A Consultant's Depression and its Reasons

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Consultants are targets for severe emotional depression twice during their careers: when they are starting out as fledglings with too few clients to keep them gainfully employed, and later when they are extremely successful by everyone's standards except their own. I have been subject to both kinds of depression, so perhaps the mental tricks I learned to use on myself to get out of these sloughs will help you, too.

Getting started is difficult. Anyone who says otherwise is either a fool or someone who is trying to sell you something worthless (course, seminar, book, etc.). New clients don't appear fast enough. Referrals don't come when you need them. The practice always grows too slowly to suit you. Try to condition your consciousness to being ever aware of the following basic truths:
  1. Those prospective clients out there are neither ignoring you nor rejecting you. To think otherwise can lead to severe paranoia. Actually you are new to the scene and they simply do not know yet that you exist.
  2. Every dog has his day" is no less true for consultants. Doing business at the same old stand in the same old way for a respectable period of time inevitably produces clients. Somehow it always "comes together" further down the road. Always! The trick is to know that it will happen before it does - before you get discouraged and quit. If you know this and keep it in mind, the same things will happen to you that happen to all of my successful colleagues and to me (those of us who stuck it out).
Every week we get the following kinds of inquiries:

  • "I heard you speak two years ago at the annual meeting. I'd like to discuss our company's problems with you at your convenience."
  • "John Doe sat next to me on a flight to Los Angeles last week. He said you are an expert in the marketing of our type of product, and he gave me your name."
  • "I saw your name in the Yellow Pages."
  • "I clipped an article about you last year in our trade journal, and I thought I'd contact you."
  • "Mary Jones recommended you."
  • "I read your monograph, and thought you might be able to help us."
And on and on. Most of those "seeds" you are planting now will bear fruit later - if you are still around to harvest it. Quit, and all of your planting will have been for naught. Always bear in mind that, no matter how bleak things may look now, these good things will happen to you.

Another mental trick I played on myself was this: I regarded the marketing of my new practice as though it were a paying client - not soliciting new business only when I had free time, but always setting aside a certain number of hours each week to make new contacts, no matter how busy I was.

Let us now turn to the depression that besets the successful consultant - one that I still find myself squelching from time to time. Despite the good and plentiful fees, and despite the heavy client load, most consultants constantly deal with the depressing fact that their work is inconsequential. Rare is the consequential consultant.

Case History #9

I was retained to set up a completely new marketing approach for a book publishing company - a six-month project. The work completed, I detailed the marketing plan in my final report and submitted my bill. Payment came within ten days, accompanied by a glowing letter of praise for me and my work.

Four months later, I had lunch with the publisher. In the course of the conversation, I asked how the new marketing plan was working. "Oh," he said offhandedly, "we never implemented it. Nothing against your plan, old man, but silly politics with certain members of our board of directors prevented us from going ahead. Everyone at the office is quite grateful to you for your time and work."

Case History #1

A client came to my office to discuss his future consultancy. He had set up a two-hour appointment with me in advance. He travelled 1,800 miles to see me. Upon arriving at my office, he spoke nonstop for the entire two hours. I was able to say virtually nothing. When the time was up, he wrote a check and told me that those were the most profitable two hours he ever spent.

Case History #2

I was retained by the United States Department of the Interior to check the plans of an architect engaged to design a government bookstore. I met with the architect. I then filed a report to my client, U.S.D.I., which stated that the architect's plans were a travesty, totally unworkable, and reflected complete ignorance of book retailing. I was thanked for my report and promptly paid. The bookstore opened, built according to the original plans, producing a daily loss of taxpayer dollars for several years before it was finally torn down.

No matter what your income, work that produces no visible or meaningful consequences can be depressing. Whenever this depression rears its ugly head, I force my consciousness to be aware of the following endemic traits of the consulting profession:
  • We are paid for advice given, not advice taken.
  • We can only be running streams of expertise. We can force no client to drink from that stream.
  • The most difficult concept for a client to accept is change: and change is what the consultant is retained to accomplish.
  • Fifty percent of all clients take the advice they pay for. Of that, only 50 percent of the advice is implemented. So consequence can only result from 25 percent of the consultant's total endeavor.
After many hours in front of the mirror, I have finally perfected the Italian shrug.

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