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Passion, People and Principles

We’re All Dentists

post # 309 — February 14, 2007 — a Client Relations post

Well, not all of us, but many of us are.

The point about dentists is that while we may need them, we never WANT them. While they do very honorable, helpful caring things for us, their patients, we patients would rather avoid them if we can.

I believe the same is true of my profession — consulting. I doubt that anyone ever said “Oh, goody, the consultants are coming in.” Or “Oh, joy! I get to woork with the HR department today.”

Similarly, I doubt that anyone said “It’s my lucky day, I need to bring the lawyers in!” (or the accountants)

And, of course, the same is true of IT technicians, PR people, and a whole host of other professionals, (internal and external.)

As providers, we see what we do in a positive light (solving problems and bringing about improvements.) However, from the users’ perspective our presence signals pain, disruption, inconvenience, expense. Ultimately, we may benefit from the provider’s activities, but I’d rather not HAVE to deal with them at all.

We need to remember our place. We’re not glorious “saviors” of clients with problems: we are an unfortunate necessity.


Does anyone have stories to tell and when they learned this truth, and what changes in behavior they had to make as a consequence?


Greg said:

When I got into the computer field, I quickly learned that I was and indispensable hero when I saved someone from their own ignorance; and a useless expense all other time (common phrase: “You don’t really do anything.”). The death of IT is to devise a system so robust and reliable that it primarily requires monitoring and updating. The misconception is tech must be running around putting out fires and reacting to crises (often because of poor planning and shoddy work) to be giving their client’s value.

I have to continually look for opportunities for face-time with the end Users, letting them know what I do and the terrible things I prevent. If I do not “market” or reinforce the value of what I do, I could quickly work myself out of a job.

posted on February 14, 2007

Steve Roesler said:


Your post is a good reminder to consultants everywhere.

I don’t recall ever having the thought that I was not indispensable. Looking back, maybe that has helped by subliminally nudging me to do “a little more” than was agreed upon. And certainly with building and maintaining solid relationships.

But I do know consultant friends who view their role as “savior” of something and worse yet, view the client as a “patient.” My, what a dangerous posture. In watching some of their engagements unfold I realized that their practice was really about creating dependency rather than autonomy. And you know, it earned some of them quite a bit of money. But there was a strange dynamic. Although the clients kept them around for a long time, those clients did not readily refer them to other business associates nor speak glowingly of them in social settings.

Perhaps the fact that “We’re all Dentists” is a good thing, designed to keep us aware of the tenuousness of our role and the importance of bringing something practical to our clients when it would be easy to serve up the “buzz du jour.”

We’re all Dentists. I really like that.

posted on February 14, 2007

Ed Kless said:

Right on! Also, in many cases consultants are brought in when the customer has already tried to solve the problem and failed. This puts the customer in a vulnerable position from the beginning. Why couldn’t they solve it on their own.

Even more often they have identified the symptoms as the problem and do not want to believe what the real cause is.

This presenting problem is often technical in nature; the root cause is often organizational (people) in nature. The danger here for the consultant is to treat the symptom because that is what we feel comfortable doing.

I learned this with a customer who asked me to come in a assist with a deployment of a new CRM (customer relationship management) system. It turned out that the real problem was not with driving more sales (their presenting problem), but the fact that they were doing a lousy job collecting from current customers (the real problem).

We developed and trained their accounts receivable people on a collections process. Not only did their receiveable improve, but we were subsequently engaged to do the CRM system as orginally asked.

posted on February 14, 2007

peter vajda said:

What I learned early on as a consultant, and now as a coach, is to not explicity or implicity communicate to the client that the client is “bad” or “wrong” in some way, shape or form. To me, this is the kiss of death and detracts from a win-win, long-term healthy relationship. Being a “savior” can be carried out by being a “servant”, without ego, arrogance, and a “better-than-thou” attitude getting in the way.

Years ago, I once went to a dentist who, upon seeing a really bad tooth, said, “You should be a modal for dental schoo students.” I immediately got up, walked out and never returned.

Same with IT folks who service our computers. If their attitude is, “Now what the F*** did you do?!” and one of impatience or frustration, I’ll tell them then and there this is their last visit and I’ll certainly not recommend them to friends or colleagues.

I’ve had the same dentist and computer support person for some years now. Good teeth, great gums and well-running computers.

posted on February 14, 2007

Shawn Callahan said:

It’s great to see you seeking stories David. Your readers might find these approaches to asking questions designed to elicit stories useful. And just last night I posted this piece on finding success stories.

For me, I realised I was depensable as a consultant about 10 years ago after working with a Defence client for 18 months. I started getting confortable in my role and expected to be treated like one of the staff. All of sudden I found my contract had ended. This was a great wake up call to remind me that as a consultant you will always be an outsider and you need keep that clear in your mind.

posted on February 14, 2007

mary wynne-wynter said:

Even the dentists are also trying to provide a better customer experience, and so should we in our professional services roles.

I agree with the great comments about serving the client without ego. I explain my approach to clients this way: its not about ‘me telling you what you don’t know’, its about ‘together we have the best answers’. It fits with my overall role, change facilitator, although as a generalist, I perform a range of consulting, coaching and content development functions.

My worst experiences (2 of them) was being a sub-contractor.. a consultant to the consultants. I hated the ambiguity and multiple agendas, most of which were about ‘milking it and staying forever’. I often felt in danger of being used as a scapegoat.

Partly because of negative perceptions about consultants, I’ve recently re-designed my business model to provide small, fixed-price, fixed time programs..a product model actually. So far, the clients seem to be very happy with the experience, but it does require selling quantity.

posted on February 14, 2007

Phil Gott said:

This is particularly timely for me because as I write this my face is throbbing from a visit to my dentist earlier today. Despite still suffering a little discomfort, I think my dentist did an excellent job. Why do I say that? Well:

  • All the staff (receptionist, dental nurse, and the dentist himself) were extremely friendly, courteous and welcoming. I actually enjoyed being with them.
  • There was no professional arrogance about the dentist. He took the trouble to explain what he was doing (which was actually quite interesting), he offered me choices and he advised me where appropriate.
  • The surgery ceiling was fitted with a TV screen for my entertainment, and I was frequently asked about my degree of comfort.
  • I was not kept waiting and my time was not wasted, but neither was I rushed.

I haven’t a clue how effective the treatment was. I think it true that most clients of professionals do not judge the service they receive based on the technical excellence of the work (which they assume will be satisfactory) but on the same factors I use to judge my dentist.

Yes, we need to do a good job for clients but, more importantly, we need to excel in the way we deal with them as individual people. That’s what really makes the difference. We may not all be dentists, but we certainly are all in the business of caring for people.

posted on February 15, 2007

srini said:

I have been in the services sector for 13 years now and I do know that there have been many many moments savoured as a saviour for people in IT-related distress.

So I wouldnt agree with generalising attitudes towards professionals – maybe individuals who have problems look forward to a glorious saviour whereas employees of a business which has employed services of a consultant for a BPM exercise might look at those consultants as a necessary evil.

In any case I liked the attempt comparing us with the ‘painful’ dental visits :)

posted on February 15, 2007

Francis M. Egenias said:

Just remembered a “Family Feud” episode way back, in which the question was “Top 5 people/things/animals children are afraid of.” No. 1 answer was “dentist”

posted on February 19, 2007

Mark Shead said:

There are auto mechanics and new car dealers. The customer’s mindset in looking for a new car is much different than their mindset in trying to get their car fixed by a mechanic. Usually with the mechanic their focus is on price, with a car dealer the focus is usually on their ego or other desires—price is still important, but it isn’t the focus.

I find it is much easier to work with businesses that are trying to do something new. It is much more difficult to get them to want to invest in fixing something that is broken. The same is true in fundraising. It is easier for a university to raise funds for a new building, than to raise funds to do maintenance on existing structures.

posted on February 19, 2007

John Labbe said:

David, this blog must have reached me by some form of telepathy. Just this week I sketched out a newsletter article on how training is like flossing one’s teeth: we all know that we should do it and we all like to tell our dentists that we do it regularly, but how many of us actually do? In my experience, consultants who focus on training and performance are just as commonly viewed as “dentists” as those with other specialties.

posted on February 23, 2007