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It always starts with a phone call. Not the sort of call prompted by any email barrage advertisement because ads don’t apply to this sort of work. Nobody consults the yellow pages or any of the multitude of social media equivalents to find a consultant. Nobody would ever believe the claims such an ad would have to make to accurately represent the proposed service. This consultant could never really describe what he might do, anyway.

It follows, then, that there will be no response drafted to any Request For Proposal. My work doesn’t work that way. This limits the domains within which I might operate, but gratefully so. This is no retail trade.

The initiating phone call does not come from me because I don’t do cold calls; not because I can’t but because I’m learning that these work about as well as advertising, which is to say that they don’t work at all. The thirty-second elevator speech will likewise not be forthcoming, nor another email barrage. Websites also produce flat EEG readings from any potential client.

The phone call comes unbidden, and must; the result of what’s popularly termed ‘word of mouth.’ Somebody blabbed. It’s unlikely that this bean spiller very well described exactly what I did with them, just that the experience was different, refreshing, and useful. The one who calls will be intrigued, often recovering from a far too close encounter with a pesudo-consultant, one that produced beautiful proposals and disappointing results. The caller will be wary, and should be.

The first few minutes are awkward for both parties. The caller isn’t sure what to say, other than remind me of the one who passed the word to them. The object of the call will be sidled up to. In some instances, the former client will have tipped me off to “maybe expect a call,” but usually not. Neither the prospective client nor I know each other from Adam at first.

Real consulting is relational work, though the first part of every first contact shows the ragged remnants of a lifetime’s immersion within transactional operations. It might even feel like a negotiation as the prospective client stingily metes out a story I generously, graciously receive. We’re constructing a shared story here, both parties uncertain how many details need delineating before anything like a trusting relationship might appear. Neither knows nothing at first.

I can undermine most possibilities for helping by trying to close the sale. This isn’t a sale, but a relationship, and this is the first date. I can likewise complicate everything by suggesting solutions to any of the many obvious problems posed during this chat. The wise prospective client is well advised to cut short the conversation at the first clearly well-intended recommendation or the very first hint of professional hubris I exhibit. I am properly as clueless and inquisitive as the prospective client. We troll for some premise together.

Considerable certainty will need to be undermined before any real relationship emerges or any real results appear, and both parties tend towards unwarranted certainty at first. For me, a determined indifference to any outcome proves helpful when combined with a genuinely inquiring mind. The strongest relationships seem rooted in inquiry rather than certain knowledge. For me, asking the prospective client to explain what they mean by something certainly contributes more to an understanding relationship than any amount of presuming knowledge might. Especially if it seems I know, or really should already know, I am wise only when remembering than nobody could know nothing about anything yet, not and forge any kind of useful relationship as a result.

It’s the phone that does most of the heavy lifting. It maintains adequate distance and anonymity for a nascent inquiry to even occur. Later, after a phone call or three, face to face work might begin, once some clearer premise for the necessary kind of relationship has sprouted.

None of this phone work pays me anything but personal satisfaction, and it costs the client only a little time and a bit more discomfort than they expected. The real work occurs here, before any agreement seals. That work wraps itself in emerging trust and genuine curiosity. Does the prospective client feel heard? Have I been listening through my propensity to hear what I want to hear? Neither of us, me or the prospective client, have seen anything yet, thanks, again, to the telephone’s insulating benevolence. We learn to trust each other blindly or not at all.

Heaven forbid that picture telephony ever comes into common use. The essential premises for relational work seems better informed by a few blind spots than by more complete pictures. Often, I find the innocent misconceptions emerging in that first blind phone conversation becoming the basis for some previously unimaginable insight. I like to think that phone encourages imagining by blessedly limiting perception.

It always starts with a phone call. What we don’t do, can’t possibly do there might contribute most.

©2013 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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