Friday, August 3, 2007

Why I Stopped Consulting

When I left my last management position some years ago, I had certainly covered a lot of ground, working in that capacity for a range of private, government, and non-profit organizations. I had bookshelves lined with a progression of management books, and since I had seen theory after theory gain popularity only to die at the hands of the next, I focused my career on approaches producing reliably demonstrative results—and successfully so, especially how to effectively build cultures to boost productivity, morale, superior customer satisfaction and bottom-line results for stakeholders.

So, knowing I was walking into an already overpopulated field, I became a consultant, differentiating my business by serving small businesses normally unable to afford consultants. My fees would be created by eliminating the inefficiencies attributable in part to labor relations and inadequate business plans, drawing on work from Drucker to Oncken along with my own practical experience.

To publicize my new endeavor, I offered to write a regular column for local newspaper’s business page, much to the delight of the editor, and then to readers. Business was good.

And not. I was perfectly happy to offer free initial visits and consultations (probably a must given my clientele anyway), considering it research as much as business opportunity, but many of these were completely outside of anything my services could address. My favorite is the auto parts store owner who decided to buy an abandoned warehouse and build a skating rink. Interesting idea, really—skating all through these rooms. He wanted me to consult about layout. I had no experience to offer him, and said so, but still took a look out of curiosity. He did volunteer that he was leaving management of the auto parts store to his daughter while he focused on his new venture. I offered my more applicable services there, but he wasn’t interested. The enterprise folded a few years later (I don’t know for what reason).

Lots of encounters mirrored this experience. In particular, people wanted anything but what I offered, not recognizing its importance—part of why so many businesses do those things so poorly. Most people know the statistics—4 out of 5 small businesses fail—but all too often blame the economy, the business climate, taxes, energy costs and so forth (all admittedly factors) without considering the most obvious, consistent reason—people make poor decisions.

This was the problem with my own business model. I assumed people would want to maximize profit (while earning a living in a reasonably enjoyable and purposeful work environment). Larger businesses are forced to adhere to such economic models (or at least pay some reasonable amount of attention to them), but ego and personality plays a far larger role than economics addresses. Small businesses are more likely to do things just because they want to do them, whether an odd location, a hobby commercialized regardless of markets, or brief hours serving the owner instead of the customer.

Further, however nicely I explained it, however lightly I tread, however much I noted that even Michael Jordan has a coach, another set of eyes, the simple reality of consulting is this—some smart ass who just walked in is going to tell you how to run the business you’ve spent years building. Sure, you called the consultant, and because you can see you have problems you can’t solve alone, but still, mainly you just want to be right, and to make the best use of consulting services, you have to be wrong. Ticklish indeed. The extreme, though, was the Brooklyn Pickle.

This popular sandwich/soup shop, located in the next county, was a referral. As I usually did, I stopped by unannounced and anonymous before meeting the owner, bought a sandwich, sat down and just watched, making notes. Several points were obvious—customers waited in a long line before splitting to order from two sandwich lines, then served by a single person who both made the sandwich fresh and walked back to serve up soup. Chips and drink coolers lined the walls of the dining area—these could be moved along the line of waiting customers, or an employee could be taking orders and fetching them. Lunch crowds don’t like to wait, as they have little time, and this could increase sales too. More importantly, EVERY server along both serving lines had to wait to conclude each sale until a single manager could ring up the sale—a major bottleneck.

Many areas of the business were quite good—the product was both excellent and differentiated. Both sandwiches and soups were delicious, always fresh, and featured “country style” with large chunks of veggies instead of the finely processed offering elsewhere. Further, offices or other groups could order six foot long subs, featuring multiple types of meat, protected with long, colorful toothpicks for easy carving, and presented in a sturdy, well designed box—delivered, of course. Lots of good material here.

Best of all, the owner wanted help to address EXACTLY what my services primarily offered—he trained employees one way, but turned around and they disregarded their training, despite repeated redirection. A personnel culture issue. The owner was going on vacation for a few weeks, but we arranged a meeting for the day he returned.

On that day, I arrived early, met the managers (who were expecting me) and spent considerable time chatting with various employees as I wandered through the operation. When the owner arrived late in the morning, we introduced ourselves, exchanged brief small talk, and he offered, “We’re having a staff meeting in 15 minutes. Would you like to come?” Indeed I would! Perfect start. We gathered.

“Hi everybody!” he announced. “First, I want to thank you all. I had an absolutely delightful time in London and Paris. It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to go, and thanks to all of you, I was able to fulfill that dream!” Then on to business.

Yikes. Work hard, and one day this will all be mine. No wonder my notes were filled with accounts of seemingly hard working people who were very unhappy, including several who said, “I hope you can help us.” I didn’t feel any better about the situation when the owner welcomed me into his office, shut the door, and offered me a chair. “I just don’t get these people,” he started. “I do so much for them, and they just don’t appreciate it. Take today—I left a cake for them in the break room!” This was not going to be an easy job; the problem started at the top.

“Well, anyway…” he went on, describing in detail his problems, all of which revolved around uncooperative employees. He needed my help getting them to behave as trained. After all, he walked around, yelling at anyone not doing things exactly his way, but still they didn’t learn!

Then he leaned back, folded his arms, and proclaimed not unkindly if certainly firmly, “But before I can employ your services, I need to be convinced. How do I know you can help me? Why should I hire you?”

“Well, first, thank you for showing me your operation and giving me the opportunity to look around and talk to your staff.” He nodded in acknowledgement of the courtesy. “But Sir, frankly, I don’t think you should hire me. I don’t think I can help you. I’m very sorry.” One hard learned lesson I had forged from past experience is when not to waste time on a dead end.

He sat up straight, eyes sparkling. I had caught him completely off-guard. He was intrigued. We chatted at length, and now, largely out of curiosity I suspect, he offered me a several week deal. Greatly against my better judgment, and largely because I thought what a coup it would be to turn around such a difficult case, I accepted his proposition.

Thus started a few months of hell. He completely rejected my concerns about the logistics, arguing that “people expect to see me in the center of things at the cash register.” His employee problems stemmed from strict expectations, with no rewards for doing them, but scoldings for violating them, so people naturally just learned to avoid him, inventing and taking their own shortcuts, policy be damned. The epitome of this travesty was a long time employee he complained about the most—whose past long term job was at Disney. Now, few if any organizations train better than Disney. This was just the largest of the red flags.

I wrote a preliminary report, including that as things stood, I didn’t think the problem could be solved. Not only did it flow from the top, but also he had appointed one hard working but young and inexperienced kid as a manager. Not surprisingly, power went to the kid’s head, adding a fresh layer of hatred to an already bad situation. I added several recommendations and their rationales.

We met a few weeks later. “I went over your report,” he said. “Much of it was very hard to hear.” I nodded gently, knowing it had to have been. “I even went over it with a close business friend. He noted, ‘I can see where he’s coming from, but…’” and so forth, ultimately opting for the status quo. “So really, you’ve failed,” he proclaimed. No argument there. I suggested we settle up.

Instead, he asked me to do one more thing for him. Since I was clearly able to get people to open up and talk freely, and since he wanted to know what was really going on with his staff, he asked me to undertake a series of official interviews. I agreed, on the grounds that each interview would remain anonymous, and that I would summarize the findings as the group’s feelings. He agreed, and I proceeded.

In fact, I liked this arrangement. He was right—I WAS good at this sort of thing, and it could potentially help improve the labor climate. I enjoyed the interviews. Enter a new snag, however. The kid manager, perceiving me as a threat to his position (probably correctly), could never spare the two key employees (including the ex-Disney worker), the “ring leaders” of the opposition to management, so I never got to interview them. Finally, I gave up and completed the report without them. I sent it, along with my bill.

The owner responded with a few notes, emphasizing that since I hadn’t interviewed the key employees, the report held limited value. No kidding. But he also included a check, paying the account in full.

I decided there were more satisfying ways to earn a living.


1 comment:

Pastry Artist said...

No kidding!

Well you had to give it a go and you did your best. You can honestly say you were correct and the owner was making his own troubles. That's karma.

"Sleeping Kitten - Dancing Dog!"