You Don't Have to Know Everything
20 Mar 2022 » Opinion
You probably remember from your school days, that there are 3 types of industries: primary, secondary and tertiary. It goes without saying that we are in the last one: tertiary or services. While jobs in all industries require knowledge, in the services industry it is all about the knowledge: we do not have factories or farms or mines or…, just our brains.
This is particularly the case of consultants. A client hires our brains for a few hours or days and has high expectations of what is in them. This situation leads to probably the worst nightmare of a consultant: not knowing what the client is asking. And I know that this is a tricky situation, especially when we have seen bad consultants who do not care about the knowledge they are expected to have.
My personal story
Let me start with a story. Back in 2014, just after my summer holidays, my manager told me to book tickets to New York, as I was going to get trained on Adobe Audience Manager (AAM) and become the third consultant in Adobe EMEA to learn this tool. It is worth mentioning that I knew absolutely nothing about AAM (or Demdex, its original name). I had a great time in the training in our Times Square office, but I only understood about 50% of the training.
Six months later, I was assigned the first customer. Imagine how much I had forgotten since the training. I vividly remember how bad the first meeting went. I did not have answers to the questions and I did not understand what the customer was talking about. Fortunately, I had the Adobe account manager in the meeting, who knew more and helped me wherever he could. Still, I looked dumb. I can say that that was my worst meeting at Adobe.
Then, for the second meeting, I came much better prepared. I know that the client noticed the change, as he mentioned it to the account manager. From the third meeting onwards, I was confidently leading the implementation and the customer never complained about me.
The two other AAM consultants left the team, so I became the only AAM consultant in EMEA. For a few months, I did all projects across the continent, travelling to Spain, Norway, Italy, Germany and Ireland. I have very fond memories of those days, as I enjoyed the projects a lot. Nobody noticed that I started on the wrong foot.
Finally, I trained other consultants, passing on the knowledge I gathered.
I will get back to you on that
I take for granted that, if you claim to be an expert in a tool, you actually are. That being said, it is OK not to know every single detail about that tool. As tools become more complex, it is almost impossible to know everything about them. Your knowledge will always have some gaps.
So, next time you get a question about the tool, to which you do not have an answer, you should confidently say “I will get back to you on that”. Customers understand it, it will not damage your reputation. Just remember to do your research, find the answer and share it with the customer. If you do that, your reputation may even increase.
Think about the alternatives:
- Silence. I have witnessed this in a project recently: the customer asks something, but nobody answers, with a very uncomfortable silence until someone tries to divert the attention to another topic. That is a no-go.
- Lying. Think about what will happen when the client realises that what you told was not true.
In my opinion, these two options just show your lack of professionalism. It is much better and easier, to tell the truth.
There is one caveat, though: do not do that for every question you get. The customer will probably question why he is paying for you. You should be able to answer most of the questions you get. Remember the first sentence of this section.
Over my (almost) 10 years of experience as a consultant, I have realised that there is something even better than knowledge of the tool: soft skills. There is an ample array of skills that fall in this bucket and the previous link shows a good example. If you think you need training on something, it is probably on soft skills.
Going back to my experience, they have helped me navigate demanding customers, difficult engagements and unexpected situations. The best example I can give was one of my early clients. He was frustrated with the previous consultant and was anything by friendly when I first met him. Instead of confronting him or becoming angry, I did my best on all fronts, both technical and non-technical. His attitude to me changed completely in a few weeks and he ended up telling me that he would support any decision I took.
The last point I wanted to highlight is the importance of managers. Bad managers will just tell you to fend for yourself, not providing any support. On the other hand, good managers will make every effort to get you the help that you need.
In my story above, my manager did two important things:
- Confidence. She was always confident that I would learn the tool and become an expert in AAM. I never received any pressure or negative comments about my initial experience. Although she never said it, I believe that she expected that my first project would not go perfectly well.
- Help. At some point, I needed support from another consultant on various topics. However, as I said, there was nobody else in EMEA to help me. Therefore, she spoke with the USA manager to get one of her best consultants to help me.
If you are a manager or aspiring to become one, remember these two points.