One of the best pieces of advice that I received as a young lawyer was “Never confuse good news with good advice.” What does that mean? It means that you should tell or hear the truth, even when it hurts. I feel strongly that it is my duty to tell the truth as a professional, in fact.
I may be the most honest lawyer you have ever met. (Maybe there is not a lot of competition.) But I will tell the truth about the world as I see it, even when it means losing a client. I also turn away potential clients based on their ability to maturely listen and process facts and good advice.
Being direct and forthright is an important skill to cultivate in business. I’m not talking about simply not lying. You should already know not to lie to people. (If you don’t know that, I am not the right professional to help you.) I’m talking about directly confronting facts and unrealistic expectations, not misleading by omission, avoiding uncomfortable conversations that may lead to conflict or behaving passive-aggressively.
Here is an anecdote to illustrate why cultivating directness is important for your business. I see this situation occur at least once a month with one of my clients.
Consultant Relationship Gone Sour
Small Business, Inc.’s owner Beth hires Consultant Fred on an independent contractor basis for a set monthly fee of $5000. The relationship starts off with lots of good intentions and Fred is going to bring lots of new clients or put together some fantastic software and operation recommendations for SBI. But after a couple months, Fred has failed to deliver anything. Maybe Fred is pulled in too many directions because he has a bunch of other gigs going. Or perhaps Fred promised more than he’s truly capable of delivering. The only thing Beth knows is that Fred is not making or saving SBI any money and he’s only coming around once a month to give her promises and status reports. But Fred is a super nice guy and Beth does not want to fight with him. Beth hopes Fred will get it together, but she is starting to resent the money she is spending on him.
Like most small businesses, SBI is cash-strapped and cannot spare a dime to pay Fred until he starts delivering some ROI. So Beth starts slow-paying Fred. She gives him a $1000 here or there and the debt is showing on the books after six months in an amount north of $20,000. Fred still hasn’t delivered anything, but he claims that is because he has not been paid.
Fred confronts Beth and demands payment of his invoice or he’ll sue. Or worse, he’ll claim that he is an employee and file for wages and penalties with the Department of Labor for double the amount supposedly owed.
Boy, Beth is pissed! Stupid Fred never did anything! She calls me. I tell her that she has a $30,000 or more problem. Worse, my job defending and negotiating this is harder. My ability to push back is neutered. Why? Because Beth never told Fred that he was doing a bad job and that she did not think he earned his fee. So it just looks like she is saying that now to avoid his bill, like a total deadbeat.
In the end, Fred most likely will get paid a good portion of his outstanding fee, whether he earned it or not. Because he’s on the stacked side of that legal deck. All because Beth was too nice to have a direct conversation with Fred.
After I fix the problem for Beth, we have a talk about lessons learned. I tell her:
- Always set clear expectations with consultants, including deliverables, preferably in a written contract, up front.
- Be slow to hire and quick to fire. The second you get that tingle that the contractor isn’t working out, you need to act upon it with either a corrective course or severing the relationship.
- If someone is not performing to your expectations, you owe them a conversation about it. Most people are not performing badly on purpose. Maybe they do not understand your expectations or your expectations are unreasonable. Maybe you want something and they can’t read your mind. If they are worth hiring, they will appreciate hearing your feedback and will try to improve. If they do not appreciate it, then they will quit and you have just saved yourself a lot of wasted money. But normally, it’s actually nicer to be up front than to delay, avoid or act passive-aggressively, as those things always result in a bad ending somewhere down the line.
Do not get me wrong: I am not a fan of bludgeoning people with the truth. You can cultivate the truth-telling skill without being a jerk. For example, I can tell Beth, “Unfortunately, you have a $30,000 problem. It is a bigger problem than it needed to be because you were too nice and let it go too long. I can help you fix those management issues so that this is not a problem going forward. But first, we have to resolve this problem, and it is going to be a bit painful.” I don’t have to say, “Beth, you’re a coward and your flaccid management (or should I say “avoidance”) style just cost you 30 grand. Sucks to be you.”
No nice person enjoys confronting people and telling them things that the other person will not like hearing. Expect that this directness will not come naturally at first. You will have to practice. Ask yourself, which relationships are nagging at you? They probably could use a direct conversation.
Start with just one or two. It can be the easiest one to begin with. Outline your expectations and explain them to the other person, without using accusatory words about their value as a human being. Once you have both communicated, follow up with a list of immediate actions items that will correct the problems. If they cannot be corrected, then you will know, you have documented your concerns, and no one will be shocked if the relationship gets changed or terminated.
Or, if it is a customer, start by giving yourself a script to explain to them why your fees must be paid, are going up, what you expect, etc. If your customer cannot agree to adhere to what you feel are acceptable business practices, you can choose to let that customer move on and out of your life, so you have time for better customers.
Try it today. You will reduce your future conflicts a thousand-fold, guaranteed.
If you need any contracts or employee policies revised as a result of these conversations, contact us. We would way rather help you revise an agreement than defend you in a lawsuit over a bad or breached contract.