Addressing the Real Problem by Dave Gardner

Dave Gardner is a management consultant, speaker and author based in Silicon Valley. He holds a BA from San Jose State University and an MBA from Santa Clara University. He’s the author of “Mass Customization: An Enterprise-Wide Business Strategy.” He is a Fast Company Expert Blogger and a member of Dell’s Customer Advisory Panel. Dave helps companies with (1) execution excellence and (2) configurable products & services strategy and implementation.

I have known Dave for a number of years now and our conversations always end up going deep on many levels. in his own words, Dave shares his story of winning his first client AND the power of addressing the real problem.

I was Director of Customer Services for a high-tech company in Silicon Valley. The stock price of our company dropped about 10% and the president of the firm arbitrarily and capriciously cut about 10% of the company the Monday of Thanksgiving week.

As I walked to my car that morning, I recall saying to myself, “You had better get going–this is the first day of your new consulting practice.” Until that thought popped into my mind, I don’t recall ever thinking about getting into management consulting.

I pretty quickly learned that being good at doing something wasn’t sufficient to get a prospective client to leap for their checkbook.

My first client was Bruce Crawford at LSI Logic Corporation back in 1993. I had kept in touch with Bruce for several years after we had worked together at a previous company. We had a lot of mutual respect for each other’s work. I am quite confident he had no idea that I had not had a previous client—I certainly didn’t bring it up. He didn’t need references—he trusted me.

It was really important that I land my first project. I set a laser-like focus on winning a project with Bruce—I was not to be denied. This wasn’t a fly-by-night company—it was a billion dollar, publicly-traded company. It would be a real feather in my cap to win this project and this account, particularly as my first client.

Bruce identified a problem symptom but I wasn’t comfortable that he had correctly identified the actual problem well enough for me to define an actual project that I could be involved with. His team members could not articulate the problem. I knew enough about consulting at this point to know it was critical to address the real problem, not merely accept the prospect’s representation of the problem.

Clients ultimately want to improve the business. If you are thrown a red herring and you blindly pursue it but the business doesn’t get any better, what have you really achieved for yourself and your client? Nothing!

Addressing the Real Problem

Bruce wanted to implement some document scanning technology to solve “the problem,” but, as I spoke to his team, I had serious doubts that the problem they were suffering would benefit from this technology. I spent at least 40 hours of my own time with his team members over several weeks to pinpoint the actual problem. My instinct turned out to be correct—the technology that he wanted to implement would have done nothing to move him closer to solving his problem. In retrospect, I don’t think it would have even provided any incremental benefit.

I created a proposal to help Bruce and his team with their actual problem and a few months later, we had a Process and Packaging Capabilities Guide that captured in one place all the expert knowledge for accepting orders for custom semiconductor chips. This guide became the basis for an elaborate configurator system, my second, much larger project with LSI Logic Corporation. I ended up doing 5 different projects over a period of about 18 months.

Key Challenges

There was one ethical challenge that arose during my first project. As I approached the end of the first project, it had become clear who my next client would be. My next client, Alan, had adopted a position on a critical issue that would have undermined my current client. I was asked to attend a meeting with about 20 people on short notice to weigh in on this matter. I did not agree with Alan’s recommendation. It wasn’t possible to discuss this with Alan ahead of this large meeting. I didn’t want to blindside Alan in this meeting.

The challenge that I faced was whether to keep quiet so as to not potentially undermine my future relationship and hope that I could work to reverse the decision later or whether my ethical obligation was to my current client and, given that ethical responsibility, I needed to speak up in that meeting which I did. The group agreed with my reasoning and my argument prevailed. While Alan wasn’t happy with me, he never let it interfere with our future relationship.

Lessons learned…

Today, the effort I expended winning that first project would not be an issue. My approach has evolved. The prospect had asked me to help them implement a specific technology. Today, my focus on helping clients identify the outcomes, measures and value to be realized rather than thinking about any specific methodologies or approaches to be undertaken.

The 40 hours I invested was likely due more to my immaturity as a consultant and the fact that my process was weak. My first client has been a client 3 additional times at different companies. He gave me a testimonial for my website that says, “There isn’t anything I wouldn’t trust Gardner & Associates Consulting to do for me.” I’m confident that excludes surgical procedures. The real lessons: do great work and act with complete integrity at all times.

Reinvention by Liz Alexander

Liz Alexander is a prime example of how childhood passions are the best indicators of future careers. She’s been writing since she could pick up a pencil, began reading newspapers at age two, and Homer’s epic poems by the age of 8. As “Dr Liz” (granted after five years in the educational psychology doctoral program at UT Austin), she draws on 25 years of commercial publishing experience to transform subject matter experts into best-selling thought leaders. Instead of the usual bio blah, blah, you can find an infographic depicting her communications career here, as well as social media links. Liz loves mutually respectful, intelligent arguments; feel free to challenge anything she writes here, or on her website

Liz and I have known each other for what seems like a long time. Thanks to Ram Dutt of Meylah for connecting us both last year – LIz and I have learned from each other on many different fronts.

In her own words, Liz explains how it required her to reinvent herself to get her first client:

After being in business for close to 25 years, and with a propensity to re-invent myself every four or five of them, I’ve had many “first clients.” Given that we humans are pattern-seekers, to answer the question, “How do I get my first clients?” some time ago I sat down and reviewed them all in relation to each other to try and discern what, if anything, those experiences had in common. The answer does not surprise me; but it may surprise you. What I discovered only enhances my confidence in myself and in life; hopefully it will do the same for you.

First, a little back-story. I’m a professional writer, among other things, but “communication” in all its forms is the glue that holds everything together. My first “clients” have, naturally, been as varied as my portfolio career: A publisher for my first book; a magazine editor for my first article; an international airline for my first paid speaking gig. Right up to the most recent: A real estate sales manager looking to write a book with my professional help, which I provided under my previous brand identity; and the principal of a consulting firm wanting the same when I adopted my current role as “Dr Liz” at the close of 2011.

I have a website that relatively few people visit. I don’t advertise. My marketing efforts have stepped up recently, mostly because they give me the chance to play with creating content that can be presented in different and fun ways – like this Pllop. But I can’t honestly say I’ve garnered any business from such activities. At least, not yet.

I hardly do any talks and have given up organizing events because I’m tired of going to so much trouble when few people bother to show up. Towards the end of last year I began to feel like Neiman Marcus in a profession littered with Wal-Marts. I don’t believe in churning out crap books in a couple of months, just because it’s easy to do so. My ideal client is someone who holds passion and prestige in the same high regard that I do. Which is why I now help serious business professionals craft high quality books, with a view to becoming bestsellers that stand the test of time.

I work with relatively few authors, teach strategic communications at a leading university, write my own books, spend a lot of time in nature with my dog, and pretty much live the life I’ve always dreamed of (the beach view is still to come, lol). Every morning I wake up with a smile on my face and joy in my heart. I feel truly, truly blessed. And the only reason I’m telling you all this is because it has – at least so I believe – a direct bearing on the answer to the question, “How did you get your first client?” Indeed, it’s how I attract all my clients. It’s the easiest thing in the world but it’s also — ironically — the hardest thing to understand rationally and, for many, to do.

It’s enabling serendipity.

How clients come to me is always by word-of-mouth, sometimes through recommendations from people I don’t even know. I have no idea how that happens, but I do have a clue as to why.

For example, let’s take my most recent “first client” experience. There is a group of people whom I’ve known professionally and personally for about eight or nine months now. I was first introduced to them when I was operating under my previous brand identity. The work I did then was no different to what I do now, only I was charging a lot less and not working with the clients I really wanted.

When my mentor told me to ditch the old identity it was a no-brainer; I did so without a second thought. I’d felt unhappy for some time, just didn’t know why. When this suggestion was made to me it was like a light bulb had turned on over my head. Ping! Now I knew what needed to happen.

We changed my website, my business name, my logo, my Twitter handle, my Facebook page (something I’d only done 18 months previously) and suddenly I felt free and invigorated. I just knew it was the right thing and good things would come from it.

Shortly afterwards one of the members of the group I mentioned earlier referred a client to me. They had never done this before. This new client didn’t bother looking at my website, didn’t even want to speak to anyone else. I signed them up at my new, higher rate; they never quibbled. Then a second member of that group referred someone who immediately became a client. Then another.

Had I changed my services? No, they were exactly the same. The only thing that was different in that regard was how much more I was charging.

Had I changed how I felt? Absolutely! I now had a vision for the caliber of clients I wanted and the achievements I desired to make happen for them. I didn’t do anything except respond to a deep desire for change.

And that, my friends is “the big idea” I want to share with you.

What my previous identity had provided was not a long-term business solution at all – it was merely a short-term, contrasting experience that provided a step towards discovering what I am meant to do. And it’s misunderstanding the difference between these two kinds of experiences that makes hard for most people to change as nimbly and as frequently as I’m willing to.

When you’re banging your head against a brick wall (it hurts, doesn’t it?) stop and ask yourself, “Who am I really? What truly inspires me?” Within a short time a door will open and all you have to do is find the courage to walk through it. When you do that your first client will find you. Just as mine always have. As Dr Seuss once said, “Ninety eight and three-quarters percent guaranteed.”

But for that to happen, you have to be prepared to go to places you might otherwise not.

The Accidental Client by Jeremy Epstein

Jeremy Epstein is currently the VP of Marketing and Social Evangelist at Sprinklr. He is a recognized expert on building word of mouth marketing engines that scale effectively, are measured relentlessly and operated efficiently. Before this, he was running his own consulting firm called Never Stop Marketing where he has helped several high-profile clients that range from a NYT Bestselling Author to Fortune 50 companies. Jeremy is a highly-ought after speaker with numerous keynote presentations around the US and the world (India, Brazil, Russia, Israel, Canada, Germany, Venezuela, Columbia, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and Chile). You can find him on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.

Jeremy and I have had many conversations over the last year and every single one of them have been insightful and enjoyable.

In his own words, listen to Jeremy’s experience of winning his “accidental client” for his consulting business (Hint: Don’t expect anything “accidental” here 🙂 )

There was a movie, back in the 80s, I think called “The Accidental Tourist.”

The story of how my consulting firm got off the ground might as well be called “The Accidental Client.”

I’m an avid reader and a passionate connector. I love ideas and I love people. Even better….talking about ideas with people.

I picked up a copy of Dan Pink’s book “A Whole New Mind” and just LOVED it. Really made me think about how I think, the hallmark of a great book.

Somehow, I deduced (I don’t remember exactly how) that Dan lived in the Washington, DC area, where I live.

I figured, since I was passionate about the ideas in his book and he lived in the same area that he would, of course, be more than happy to sit down and have coffee with me. Why not, right?

I emailed Dan with my passionate plea and his response was, “I’m travelling like crazy now, can you ping me in a month?”

I did.

The answer that came back was “Things are still crazy, try next month.”

I did.

Same answer.

This continued on for 10 full months.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my career (actually, I’ve learned many), it’s that often times, it’s just a question of “who wants it more?”

More than talent, more than connection. Raw, rugged determination.

In other words, if someone says “follow up,” you freaking follow up. It shocks me how often people don’t follow up. Really, really shocks me.

Anyway, Dan finally relented and agreed to meet me for coffee.

I didn’t have an agenda, other than to chat or connect. I was gainfully employed at Microsoft and I had zero intention of leaving.

When Dan sat down, I saw a look in his face saying “Why exactly am I meeting with this guy?”

We got to talking. Just sharing our passion for ideas, his book, and marketing (my passion.)

After five minutes, I saw a light go on and Dan said, “you know, I am working on my next book now and one thing I’ve discovered is that traditional book publishers are just not very good at marketing. Would you like to help me with marketing my book as a side project?”

Of course, I would, but I thought it more of a hobby or a petri dish than an actual business. It would be fun to have an environment where I could test out my ideas.

He even offered to pay. Bonus!

Not much, but I didn’t really care.

“Ok,” he said, “great. I have some more things to take care of before we can get started, so follow up with me next month.”

Believe it or not, the cycle repeated itself as I followed up with him every month for ANOTHER 10 months.

At last, he said, “ok, I’m ready to go,” and the project was underway.

Keep in mind, folks, I was STILL gainfully employed at Microsoft. This was just my hobby.

However, I discovered something…something really important. I was having MORE fun and learning more doing my hobby than doing my regular job and it dawned on me that, “hey, maybe I can make a living out of this.”

Having a New York Times best-selling author as your first client seemed like a good starting off point and, in fact, it was. A few weeks later, I met an executive from Johnson & Johnson and we were just chatting as I told him about what I was doing to help Dan market his book “The Adventures of Johnny Bunko.”

The exec from JNJ said, “you know, we have a couple million dollar ad budget, do you think you could do something for us like you are doing for Dan?”

Uh…let me see if I can work that into my schedule!

And that’s when I knew…it was time to leave Microsoft and hang out the shingle.

Sure, I was scared out of my mind, but it felt right.

While it wasn’t a million dollar deal with JNJ, Dan’s cache (and ultimate glowing testimonial) led to a Fortune 50 client all within the first week of being on my own.

Luck? A bit. Sometimes you hit a homerun on your first swing, but the knowing when to swing and how to hit are the result of years of practice and preparation.

In this case, it was a relentless curiosity, a desire to learn, and persistence.

The best part, in my opinion, was that Dan’s book “Johnny Bunko” offered up 6 rules for business success.

Number 4 was “Persistence Trumps Talent” and Dan later told me that my display of living by this rule was what ultimately gave him the confidence to invest his book’s marketing success in my hands.