendor. Also many of these larger well organized firms already have tons of talent.

You’re better suited to less organized, or newer companies. Because you want to be able to raise the bar for them. Better you start where the bar is a bit lower.

Examples…

o small early stage startups

These folks have some money, but they are still small so they may not need a fullsize engineering organization. They also need things done yesterday. So they are ripe with opportunities.

o medium size startups

Same as above. But they may be having trouble finding your skills. Because you’ve found that niche, right?

o greenfield

Startups building an mvp, where the skies the limit. You have the opportunity to build out the first gen. Go for it!

o second generation & legacy

Once a startup has seen it’s first round of developers leave, they may be in a spot, where the business is great, but the product needs lifting. You’re looking at a quote-unquote legacy application, and you need to use your skills to tune, troubleshoot, and identify technical debt.

Related: Why do people leave consulting?

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Sales sucks, but then I learned

Are you a developer or startup entrepreneur? Have you ever been frustrated with some of the claims made by the sales team or lacked the patience or ability to communicate across departments?

Join 4000 others and follow Sean Hull on twitter @hullsean.

Just out of college

Just out of college I got a job as a Macintosh Software Developer for a small firm outside of University at Buffalo. It was a ten person company, and half of us were on the technology side of the house. I was doing C++ & Graphical Interface design & coding.

Why is it so hard to find operations & devops talent? Enter the Mythical MySQL DBA!.

Sales is “ahead” of engineering

Besides coding, I also fielded support calls from customers which brought me perspective on both what they wanted, and where they struggled with the software. Our app helped consumers and nutritionists track diet & exercise.

[quote]
The sales team made promises of technology the company wasn’t capable of delivering. Meanwhile the engineering team was sent scrambling to answer to those promises.
[/quote]

Soon I was fielding questions from customers asking when the new heart rate monitoring would be available. I followed up by talking with the team lead & chief architect. He had no plans of building such a feature, nor did we even know how it would be possible!

[mytweetlinks]

Searching for a database expert? MySQL DBA Interview Guide.

We checked in at our weekly meetings, and the CEO explained that the sales team was simply “ahead” of engineering. Years ahead apparently even of the technology that was possible at the time!

Fast forward 5 years to professional services

A half decade later I’m doing independent consultanting for dot-coms. Much of my business came from word of mouth. Helping a firm out of a pinch, speeding their site so they can handle 10x customers on the same servers and suddenly everyone is your friend!

Too many customers is a good problem to have right? For hyper growth companies there are 5 Things Toxic To Scalability .

But all is not smooth sailing in the freelance consulting world. The dot-com crash comes along and budgets are squeezed tighter. Business spend is reduced and every dollar is scrutinized. I learned to speak to prospects about savings and personalized service, advantages of lower overhead, and real return I could provide. At the end of the day if they’re not buying, your services aren’t worth their cost!

[quote]
The sales process should inform the business about what customers really want. In a successful startup there is communication back and forth with engineering and business units so all are working in harmony.
[/quote]

Full Circle

Now coming full circle I have a wide perspective on business. I understand the engineering fundamentals, and the limitations of technology. I also have a grasp of product, and how business units must manage the bottom line, and deliver to customers or else perish in the marketplace.

Looking for a top flight cloud engineer? Grab our Amazon EC2 Interview Guide.

For the two to achieve a happy marriage, you must bring a balance of execution & technical debt, with satisfying a real customer need in the marketplace. And therein lies the innovation & startup sweet spot!

You might also like our piece Why generalists are better at scaling the web

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