Category Archives: Consulting Philosophy

What Do You Need, What Do You Want?

I observe in amazement people who pile-on every digital gadget that comes out, and upgrade from 4.6.541a to 4.6.541b. They have to have it first and fast. I have no issue with that. My own inclination is to wait three weeks for the new iPhone to be delivered and not wait on a long line in Manhattan. I’l also set it up when I have time, not the moment that UPS drops it in my hands.

I have my own foibles. I don’t need exotic cars or watches, but I want them. They are legal, ethical, and I can afford them, so that’s my prerogative. Chacun à son goût. (I would never wear the Apple watch in place of one of my current ones. Their ubiquity on wrists reminds me of the old pocket protectors—pragmatic but entirely nerd-like.)

The important thing is to realize the difference. Some people think they need things they really don’t (just look at garage shelves or closet floors to find the discards) and some people merely want things they really need (the never-taken vacation, the coaching help).

With clients, determine what they really need before you cater to what they want. That’s not bad advice for yourself, as well.

© Alan Weiss 2014


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Checked by Choice

I used to play military games on my computer that were intuitive and simple. If I built enough battleships or bombers or tanks, and brought them against inferior forces, I would win. I played against the computer at various levels. I could choose the type of terrain.

Recently, I was offered a game of fighting tanks. The instructions alone were stupefying: dials to read, varied ways to move and fire, getting the tank out of the garage, and so on. It was too much like work. I didn’t pursue it.

Investment experts explained to me at a speech that the reason so many people leave money in zero-interest savings accounts is that the options for investing the money are too numerous for a layperson to evaluate: stocks, bonds, CDs, junk bonds, derivatives, real estate, REITs, and so on. Similarly, Best Buy employees have told me that they have to rule  television choices OUT of consideration, because the prospective buyer facing two hundred televisions screens and assorted choices for each tends to leave without buying anything.

I believe in three simple options with every proposal (or to suggest a future meeting or obtain a referral or anything else). That “choice of yeses” improves your chances of a “yes” on something. But more than three options, or three convoluted options, usually won’t work. The buyer needs more time to think them through. Forward progress is effectively checked.

“Paralysis by analysis” extends to a proliferation of choices for buyers. Don’t make it any more complicated than one, two, three.

© Alan Weiss 2014

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The Irrelevancy of Fresh Pupperoni

Bentley and Buddy Beagle adore Pupperoni and dog bacon strips. Not too long ago, I noticed the bags were different. They enabled me to tear off the top, but then reseal them with a locking mechanism such as you’d find on the cold cuts you buy in the supermarket.

It never occurred to me to keep the dog treats “fresh.” The dogs loved them equally when they became somewhat harder in composition, I’m assuming (neither dog would sit for an interview) that the flavor was still excellent and the crunchiness an added benefit. After all, dogs love hard biscuits because they enjoy crunching things.

So I ran a test (I have a lot of time on my hands) and compared their reactions to “fresh” and sealed Pupperoni, and unsealed and “stale” Pupperoni. There was no difference whatsoever in aggressiveness to grab one, or haste in devouring it. To the dogs, the quality and experience were equal.

Why would a company make a more expensive bag when preserving the contents are unimportant to the end user? Because the intent is to better influence the buyer. Dogs don’t buy these treats, people do. And some people, mistakenly in my belief, think that sealed Pupperoni will last longer or taste better.

The same applies to most sales. Complex fishing lures aren’t made for fish, they are made for fishermen. Fish are dumb, and they’ll bite almost anything, and repeatedly. A fish’s memory lasts perhaps four seconds. Fishermen have slightly longer ones.

As you market and sell your services, keep in mind that it’s the buyer’s perception which is usually the determinant, not some greater reality, ultimate customer use, or your own analysis. That’s why people “rinse and repeat,” thereby using twice the shampoo volume (and product) they really need to. No one’s hair is that dirty. But their perception is that the company has an instruction on the label in their best interest.

So the next time you’re taking the time to decide among liver, poultry, or chicken-flavored dog food, save the time. The dogs don’t care, and you shouldn’t, either.

© Alan Weiss 2014

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Duck Beaks and Empiricism

My son was home for a visit and watched me feed the ducks as we talked. We have cement steps which go down to the pond, and I threw a bucketful of feed down the steps.

“Why are you throwing their food on the steps instead of the grass?” he asked.

“Because the ducks are like rototillers and the dig up everything when they eat, causing a mess and ruining the grass.”

“But their beaks will be hurt by the concrete!”

“How long have I been feeding the ducks here?”

“I don’t know, maybe 25 years while I was growing up.”

“How many ducks have you seen with deformed beaks?”

“Well, none….”

Empiricism is the pursuit of facts and truth based on observed evidence, not conjecture or theory. It’s the best way to approach any consulting assignment so that you’re not running all over the place because of what people claim.

If you do that, you’ll be a dead duck.

© Alan Weiss 2014

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Don’t Cut Your Client’s Steak

I find consultants assuming they can improve their buyer’s behavior, even though that’s not part of the project. They listen to employees complain about the boss and figure they should “fix” the boss, sort of as a public service. That they have no hard evidence other than schoolyard gossip doesn’t seem to deter them.

I once heard a woman who re-entered consulting after achieving an “empty nest” during the day say she was worried, out of force of habit, that she’d begin cutting her client’s steak at dinner for him as she did for her children at home.

Unless you find someone who physically cannot cut the steak, leave the dining experience to his or her preferences. Stick to your own meal.

© Alan Weiss 2014

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Square Zero

I’ve never understood the concept of “square one.” If you want to start anew, then erase the board, tear off the sheet, delete the entry.

Square zero is your starting mindset approaching a prospect. There are two primary chords which seem to be played:

1. How can I get this business? How can I “sell” this person? What objections will I have to overcome? What are the weaknesses in my arguments? How much money can I make?

2. How can I best provide value? What improvements will be most impressive? How can I help this buyer exceed expectations and objectives? How much help can I provide?

You’re either walking in—and pre-determining you success—with a “take” or a “give” mindset. Every day I hear from people who want to “take” something from me. I ignore them or tell them “no thanks.” But I stop to pay attention to the very few who seem to sincerely want to give me something.

What’s your mindset at the outset?

Start again at square zero.

© Alan Weiss 2014

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Just the Facts, Ma’am

Jack Webb played detective Joe Friday in the old Dragnet TV series, and he was constantly requesting that he be told “just the facts,” and not opinion, hearsay, suggestions, or personal bias.

The same applies to us in consulting. I coach people every week who want to know what to do with the equivalent of schoolyard gossip and casual rumor. Of course employees may say they can to the job better than the boss who got the position through “connections.” Of course senior management is going to claim that people should be motivated because the pay is good, so there must be something wrong with them. Of course sales and R&D will usually blame each other for results below expectations.

These are normal organizational dynamics. You can’t act on them as if you believe you’re hearing the truth! Here is how to deal with what you hear:

1. Ask: What is your evidence for that statement? Can you give me an example of where and when it occurred and who else witnessed it or heard it?

2. Ask: What is the actual observed behavior? How does this manifest itself in front of others?

You don’t want amateur (or even professional) psychoanalysis. You want to know what is actually visible in the environment so that you can verify it yourself. Validate what you hear before acting on it, or you’ll be most likely acting on what people prefer to believe and not what’s actually happening.

It’s bad enough to carry a flame thrower onto the ice. But if you light it, and then point it at your feet, you’ll find yourself quite quickly in cold, deep water. And that’s a fact.

© Alan Weiss 2014

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But Why?

My twin granddaughters keep asking “Why?” ever since they learned to speak. “Why is the car top down?” “Why don’t all cars have tops that go down?” “Why don’t trucks have tops that go down?”

You get the drift.

It’s a great habit, one often ignored by consultants. A buyer says, “We need a two-day strategy retreat” (or a week of coaching or interviews with our clients or a focus group) and the consultant tries to figure out how to convince the buyer that he or she can meet the demand and get the money. That is a commodity approach.

However, if the more confident consultant simply asked, “Why do you want that?” one might discover a completely higher level of need with more impact, larger value, and higher fees. That is a value-based approach.

“We need a leadership development workshop.”


“Because our leaders aren’t acting in concert with each other and are too often competing with each other.”


“Because I’m the third CEO in three years and they have become very territorial and mistrusting.”

“Then let me suggest that a ‘program’ isn’t the answer, but that we need a range of interventions, some individual, some group, and some starting with you.”

The questions “Why?” raises the level of the decision and also raises the ante.

© Alan Weiss 2014

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When you’re regarded as the expert:

• People defer to your judgment.

• You create the reality (“This isn’t a compensation issue but rather a recognition issue”).

• Fees aren’t a factor in selecting you.

• You work solely with high level people.

• You determine the types of interventions, not the client.

• Bold, innovative, contrarian recommendations are taken seriously.

• You set the speed and style of the intervention.

• Resistance and critique are not factors.

• The client feels grateful to have worked with you.

How do you regard, present, and conduct yourself? Do you see yourself as an expert who is an immediate peer of the buyer, or as a hired hand who will be quickly delegated to HR and resisted by entrenched habits and resentment?

The choice is yours. This is your career and your life. Unless you surrender your status.

© Alan Weiss 2014

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I held my first group session in our new retreat facility last week, and midway though the morning  a huge boom at one of the windows overlooking the pond startled all of us. We looked up to see a hawk recovering its bearings, and flying back across the water into the woods.


A red-tailed hawk can reach about 25 MPH in level flight (120 MPH when diving—a peregrine can manage 150), and it must have been doing that when it collided with the class. A smaller bird would have killed itself, but the hawk’s beak must have absorbed the impact, and it looked fine albeit somewhat confused flying off.


I think we often collide with things we don’t see, yet, unlike the hawk, we’re sentient beings and should be able to surmise and predict. We collide with surprising buyer responses, with non-supportive stakeholders, with unexpected information, and with dilatory payment and deadlines unmet. If we’re small birds, these impediments can kill us. But even as large birds, they’ll give us quite a headache and force us to reverse course with even more dire results.


There’s nothing criminal about being surprised on occasion, but there is something negligent about being continually surprised. There’s nothing unique about encountering an unforeseen obstacle, but there is something reckless about charging full steam ahead into the unknown.


If you see what is clearly a buyer and are certain of no traps around that buyer, then by all means go to diving speed. But if you’re pursuing your own ideas in your own perspective and in duplication of what you’ve always done, you may want to slow down and reconnoiter. That clear sky you see might just be an illusion.


© Alan Weiss 2014

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