If I had to pick one root cause for all of mankind’s problems, it would be errors in perception. Measuring, assessing, and gathering data is well within our ability. However selecting what should be measured and interpreting the data to drive higher-level thinking is arguably our current evolutionary challenge. Just look at how sharply educated people can be fragmented by politicians, marketers, and the media on any issue.
Being both the boss and employee of a consulting business doesn't mean that a performance assessment doesn’t need to be performed. The challenge is to look at your performance in the most accurate and revealing way possible to mitigate omnipresent confirmation bias. It is good to gain an outsider’s point of view by asking a client if they have any feedback to offer as you seek to become the best consultant they have ever had. Or engaging your local economic development office to see if they have any business review services that could help. But this article is focused on how to perform an accurate self-assessment.
Take, for instance, the first year I started reviewing my own work. I found that I was spending most of my marketing time and effort chasing jobs posted to freelance sites like eLance. There was a seemingly infinite supply of work, so it must be a good place to market! But when I looked at the number of signed contracts that came from there it was a big, fat goose egg. Closer inspection showed that the pricing structure targeted by most jobs on eLance is not enough to support a highly- trained electrical engineer in the US. Not that eLance is a bad place to start. It’s that the potential clients on that site were looking for quick jobs instead of the full service that I provide (high level technical experience, effective project management, great communication, and a track record of completing projects on target and on time). I did better browsing Craigslist for 30 minutes each month than looking through all of the projects and trying to negotiate middle ground on projects that had a fundamental mismatch between the client and me. Plus, hearing someone say tell me that my time was worth on the order of $30 per hour was not pleasant. Needless to say, that one revelation resulted in a huge time savings and a much more efficient effort allocation the next year.
The following year, I began reviewing paying clients themselves. I was able to identify a client who was slow on paying invoices, wasn’t that big of a client, and didn’t return phone calls and emails when I needed them. I realized that the relationship was sour because I first took the work when I needed it. His recognition of my needing the work planted the seeds of a corrosive relationship where the client thought he could get away with anything. After my review, I asked to change the terms of the contract for higher pay and late payment penalties. He asked for one last push of work at the old rate, and we parted ways on good terms after that.
In both of the above cases, my perception was inaccurate. I considered eLance a good sales venue because of the plethora of work, but never took the time to check if my sales effort bore fruit. I considered the bad client to be worth it because it was money in the bank, but never looked at the annual total relative to my total gross revenue. Giving my year’s result a hard look was very revealing in both of those cases.
How does one fight the perception error that plagues mankind? Lowering the bar and convincing yourself that you did a great job is worthless when self-reviewing. Before I start my review each year I think to myself that I have made many mistakes and the goal is to find them all. To keep from being discouraged, I am sure to make a note of the successes as well.
- How many designs were completed this year? Is this more or less than last year? Comment.
- How many of those were delivered on time and on target?
- Describe any misses, what happened, and how they could have been prevented.
- Which projects took more or less effort than expected?
- Describe each one, and how it could have been avoided.
- What areas did this year’s projects come from?
- What are the areas of expertise that the consultancy should focus on?
- How can more projects in those areas be found?
- Did I adequately increase my skill set this year?
- What training would be good to keep sharp and get target jobs?
- Where did this year’s clients come from?
- Where did clients for the past 5 years come from?
- Did you work more, less, or about right this year? What defines these thresholds?
- If less, why wasn't there more work? Were there any opportunities missed?
- If more, was it worth it? If not, what would you have dropped?
- If about right, how can next year be as good?
- What was this year’s revenue? Is this more or less than last year? Comment.
- Create a bar graph of revenue by client for the year.
- Are you making sure to take stellar care of the critical big clients?
- Are you setting the right expectations on availability to the small clients?
- Are there any clients on that list that shouldn't have been there? Why?
- Did any clients have trouble paying? What can be done to prevent it?
- How much work would be good to take on this year?
- How much work can be depended on for the coming year, and when is it scheduled?
- What should be done to come up with the extra work?
It’s only 13 questions, but it can produce some very deep thoughts. Try to think of it as a meditation prompt instead of a worksheet. Taking notes as they come to you over a few weeks will flesh out some remarkable revelations about the business. Who knows; it could mean the difference between a successful consultancy and having to return to the corporate world!
Mirror painting: https://www.flickr.com/photos/magdawolna/14623381383/sizes/m/
James Benson is writing a series on 'Engineers As Consultants' to educate and encourage salaried engineers to consider if hanging a shingle is right for them. New posts on the first Monday of every month.