Managing the "Deliverables" Dance

First, can we all agree that “deliverable” is a terrible concept? This will come up early, too, in your discussions with a prospect. I hear questions about them so much that I have addressed them in my FAQ, like this:

What are the typical deliverables in a working relationship?

I am an established thought leader in this field, and my energy is expended in ways that maintain that position. Stated otherwise, my main deliverable is insightful analysis and transformative advice. The focus is not on long reports or even reports at all, and in fact my recommendations are short, concise, and only in outline form (I provide handouts in order for you to take notes). I can then expand where that would be helpful.

Admittedly, it’s a grumpy statement. I’m tired of the question, frankly. What do they think I should be delivering? Results on a platter? A 100-page report to justify their investment? I can’t be bothered to apply a salve to their monetary squeamishness. The deliverable is a concise, specific set of suggestions about how to improve their situation. If someone wants more than that, they need to hire someone else besides an expert.

[Deep, cleansing breaths, David.]

All right, I’m back. Sorry to get distracted.

To the degree that you're in the implementation, deliverables certainly make sense. Maybe it's an app or a website or an ad campaign or an SEO result or whatever. I get that. But there's just something about that word that focuses a spotlight on the wrong things.

An app is meaningless unless it does something. That might be a more efficient workforce or better data reporting or some other result, and the deliverable—if understood correctly—should be defined by moving that needle, and when people ask "what's the deliverable" it almost feels like asking for references or case studies. It's an instinctive sort of thing that usually gets asked of people who have the most likelihood of impacting your business...even if the deliverables are not so concrete.

Having ranted about this, I’ll suggest that clients who pay you a lot of money need/deserve some sort of tablet that summarizes the 10 Commandments for their situation. If they agree to take good notes so that you can extend the discussions, you’re off the hook. Otherwise, put together some specific, high-level action points. Here’s how I think about deliverables, but keep in mind that this applies more to the consultative side of your work:

  • You never know what/how someone will hear you, and having something in writing can correct their impressions. They can keep coming back to the document for a refresher.
  • Putting some things in writing is a good way to build this repeatable sequence that you’re always aiming for. You want them to love you, hate you, and then love you, in that order, over many years. They love you at the outset because you’ve captured their situation perfectly and helped them see some light at the end of the tunnel. They’ll then hate you because they feel abandoned and lost (since you are not a coach) as they scramble around wondering what to do next. You’ll help a little with this, but never as much as they want. During this time they’ll slowly adjust their expectations about how present you will not be. And finally, they’ll love you again as they find their own sea legs, see how you were right in spite of their doubts, and recognize how much better their company is now doing because they followed the basic recommendations, in spite of how hard they were to implement.
  • Skip the recitals about their situation. They know their situation, thank you very much, and it’s just killing trees to put all that nonsense in there.
  • The best way to know how to focus this report, however brief it will be, is to ask a question in the very first meeting, or by email just before you get there. It goes something like this: “If you could wave a magic wand and fix two or three things that would help you sleep better at night, what would that look like? I know that there are many little things, but what are the big things?” Then ignore most of the little things and focus on the big ones. And in your report, recite those big things and concentrate on solving them.
  • Avoid superlatives, even if you feel strongly. Eliminate grand statements and as many adverbs as possible that end in –ly. You don’t need to beat people over the head.
  • Everything you say needs to be true, but you don’t need to blurt out everything that happens to be true. You can save some of those nuggets for later. You have no obligation to tell them everything. Most clients aren’t ready for everything, so don’t overwhelm them. This can also be a strategy for a later engagement that’s more “advanced” in nature.
  • Couch your recommendations within the good that they have accomplished. Search for those good things, even if they aren’t easy to find. Don’t treat them like children, but understand that they want to be encouraged and acknowledged for the good decisions they have made. Be enthusiastic about what they have accomplished and hopeful about the future.
  • Most clients want to know where they stand in relation to their competitors, whether that’s around their business strategy, their people, their processes, their service lines, or whatever. Choose your words carefully when you address this. “Developing” is better than “below average.” “Typical” is better than “average.” “Advanced” is better than “way ahead.” Use encouraging words wherever you can. Save harsh judgments for those few places where they are warranted.

Now a little warning: After every critical-phase engagement, you’ll be getting one very simple request from the client. I don’t know what that is, and you won’t know until you hear it. With all the big issues that you’ve discussed, you’ll be surprised that they want help with something so small. It’s important that you answer that query quickly and helpfully. That will set the tone for the later relationship.

In fact, a lot of clients will intentionally avoid talking about the big issues that you are trying to solve. They are weighing the pros and cons of making those tough choices, or maybe they are embarrassed at their lack of progress. But in order to keep the lines of communication open, they surface the smaller things. That’s fine. They’ll call on you when they are ready.

If they go into hiding, it’s also okay to poke or nudge them a little and ask how things are progressing. They’ll universally appreciate your initiative in checking in. Even a tongue in cheek note like this works: “Hey, are you hiding from me? Let’s reconnect when you come up for air. I’d love to catch up on how things are shaping up, what’s changing on the ground, and how you can keep up the progress.”

One thing you can do to help them build momentum is to suggest some smaller steps to facilitate a few early wins. That will give them a taste of victory and the encouragement to keep plowing ahead.

This highlights how clients think of you at key points in time. They are going to be excited at first when they discover you and decide to work together. Then will follow the inevitable buyer’s remorse, but you can counter this with assurances and deep insight.

After the actual relationship begins, though, and as I've noted above, you’ll find that they love you, kind of hate you, and then love you again. The first immediate reaction is love. Your work has been insightful, courageous, and full of actual problem solving.

But then they’ll remember that you are not going to actually do the work—that’s up to them. You still understand them and are standing behind them offering support, but you aren’t doing the work. That’s their job. It feels even more overwhelming than before, because now there’s no excuse about what to do. They know what to do and nothing stands between them and success except discipline.

But one or three years later, they’ll look back and see how valuable the engagement was. They’ll see how they can trace the big changes back to those conversations, and how the fog began to lift.

So be careful about getting discouraged when all your clients don’t love you. Not only are you providing expertise, but you are also modeling how they should provide expertise. And that will always involve some disappointment on the part of your clients. That’s just the way it is.

[This is a modified excerpt from my next book. It's a few months away and I'm not ready to take pre-orders, but you can see the cover here.]

  • Secret Tradecraft of Elite Advisors

    Secret Tradecraft of Elite Advisors

    Covert Techniques For A Remarkable Practice

    Buy Now