Are you keeping your clients dependent by trying to be a superhero?

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My two and a half year-old son Josh is constantly trying to rescue people.  If he sees someone distressed on the news, or a child crying at the mall, he will turn to me with a serious look on his face and say "Mom!  I am going to save them!"  He then evokes the spirit of his favorite superhero of the moment (alternating between Spiderman and a Power Ranger), throws his fists in the air and goes charging to the rescue.

Many consultants do the same thing with their clients.

Called in to help sort out a management mess or IT meltdown or financial crisis, they fly in the door like a superhero and impress everyone with their commanding presence, problem-solving skills and ability to execute.

If the client is satisfied, they look for the next big thing to be fixed.  Server meltdowns?  Count on me!  Errant executives?  I will keep them in line! 

Sounds like the right thing to do, doesn’t it?

Not quite.

When you consider yourself a superhero and treat your client like a victim in distress, you set up an unhealthy relationship.  By doing all their work for them, you deny them the opportunity to grow and develop as individuals and as an institution. Instead, consider this:

Your goal as a consultant is to work your way out of a job.

In the short term, you may need to swoop in and clean up a mess, to stop the bleeding and ensure your client is not at risk.  Once the crisis is over, work with them to see how to stop it from happening in the future.  Questions you should ask them are:

  • Do you need to overhaul an internal process to make sure this doesn’t happen again?
  • Does your internal staff need more information, resources or training to do their job?
  • Is there something blocking your ability to do the right thing?  If so, how can you remove it?
  • Is this (process, service, function) something you should outsource instead of trying to do it yourselves?

I tell you this from personal experience.  ALL of my business for the first 8 1/2 years of my consulting practice came from referrals.  I didn’t have a newsletter,  didn’t schmooze at networking events and never made a cold call.  My first gig came from my former manager who moved to a new company and needed some extra help.  From there, one person referred me to the next and that continued until the day I stopped working for corporations.

Here are operating guidelines that will ensure you get lots of referrals:

  1. There is more than enough work for everyone.  If not, you are in the wrong market.
  2. Your goal is to find out what your client wants to learn and help them do that, even if it is not directly related to your project.
  3. If you feel a project is not set up properly or is doomed to fail, do not take it.  They will always blame the consultant, regardless if it is your fault.
  4. Always base your decisions on what is right, not on what will pad your wallet.
  5. Always provide the best alternate resource you can think of if you are unable or unwilling to do the work.  Even if that person is your direct competitor.
  6. Treat your client like a human being, not as an employer.
  7. Do a great job.
  8. Deliver what you promise, on time.
  9. Question corporate culture.  It is your job to provide an alternate perspective.
  10. Be positive and encouraging. 

This quote sums it up best (attribution unknown, thought to have originated in China):

Go in search of your people

Love them; learn from them;

Plan with them; serve them;

Begin with what they have;

Build on what they know.

But of the best leaders –

When their task is accomplished,

Their work is done,

The People all remark:

"We have done it ourselves."

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8 Responses to “Are you keeping your clients dependent by trying to be a superhero?”

  1. Andy Pels says:

    Do you get tired of people commenting that you’ve ‘nailed’ something again?

    I read your kind reply to my comment and thought, “Don’t stress too much?” “What is she talking about?” “I was just agreeing with her about the importance of issues she raised.”
    Then I read my original comment again and thought, “oh.” Some internal battles played out there. I didn’t remember having so much apparent angst when I wrote it, but now I see it’s there. I really didn’t think I was stressing, but I guess you hit some chords that needed hitting. I think I’ve been exorcised. Thanks. And thanks for the succinct turtle advice.

    I am calm now. 🙂

  2. Andy Pels says:

    This comes up almost daily. It’s tough because I usually get the best feedback when I’ve come to the rescue “What would we do without you?!” “Andy, you saved the day again!” and put out a fire. But conferring with the buyer, the planner, the engineer and logistics about how the problem can be prevented in the future rarely results in such gushing responses – more like “Well that solution is fine, but involves a lot of paperwork.” “Yeah, I guess you’re right. I’ll see if I can find time to do that”—

    Not exactly as rewarding to hear.—

    So, if I’m not careful, I gravitate toward what seems more appreciated instead of toward what’s best for the client and what is, of course, my job when it comes down to it.—

    I agree with all of your points, but the advice
    “Always provide the best alternate resource you can think of if you are unable or unwilling to do the work. Even if that person is your direct competitor.”
    is so right, but sometimes initially SO tough. I’ll worry, “What if they never realized that this competitor can do many of the things I can (or can’t) do, and then I refer to them and everything comes crashing down!” But I guess I have to hitch my jeans up and remember that if I’m doing the great job that I believe I can do, my competition can’t touch me. Alternately, I have to ask myself, “Are you really in such a fragile position here that you could lose business just because your client happens to find out about your competitor’s existence?” If so, sheesh.
    OK I guess you can see you’ve provoked thought once again. I’ll keep the rest in my head for now.



    I know it is not easy! I love feeling like a superhero as much as you, and certainly as much as Josh.

    The problem is, over time, not only do you not make change in your client’s organization, but you start resenting or getting really tired from your work. You still can come in and do a totally smashing job. That feels good and “superhero-ish.” But it is different than taking responsibility for their poor planning, or inept leadership.

    As for the competitor issue, realize that I said “when you are unable or unwilling to do the work …” I find that if really great clients fit my ideal profile, I can always find creative ways to get the work done, for example by bringing in other people. But those that don’t feel right and wouldn’t be fun to work with … I would much rather pass them on to someone else.

    A good competitor to me is someone who I would hire myself. A good person, ethical, problem solver, creative, etc.

    Don’t stress too much — just keep doing great work and make turtle step systemic changes as you go.


  3. Hi Pam,
    Loved you on the call this morning with Seth, Tim, Elizabeth and my good buddy Andy, who suggested I get in touch with you. 🙂

    The verse you quote is from the Tao Te Ching, verse 17. Looks like the Lin Yutan translation. It was originally written by Lao Tzu (alternatively written “Lao Tzi”) – the “Old Master”. This was not his name, but his title. The Old Master’s name has been lost to history, but his sage wisdom has given good leadership advice to China for hundreds of years.

    Interestingly, I used he Tao as the base of a spiritual marketing program for SOHO’s – the “Tao of Ka-Ching” last year. A verse highlighted every lesson in our online eCampus.

    Excellent post, it basically all boils down to Staying in Integrity and Doing What You Say You Will Do.


    Thanks so much Maryam!

    I am so glad you enjoyed the call. A friend of Andy is a friend of mine!

    And I LOVE that you know the exact translation … how I adore my smart readers!!!

    Please visit often. 🙂


  4. palabras2 says:

    Excellently written…

    It’s something to think about, while we all want “more business” and to be “needed by our customer”. However, its another thing altogether to be at a clients “beck and call” or to have a client be so “dependent” that you dred each interaction; rather than see them as a customer needing your assistance. I love the operating guidelines you posted. With your guidelines in mind I’m certain to become a forward thinking resource rather than a super hero to my clients.

    Gee…I had wondered why my cape kept getting jammed in the phone booth? Now I know. Thanks Pam, for being my “Alfred” with wise words, and timely resources.

  5. Scott Ellis says:

    Pam, Great post. Just Thursday I added a similar post to my blog from a slightly different perspective, that of the person looking for a good consultant and a few steps to help them vet the person they are considering hiring. However, I overlooked the “dependency” issue so I’m going update it with a link into this post, great job!

    If you have a minute to check it out and have any additional thoughts I would sincerely appreciate the input.

    Best, Scott

  6. John Fritz says:

    IT’s SUPER JOSH! Send the Capped Toddler Wonder my way! Who can resist a super hero like him!

  7. Pam,

    I love the quote from China. I agree with the entire post. Nicely written.


    Michelle Malay Carter

  8. You seem to have done something right that I must be doing wrong!

    Long before I thought about being self-employed, I was working my way out of jobs. When I see a problem that recurs, my instinct is to get to its roots and change things. (My fourth grade teacher’s evaluation said that I excelled at “attacking problems”!)

    Yet, the end result (usually in nonprofits) has typically been that I was “no longer needed,” quit out of exasperation, or got brought on to the board, i.e., as a volunteer — not my getting my freedom back, increased pay, and continuing to offer my talents to the organization.