Consulting Lines: “Sounds like you’ve got it all under control.”

For us geeks, the hardest part about consulting isn’t the technology.  Technology’s easy.  I know when I poke SQL Server a certain way, it’s going to respond a certain way.  That part of consulting is predictable and reliable.

The Techie
The Techie

The hardest part is the people.

I’ve been consulting part time for years, and the last six months of full-time consulting has been a real eye-opener.  Thanks to other consultants and writers, I’ve been able to accumulate a little treasure trove of ways to poke people the same way I poke technology and achieve predictable results.  I’ve been sharing my Consulting Lines series with you, fellow geek, so you can help manage your end users and managers.

The Situation: Experienced and Frustrated Client

This particular situation usually pops up in groups.  Our players are:

  • The Manager – he’s frustrated because the application isn’t performing the way he wants.
  • The Techie – he’s got years, maybe a decade of experience, and he’s just as frustrated.  The tips, techniques, and tools he’s used have never done him wrong, but this one problem has him frazzled.  He might be a little offended that the company is second-guessing him by bringing in an outsider, and he sees it as an intrusion on his territory.
  • Me – your hero, but in this conversation, imagine the part being played by Brad Pitt, only sexier.

The conversation goes a little something like this:

Me: “Based on everything I’ve seen so far, it looks like the flux capacitor needs to be rotated to the right.  That’ll get us the extra power we need to reach 88 miles per hour under load.”

The Techie: “That’s impossible.  You should never rotate the flux capacitator to the right.  It leads to burned-out muffler bearings.”

Me: “Normally that’s true, but in this particular case – ”

The Techie: “No, you just can’t do that.  I’ve read it in all the books, and I sat in Marty’s session last year when he said rotating the flux capacitor to the right is one of the most common mistakes.  It just won’t work.  Clearly, the problem is our impeller.”

Me: “So it sounds like you’ve got it under control then.”

What That Line Does

Call the Consultants
Call the Consultants

The Techie is trying to corner me into his version of the problem.  He’s come to a conclusion that I don’t agree with, and this line is my way of refocusing the conversation back on him.  If he knows what the problem is, and he knows how to fix it, now is his chance to deliver.

Except, of course, that he can’t.

If his answer was right, he would have tried it already, and his manager wouldn’t have brought me in.  There’s two ways the conversation can go next, but either way, it’s absolutely imperative that you handle the situation with grace.  The Techie really believes in his skills, and you don’t want to pull his pants down in front of his manager.  Any consultant can get one gig – to be successful, you have to be invited back, and that’s not gonna happen if the client staff are all walking around with red behinds because you spanked ’em so hard.

What Happens Next: The Easy Way

The Techie: “Ummm – well – it’s not working.”

Me: “Ouch – replacing the impeller didn’t work?”

The Techie: “No, we still only make it to 83mph.”

Me: “Yeah, been there.  Do you have any other ideas or options?”

The Techie: “No, everything I try isn’t working.”

Me: “Let’s try rotating the flux capacitor.  If it doesn’t work right away, you can put it back.  If it explodes, hey, now’s your chance to blame the stupid consultant and look like a hero, right?”

You have to smile really big when you say that, and you have to actually be willing to put your reputation on the line with The Manager.  At this point, The Techie has admitted out loud that he’s out of options, but you haven’t shoehorned him into saying he’s wrong.  You’re just presenting it as an option, and you’re only presenting it because they don’t have the situation under control.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t always go this easily….

What Happens Next: The Hard Way

If it turns confrontational,

The Consultants Arrive
The Consultants Arrive

The Techie: “So you agree with me that the problem is the impeller?”

Me: “Hmmm, well, that hasn’t been my experience, but you know how that goes – the answer to any SQL Server question is that it depends.  If replacing the impeller fixes the problem here, that’s great.”

The Technie: “So you’ll replace the impeller for us?”

Me: “Me? Well, I can, but I wouldn’t do it under these situations.  Besides, I bet you know how to replace the impeller, right?  The Manager would probably rather have you replace the impeller than me, since I’m more expensive than one of Charlie Sheen’s dates.  If that doesn’t work, let me know, but otherwise, it sounds like you’ve got it under control.

Keep dancing away from the gun with that same line, and force The Techie to take his own shots.  If The Techie absolutely demands that a certain change be made, he needs to be the one pulling the trigger.  Whether you’re a consultant or an in-house employee, never do something you don’t believe in.  If someone else believes in the change, they need to make it.

More of My Favorite Consulting Lines

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29 Comments. Leave new

  • I’m pretty sure the problem is that the air filter needs to be changed on the poison-gas pen.

    This is an interesting series. I’m curious to know if your customers start using your own lines on you as you go along. 🙂

  • Brent, this is gold! The secrets of consulting – what a brilliant idea! I can’t wait for more in this series of posts!

  • This one made me laugh hard Brent! Back to the Future and Charlie Sheen references all in one post, great stuff. The part about being a long term consultant is spot on and in my opinion the more a client likes to work with you and feels like they were well educated far outweighs wowing them.

    Just curious, was there a jigawatt in the first cut? 🙂

  • If only we could say what we were thinking in these situations. Sounds like you’re a fan of the strip-lining technique?

    • Jeff – hahaha, yep, I love that technique, and I like finding ways to work it into groups. It’s fun to see the interplay between people doing their own negotiating.

  • Brent,

    Jeff made me come over here to the dark side. 🙂

    Great piece. Something I need to learn as a consultant is to be more, strategical or is it tactical? Whichever.

    I’ve got tons of these stories myself, I just need to figure out the best way to sanitize and publish.

    Thanks for sharing.


  • Brent, this is a brilliant start for this series. Thanks for sharing.
    Great way to start the day…..Seems like you got this under control 😉

  • Hey Brent.. I like the new site design, but you might have broken something with your RSS feed. This post isn’t showing up in the feedburner feed.

  • I once had a very quick fifteen minute lesson that took the form of a conversation in the lunchroom kitchen with a boss of mine who was (is) a great sales guy. He told about the best way to talk about successes and failures. For the successes, he said to always put the thanks back onto the client:
    “Oh, it was your data and your co-operation that helped us narrow down the problem to the flux capacitor. They’ll know exactly what you’re doing, but they’ll appreciate it anyway”

    But as a consultant in a sticky situation, are you afraid that by tipping your hat here, that the client might not appreciate it?

    I mean, when my daughter was very very young she mentioned that she had a lucky trick. We finally found out that she’d use a trick to get her way more often: she’d smile at people (I’d have to admit it was damn effective). And it’s possible that after telling us her trick, the smile might have been slightly less lucky then before.

    • Michael – it’s an interesting question. The majority of my clients come through the blog or my presentations, so at first glance, it would seem like I’m giving away the farm here.

      However, I’ve been blogging about how to solve TECHNICAL problems here for years, and the oddest thing happens – people still hire me to solve the same problems I’ve blogged about solving. At least once a week, I’ll solve someone’s technical challenge and say, “OK, it’s fixed, and now to learn more about this, check out this page on my blog.”

      A wise guy once told me, “That’ll be $10,000 for hitting it with the hammer. $1 to hit it with the hammer, and $9,999 to know where to hit it.” I’ll share my techniques here forever because it helps people, but sometimes they’re willing to pay to have you know exactly which technique to bust out at which time.

      • Love this approach.

        I wish I could get more people to understand that information “hoarding” is not necessarily the best way. Too many people think if they “give away the farm” they’ll have no more work to do.

        I think you prove that’s not the case. In my world (Oracle), there are a some great consultants that blog in excruciating detail how do to x, yet people still pay them gobs of money, $1 for hitting it with a hammer and $9,999 because they know where to hit it.

      • I’d buy that. Let’s hope the consulting advice works the same way as the technical advice. Especially because I can’t wait to see what’s next in this series 🙂

  • This blog series is a case for voluntary micro-donations from the readers. I saw a product recently that did just that. One click to donate a dollar or something.

    • Tobi – thanks, I’m glad you like it enough to pay! I want to keep the blog totally free, though. I don’t want to give the readers the impression I’m panhandling. 😉

  • Thanks Brad (Pitt)…I mean, Brent. 😉

    This was really helpful for me in a dealing with a particular co-worker who seems to always want to suggest non-solutions (like rebooting the server) and then ask ME to do it! Argh!!!

  • What I love about this is that these lines are really just different ways of communicating with different personalities no matter what you’re doing. Walking that line of being “right” without making someone else be “wrong” is really hard. I’ve found that if you can navigate that though it creates a much more trusting environment. If people trust that I won’t “pull their pants down” as you stated in front of everyone they start to approach you with an open mind because they know you’ll work with them to come to a sollution and it’s not about who’s wrong or right, but what works.

    I would imagine the same is true in consulting. If you can fix the problem and keep the techies pride in tact, then you’ve just created some repeat business because the manager is happy that the problem is fixed… the techie is happy that he’s still the man… and the company is happy because business can now continue. That’s a nice situation for everyone involved.

    As a side note… you were able to get SQL to run on a Delorean? You are a god….

    • Shane – yeah, it’s funny you mention being right vs being wrong, because that’s one of my upcoming lines too! You only win in consulting if they like you when you leave. If they hate you, you lost. You can’t make the server work, get them to hate you, and leave, and think you’re going to be invited back.

      I did get SQL to run on a DeLorean, but I had to steal some nuclear materials from guys in a mall parking lot toting machine guns. Be careful what you wish for.

  • What kind of time frame are you working with when you do this? I’ve been in situations where “letting them replace the impeller” requires amounts of time that just aren’t realistic.

    Seems like a very slick solution to a sticky problem if the time allows though…

    • Abe – yep, it depends. I don’t usually make those calls about timing – I leave that up to the project manager. If they’re willing to let someone else take hours/days/months to do something, that’s their call.

  • Great blog. Can’t wait to get under the SQL Cruise firehose 🙂

  • Another Hammer of a post. Keep it up Brent, These are awesome. You are like a Web 2.0 Gerry Weinberg 8)

  • RohanJoackhim
    March 15, 2011 11:29 am

    I love these Consulting Lines..
    This is the Truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth…Thank you for sharing them.

  • ThatJHarrison
    August 4, 2015 12:21 pm

    Admittedly, I’m just learning how to dance, and this blog is great!
    I think a military background turned me into a robot that has not dealt with people very well in the past, and I’m learning how to “play nice” which is what I think the crux of this blog is. Thank you!!!


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