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Learning through the heel

Market Square and the presidential castle in Helsinki

It's a common Finnish idiom; it's effectively the same as "learning it the hard way", but I love the more visceral feeling of our version.

The idea behind it is roughly that someone can tell you that stepping on a sharp object is painful, but you cannot really learn it until you step on it yourself. Only then you truly have the experience and will know why you should find ways to avoid similar pain in the future.

Oh yes, it would be prudent to learn from the pain the first time, but as humans are flawed creatures, it rarely suffices suffer only once; thus this is an oft repeated saying.

There are many lessons of my professional life that this idiom applies to:

  • not burning the candle from both ends

  • there is always more work to do

  • a plugged in cable works best

  • editing the code you are actually testing is more efficient than editing the wrong file

    • so on and so forth.

Customer expectation delivery

This, and the related subject of customer expectation management, is a core tenet of professional services work. I personally first learned of it from the CEO of e21, Marko Rautakoura, back in 2005-2006 when I was starting on my path as a professional maker-builder-thinker-fixer.

The lesson came when we had had trouble with over-delivering on customer projects. You see, back then I was worried that my inexperience in the field would show up as lacking quality in either customer experience, delivered code or bugs in production. So I did what was obvious to me then: I overcommitted myself to out-do the specs and deliver even better than we had sold.

As now is obvious, it is also a bad idea to over-deliver due to the fact that it takes significantly more effort, i.e. time, which I should have been focusing on other projects, tool development etc. Especially when most of our projects had an hourly rate assigned to our team and some idea of the amount of hours a project would take to complete. When I put in more effort to make everything shine, it obviously cut deeply into the profits of the project.

Marko came to me and gave me a fatherly talk to understand why everything was taking so long. I said that I wanted to make absolutely sure the customer got the best we could offer. He smiled and nodded knowingly and then shook his head and told me how this was in fact bad for the customer also.

"If you go to a car salesman and order a Lada, you wait for longer than expected and then end up with a Ferrari and a bill for a Mercedes as well, would you be satisfied?"

Welllllll noo.. but they got a Ferrari for the price of a Mercedes...?

Yes, sure. But what they needed was a Lada right now for its own price and now they had to wait and pay for more. Even if objectively they got more value, it wasn't what they wanted. In addition, think how bad it is for the business of the car salesman - selling Ferraris for a fraction of the price; where's the profit in that? How will the car reseller stay in business and keep all of those employees fed and happy?

It is a measure of professionalism to question what the customer actually needs. If they come asking for a Lada, instead of selling them a Lada or a Mercedes, start by understanding why they came to you in the first place.

What is the problem they are solving to which they think that they already know the right answer to?

If their need is to find an inexpensive car for a destruction derby, then selling them a Ferrari for the price of a Mercedes is absolutely missing the target.

If their need is to find a good car, but their limited experience doesn't include Volvos, Audis and others, then educating, challenging, and supporting them in finding the right technical solution is the right choice and selling that Lada would have been a lost opportunity for more business.

It struck home. I understood the point and promised to deliver only slightly better than promised. I assume that he also understood to adjust the project scope slightly to make sure to keep me and my co-workers fed and employed.

I did not, however, thoroughly learn the idea.

I did remember it, but since it was second-hand pain, it did not truly stick with me.

Customer expectation management

As said, these are sibling concepts and very closely tied together.

In essence, you as a professional must ensure both you and the customer are looking at the same target and then actually putting the arrow straight through that target.

I am by nature a problem-solving solution-seeker. I love a good challenge, puzzle or dilemma.

This has gotten me into trouble more than once. I am an easy target for nerd sniping (see xkcd/356) as well as often solving people's personal problems when I should be just listening and nodding.

Let's move forward approximately twelve years. I am going to be doing one of my first incident response gigs in a role where I am the incident manager in charge of handling the client relationship, oversight and report delivery.

I am excited. I am electrified. Vim and vigor. A dog with a hundred tennis balls.

We go to the kickoff meeting with the client and we go through the scope of the investigation. We come back to the office and I am ready to just start attacking the problem at hand and digging through ALL THE BITS.

My friend and fellow Taneli Kaivola stops me.

Like a confused puppy I look at my squeaky toy and at the hand holding me back from endless joy.

"What are you going to do?" he asked.

Welllllll I'm going to image the disk using this device here and-then-i'm-going-to-remember-yes-yes-i-remember-the-toggle-for-the-writeblocker-and-and-and -- my voice got steadily higher as the speed increased in my babbling.

Gently Taneli stopped my misplaced enthusiasm.

"Why?"

To figure out if there's something bad on this machine! I was surprised how such an obvious thing was worth stating. Why do you ask?

"What is the client expecting us to deliver?"

I did a double take. What?! Well they asked us for help and if we find something then we tell them... errrrr?

"And if you don't find anything?"

Well then... I dig deeper?

"How deep does the client want our digging to go on for?"

Crap crap crap. Errr. panic! shame! I don't know I admitted with downcast eyes.

"Yes I figured. You were driving full-force at the client meeting and I didn't want to shoot you in the back, but their expectations need be first discussed and then managed. We are not magicians."

I called the client and tried to contain my embarrassment of my unprofessional lack of controlling the situation. I was able to get both sides on the same page regarding what they were expecting us to deliver and balancing that with what was technically possible, feasible, and ultimately sensible thing to do.

You can always go digging deeper and delivering more, but whether it is sensible to do boils down to your best understanding of the client's real needs.

This time the pain via embarrassment hit first-hand and I took one in the knee, but I did not stop being an adventurer in the world of professional services.

These two are not the only incidents where I have forgotten my lessons when a sufficiently juicy new problem was thrown in front of me, but these are the two that stick in my head most vividly.

I can only hope that I have learned the lesson, but ultimately I doubt it. It is the flip-side that comes from the major urge of wanting to solve problems and help people.

Cost of failure

I wanted to write about this through my own experiences as I recently witnessed friend getting burned by this very same phenomenon.

The cost of failure varies significantly depending on who is at the receiving end of your misaligned services.

The more important of these two is the management of expectations. In the most extreme case even your significant over-delivery will not reach the heights of the customer's expectations; or vice versa where your perceived under-delivery might seem like too much effort and thus too much cost for the customer.

You can more easily control what you are delivering so it's quite important know which target you are aiming for. But if you don't make sure from the get-go that you both are aligned in the pursuit of results, you are in danger of failing despite your best intentions and efforts.

You might deliberately decide to over-deliver in order to win a better standing with the customer which you hope will ensure more future contracts. But it can be devastating mentally if the customer still is not satisfied.

I tried my best and they are still unhappy with me.

Damn.

As someone who always aim to help and deliver things I absolutely think will provide the recipient with as much value as possible, that is a brutal gut-punch.

Been there, tried that, picked up the pieces of my self-worth from the floor for the following few weeks.

Recovery

It's important to get some understanding of what went wrong.

  • Was there a problem with the delivery or management of expectations?
  • Was there an external power at play that had nothing to do with your efforts?
  • Was it just a bad day or did you authentically fail yourself?
  • Does the customer have a habit of deliberately downplaying successes to keep consultants humble?
  • Could someone have actually succeeded in this case?
  • Did you totally forget one part of the delivery because you were too busy with other things or too single-minded in pursuit of one aspect of the problem?
  • Did you overestimate your own skills, time management, work load?

These are important questions that you should seek someone else's opinion on. Preferably someone detached from the project itself to give you objective look on those by asking you to provide the facts.

If you come to the conclusion that there was anything you could have done to prevent this situation of the customer being unhappy, then own it.

If the customer barking at you directly or via a third party, acknowledge it. Yielding that you could have performed better, regardless of whether there were also issues at the customer's side, is usually one of the best ways to defuse the situation.

"Yes. I agree, I could have made sure earlier on that you had all the materials. Yes, I could have phoned you daily to make sure we are still heading the same way. Yes, I could have held a meeting at the closing of the project to go through everything to make sure you are happy."

It's very hard to continue barking and being mad when the other side is agreeing with you.

I am not advocating groveling in front of the customer nor accepting falsely any blame that isn't yours, but in general saying "Yes, it did not go as planned, but what do you suggest we do to fix it" is better than arguing about it from your respective high horses.

 

 

JW / Helsinki / 2018-10-13

 

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