I once worked for a client that engaged with consultants through a preferred vendor list. On an annual basis, competing consultants proposed for the pleasure of serving the client for another year. This included locking in billing rates among other terms. Each year some competing consultants were renewed. Others either chose not to submit to the client’s demands, or fell out of favor and were taken off the list.
When we ran a project for that client, we knew that competing consultants were on the client’s list. There were times when we would have an occasional competing consultant or two serve a role on one of our projects.
Whether we worked with the competing consultants or not, we often worked in a common “consulting area” within the client’s IT department.
Although we were competitors, we generally got along well with each other. It usually wasn’t the drinking buddy type of getting along. But we were cordial with each other and had occasional friendly discussions. We would talk about the culture of each other’s firm, the projects we were working on, or common issues with the client.
Friendly Competing Consultants
As much as we may have gotten along, we had to remember that we were still competitors. It was important that we didn’t let our guard down. We worked in a very open area. Few clients provide their consultants with a private office or any type of privacy. This client was no exception. We worked in what consisted of small cubicles or large study carols. We had drawers at our desks, but they did not lock.
In addition to proprietary project information we had in printed and electronic form, such as billing rates and time sheets, we occasionally had proposals for new projects we were trying to win with the client.
It was important not to leave documentation on our desk or displayed on our computer screen when we weren’t there. We didn’t want any competitor to walk by and see our work.
If I went to a meeting, I would take my laptop with me, even if it was not needed for the meeting. I could have locked it out with a password. I just felt more comfortable taking it with me.
In addition to leaving work at our workstations, we needed to be careful that our conversations were not overheard. If a team member came up to me to discuss any type of sensitive information, I would move the conversation to a conference room or someplace out of earshot from a competing consultant. It was just as important not to be heard discussing sensitive information within listening distance of the client also.
A third consideration was when we developed more of a friendship than a simple acquaintance with a competitor. Every once in a while, the relationship evolved to being invited out for lunch, drinks after work, or even a golf game.
It was important not to get too comfortable, exchanging war stories and giving away proprietary information that the other firm could use against us in a proposal. This could include how project teams are structured, how billing rates are calculated or even office gossip that could be used to make our firm look bad in the eyes of the client.
It’s okay and even professional to get to know people who work for your competitors. It can be an appropriate way to network. But a consultant has to remember that they are a competitor and have the potential to hurt you if given the ammunition.
A balanced approach of trust and distrust may serve you well.
As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.
If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com