Moving Upstream in Your Client Work

Greetings from my last trip to the cabin. We've enjoyed this isolated spot on the Cumberland Plateau for 13 years. I'm sitting on a bench, right now, looking over a 700' drop off this rock bluff. I've bled four books here—three published and one coming out soon—and this place is almost sacred. Four other authors have written books here, musicians have composed scores, and artists have painted scenes into life. Family holidays, client retreats, and high school reunions. But we haven't been using it as much lately and sometimes the old familiar needs to be ripped off like a bandaid to make room for new growth. Time marches on, with or without you, but gratitude, memories, and nostalgia are combining into a weird emotional stew. We're going to swap the cabin for some more RV time, which has already been awesome. Somehow I'll figure out how to swap images of a warm cackling fire for the deep thrum of a big diesel engine! Change keeps me alive.

By the way, if you had a paid subscription to these emails, you'd have a perfectly legitimate complaint about their uneven frequency. It's been a super busy year, though, and I'll just keep doing what I can. As long as you keep reading, I'll keep writing.

Today I want to suggest a quick mental trick about moving upstream with your clients. I first started talking about this when I wrote about the Reverse Trojan Horse Syndrome (though I didn't call it that at the time). The idea is that you're bursting onto the client scene with excellent implementation: brilliant software engineering, remarkable design, memorable writing, perfect SEO/SEM combos. The client sees you coming and lowers the drawbridge, welcoming you into the castle to do your well-rehearsed thing. The trojan horse is your "Room 2" stuff, and it's the bread and butter that keeps dumping money onto the income statement. (Rooms 1 and 2 are explained in this piece.)

But, there are some early signs that the presenting problem they described isn't really the issue. There's something deeper going on, and you have this compulsive need to point it out. Instead of doing what you promised, you step into a reluctant pause and say: "Hey, we're thinking that maybe the thing we can help you fix is deeper than we first thought. It seems like...." The client's ears perk up, their lips get a little tighter, and finally—as you wonder if you've crossed some hidden line—they nod, and say: "I think you're right. I've had that suspicion, but couldn't quite articulate it. What would you do if you were in our shoes?"

What happens next is pretty transformational:

  • You've stepped from Room 2 into Room 1 and started to diagnose the deeper ailment instead of filling the prescription they wrote for themselves.
  • You've risen to a newer level in the client's estimation of your abilities.
  • You've (potentially) started to lose money because the real problem requires a broader scope, which is not how you estimated this soon to be debacle.

This happens a lot. You get hired for one thing and the client discovers that you've been hiding some deeper abilities than they thought. You've exceeded their expectations. Your deep strategy people (Room 1) have emerged from the Trojan Horse they thought they were hiring (Room 2).

With a new boldness you approach the next prospect without any of that subterfuge. You're hooked on the Room 1 feeling and want to get hired on that basis from the start. Often the best way to do that is to package some sort of Diagnostic or Roadmap (Blair and I talk about phased engagements here). Or you can just keep getting dragged upstream after you're hired, but that's not satisfying.

You have to think this stuff to make it real. You have to learn to stand naked in front of the client with just your ideas, which means you're breaking out of that familiar comfort zone of getting paid to do stuff.

It's difficult, too, because you are good at the doing and you really love it. And sometimes you really do just need to shut up and do what they hired you to do, like that VP at Apple lamented awhile ago! This email from Philip Schiller to Tim Cook surfaced during a lawsuit between Apple and Samsung, and it's a humorous slapdown of the agency trying to move from Room 2 to Room 1. (Don't be that agency, but forge ahead if they are open to it.)

Still, I admire the sentiment, though you get the sense that Phil was trying to watch his favorite NFL team in the playoffs while the agency kept knocking on the door like over-eager Jehovah's Witnesses.

Here's how I'd like you to think about that Room 1 stuff. At least when the client is open to it!

Pretend that your prospective client has a strong in-house department with excellent skills: production, programming, whatever.

Imagine that they need an objective, external perspective. They need someone to thoroughly see the landscape and figure out what needs to be done. Not to do it, but to put a plan together. This will be an insightful analysis and spot-on prescription. Think of it as a 20-page document.

They want you to be their Room 1 and they'll take care of the Room 2 stuff.

Unless you imagine it like this, you'll begin to resent the fact that you don't get to implement your recommendations. Maybe because another competing agency gets to the do the work. That possibility colors your perception because you think they are better at it than you are.

Fast forward and imagine a world where every client has strong implementation abilities. Now imagine a world where you still remain relevant and effective. That's a Room 1 world, and it forces you to think instead of do.

Embrace opportunities where clients want both your Room 1 and Room 2 stuff, but if they are going to buy your Room 1 work, enter proudly rather than popping out of the Trojan Horse after you sneak into the castle.

That may require that you rethink your positioning and the service offering design built on top of it. That's a good reason to rip the band-aid off and rebuild your firm by thinking of your current talent different and maybe adding some new layers.

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