Contractors are people too

If you are a lower middle market company that is implementing a new customer relationship management system (CRM) or enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, chances are pretty good that you are using some third-party consultants.

This holds true beyond the realm of CRM and ERP implementations as you might be using consultants or contractors for some custom software development as well. But it is almost a necessity when you are implementing somebody else’s software stack.

Anytime that you are working with third-party technical contractors there is always room for disagreement.  You can be buried in a sea of change orders; the consultants may lack all of the necessary skills or have communication problems.  Your team’s personalities might clash with their personalities.  Each project brings its own sets of unique challenges.

In my experience, however, there is one problem that ALWAYS crops up in these projects and it’s the one problem that most CEOs and Founders least expect.  It’s a problem of expectations, specifically the expectation that your consultants are going to work like dogs to get your project done.

Let me explain.

In the normal cycle of things your internal technical team probably puts up a fair amount of unpaid overtime.   I’ve seen the question asked on Quora: “How do I MAKE technical people work overtime?”  It’s an idiotic question.  You can’t MAKE them.  However, technical people, like me, often work overtime because we truly love what we do.  To us, solving complex technical problems is interesting work.  For example:  I’ve been up since 3:30 am today working with one of my teams on a software launch. We made the decision to delay the launch until tomorrow at 3:30 am after we uncovered some things in the launch process that we didn’t like.  I was working until 11 pm last night along with team, we took a short catnap and then hit it 3:30 am.   I’m cooling my heels, drinking Starbucks and getting ready for our 10 am status call — so I decided to crank out this post. Is it overtime? Definitely. Do I mind? Definitely not.

The team and I have been burning the midnight oil for a few weeks now to get past a big launch date.  However, once we get through this process I’ll need to make sure that the team dials it back for a few weeks—Go home early, play with the kids, hit the gym, get your car washed, whatever.  The point is that it is vitally important that the team gets some mental rest or they won’t be prepared for the next little window of scrambling.  Even if they want to keep scrambling I need to help them help themselves by forcing them to “shift it to glide” for a while.

So what’s the problem here?  The problem, folks, is that you CAN’T work your short-term consultants and contractors like this.  Why you ask?  Because, while your team is catching their breath, your consultants are likely off working at the next company.  This is particularly true for “specialists” that are working on a rotating cycle for several customers at once.   If every one of their customers expects them to go the extra mile each and every day these folks are NEVER going to catch a break.  This leads to contractor burnout, which is why consultants turn over so often.  This in turn means that the next consultant that you get does not have as much experience and you need them to work harder — it’s a vicious circle.  Never mind that these poor folks are staying in a hotel every night, away from their families and pets.

Side note.  The next person that tells me that traveling for work is glamorous is going to get punched in the schnozz.  End of side note. 

It’s a matter of setting expectations—your OWN expectations—and this is a very, very hard thing for most CEOs and Founders to do.  You have a passion for your business and you expect EVERYONE around you to share that passion.  Unfortunately it does not work that way.

So, what can you do?

Set your expectations lower.  Your consultants are not going work full tilt week in and week out.  And it does not matter how much their company is charging you a day for their services.

Plan for the project to cost 30% – 50% more than you’ve budgeted from a services perspective.  That does not mean that you have to spend that money, but you don’t want to run out in the middle of a project.

Don’t focus on the “edge cases”.  Edge cases are one-off pieces of functionality or workflow that happen a very small percent of the time, but often require the most effort.  This is a meaty topic; one I’ll talk more about in a future post.  For now, think of it this way:  Don’t try to cover every single scenario the first time through. Focus on the 80%.  Leave the edge cases in the parking lot.  This is probably the most important suggestion I can make.

Beware of the time/functionality continuum.   You can either commit to a hard and fast date on a technical project, or a specific set of functionality, but never both.   If you HAVE to live with a certain go-live date, then you have to be willing to throw luggage from the plane.  On the other hand, if you HAVE to have a given set of functionality in place for the go-live, then you will likely have to be flexible on the date.  I call this a continuum, because it’s never a simple case of black and white.  In particular, this often means being flexible on EDGE CASES.

Having said all this, we work with plenty of consultants and contractors that go above and beyond the call of duty every day. In fact, we are partnered with Virtusa on a web application porting project right now and the very person that kept me up late last night was the one that got me up early this morning.  Ravi, our onsite resource from Virtusa was the last one to bed and the first one back at his computer today. The moral of the story is,  expect your consultants to be great, just don’t expect them to be you.