Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Peril of Professional Services

This week, the boss and I found ourselves receiving three different requests for help from three different groups of people. Each one entailed reviewing and providing feedback on IT plans, strategies, and budgets. Each entailed some degree of reading, analyzing, and formulating recommendations. Each one was framed as a "favor."

The timing could not have possibly been worse since we were chasing deadlines on a number of items, plus the boss and I were both downed by this cold/cough thing, which slowed us down significantly, and made any kind of heavy thinking difficult.

As I was reflecting on the situation (and the not-so-amusing timing of it all), I realized that this is the peril that everyone in professional services faces. If you're a doctor, a lawyer, or a consultant in similar fields of professional services, you'll always be approached by people who want your advice, but are not willing or not able to pay for it.

Doctors probably know this best of all, since I know from personal observation that people will ask for medical advice at the strangest places -- while you're in line getting into a movie theatre; while you're eating at a restaurant; while you're sitting on a church pew; heck, even while you're in the rest room! If you had made an appointment to see the doctor and asked exactly the same set of questions, you would have been billed a consultation fee. If you bump into your doctor at some social function and ask for their advice, then you're getting it for free.

Personally, I'm more than happy to give people advice about most things that don't require a lot of work. Want my pasta recommendation for a particular restaurant? I'm game. Want to know what TV shows to watch? I've got an opinion that I'm happy to share. Wanna know if the laptop you're thinking of getting is good enough for you? I'll be happy to take a look. Wanna know if the new Google spreadsheet service is any good? I'll be happy to give you my $0.02 (assuming of course that I've tried it already). Heck, I even get a kick out of giving people (unsolicited) career advice, although of course I always attach a disclaimer to that.

Bottomline, there's a world of difference between advice that you can dispense casually over a meal, and advice that you can provide only after wading through stacks of paper and thinking things through. And that's where the situation gets really tricky.

Most people don't realize that when they ask for free advice from someone in professional services, they are actually depriving the person of income.

If my business is selling Product X, then it may make sense for me to give you free advice that will help justify your purchase of my Product X. So when a large hardware company comes along and tells you they'll be happy to do a free study of your data center and give you recommendations, it makes absolutely perfect sense to me. After all, by the end of that study, they'll probably be recommending that you upgrade or dispose of some of your current hardware and procure some brand-spanking new machines (preferably from them).

That's not the case in professional services. All you really have to sell is your time and your thoughts. Any time that I spend giving someone free advice is time that I cannot devote to a paying client. There's an opportunity cost involved. And if I've already given you the advice that you need, what other income can I hope to make out of that?

* Sigh * If I were not drowning in work right now while trying to shake off this cough/cold, I'd probably feel really flattered that people want to know what I think, and this mini-rant probably would not exist. Unfortunately, I feel really tired, and I can't help but think that the best form of flattery anyone can give me right now is to say that they value my advice so much, they're actually willing to pay for it.