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Disagreement as an Expectations Management Technique

There was a ticking sound in my Engine

A few months ago our family SUV started making some crazy sounds. I did what most people do: I ignored it. But after a few weeks the sounds got louder and louder. Loud enough that I finally had to take care of it. So I started making some phone calls. After a few calls I discovered that the Edge was still new enough to likely be under warranty, so multiple mechanics said the same thing: head to the dealer.

So I took the Edge in and told him I thought it was the alternator or maybe a loose valve. You know why I said that? Because those are maybe the only phrases I know about the stuff under the hood.

Do you have better phrases? Are you a mechanic? Not me. I know jack when it comes to cars. But that didn’t stop me from trying to sound smart.

I didn’t know how bad it was, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t that bad. Without expertise, I still felt like I could judge the damage (and likely cost).

This may not surprise you, but guess what? I needed an entirely new engine and it wasn’t covered. I was thinking I would pay $400. The bill was $7000.

Let’s Review

So to recap:

  1. I waited until the last minute.

  2. I don’t know anything about cars.

  3. I tried to sound smart (even though #1 is true).

  4. Without expertise I still had strong feelings about the work to be done.

  5. My estimate was off by more than an order of magnitude.

What does this have to do with Managing Expectations?

I know that’s a really long intro, but I find that it best illustrates everything I’m about to articulate. Because I interact with a lot of people, every day, who come to me with software problems like my car problem. Either it’s an issue they need to fix or it’s just something they want done right away (“build our site”, “fix our algorithm”, “launch our product”).

Rarely do people come early when the work is small. Often it’s at the last minute when it’s urgent. This is true in my day job (“spec out tech specs for this RFP due tomorrow”), my consulting (“write up our IP agreement”) and my WordPress work (“can you build this plugin”).

When they come to talk, it’s clear they know some phrases but not the extent of what they mean. People will talk about integrating products because the words “integration”, “web service”, “api” and even “asynchronous calls” are now part of their lexicon but that doesn’t make the effort any easier or faster. But they feel good “speaking geek”.

Lastly, they have honest and often heart-felt expectations about difficulty and cost. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard “it’s just…” and “shouldn’t be too bad” when talking about effort and cost. But these ideas aren’t grounded in practical experience. Often it’s just a guess based on the appearance of complexity. So if it doesn’t appear complex, it must be pretty easy.

I don’t want to come across ranting. Trust me, that’s why I started with my story about our Edge. Because the way I approached the dealership is exactly the same way people approach me with uneducated and unreasonable expectations.

So let me ask you this?

  1. Do you think the guy at the dealership would have served me by telling me that it probably wasn’t going to be a big deal?

  2. Do you think he would have helped me by telling me that if everything lined up right, he could do it for $400 or even $4,000?

  3. Do you think I would have been happy if he told me he was personally going to fix it when he knew he’d need other experts?

None of those things sound like good things to do, right? If you agree with me, and are nodding your head up and down, then let me ask you one more question.

If we know that being up front (even if we don’t like it) and challenging our misunderstandings and unreasonable expectations is what we prefer (like when I’m at a car dealership) – why don’t we treat our customers the same way?

Strategic Disagreement – it’s an Expectations Management Technique

Like I said, I interact with people who seriously don’t understand what I do every day. Software architecture and new product development aren’t things you naturally pick up. You have to spend time at it. And I’ve spent almost twenty years in the software as a service (SaaS) space. But that doesn’t stop people from stepping into my space with unreasonable expectations just like I walk into dealerships thinking I know something (or trying not to sound like an idiot). I don’t hold it against them, just like I hope they don’t hold it against me. But that doesn’t mean I will shrink back from disagreeing with them. I have to disagree. I have to educate. It’s what I expect from others in their areas of expertise and what I need to do.

So why don’t we do it enough? Because we’re afraid of conflict. So write this down – “Disagreeing with someone doesn’t mean you have to be Disagreeable” – and put it in your pocket, wallet or purse.

Giving yourself permission to disagree with someone when they don’t know what they’re talking about doesn’t mean you have to be a jerk.

Getting Practical with an Example (A WordPress Project)

Last week I wrote about how I never charge hourly for my work. I also wrote about how I quote complex jobs. These are both strategies I use to help educate my customers. But my other strategy is disagreement. Here’s how it works.

About two months ago I was asked to look at a particular site to see how they could transition from some other commerce engine to WooCommerce. The people who were asking for help were people I didn’t know – they’d found me online. And their site was somewhat complex. In fact, I wasn’t clear why they were migrating over – other than they kept talking about how they now wanted to blog along with having a store. So I met with them, did a tour of the site, and asked my questions. Then I heard it – the words “it’s just…” and “we imagine it should only take…” But I didn’t stress, because I was waiting for the phrases.

When I hear heartfelt and honestly held incorrect beliefs, I know the biggest challenge will be helping them embrace truth and the reality of things. That’s more important than anything else. And if a customer can’t embrace the truth of what they’re asking, I really don’t want to work with them. But it’s my job to bring the truth. In fact, I think it’s all our jobs to bring the truth to the surface on any project we work on – regardless of our own fears of consequence. [“The truth will set you free”].

So I do what I do. I repeated back to them what I heard from them. What they cared about. The business language of their objectives. Then I helped translate that to what it would mean technically – highlighting the risk of everything they were asking.

By the time I’m done with this part, most people either are agreeing with me (as in,”wow, glad we’re talking to him, he knows what he’s talking about”) or completely disagreeing with me (“this guy is a bozo”). I don’t mind. I just don’t want anything in the middle.

My list of risks is then used to gently disagree. I say something like, “So while I understand you had hoped it would cost XX and only take YY weeks/months, the reality -because of these risks, is that it will take AA weeks and cost you much more, closer to BB.” And then I ask them if that’s what they want to pursue. But I don’t do this as a technique to raise the price of the job. I do it to raise the education level. And sometimes, if I’m going to be too expensive for them and I recognize they don’t even need me, I’ll gladly recommend them to someone who may be a better fit.

The point is to disagree while educating them. So that they can make a sound decision, not based on hopes or feelings.

The Consequences

When you learn to disagree with people, politely, but articulate truth and stay grounded in facts, my experience is that three things will happen:

  1. People who learn from you will trust and rely on you.

  2. People who are committed to their own position will walk away and never come back – and that’s a good thing!

  3. You will be known as someone who speaks truth – and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

So go ahead. Give yourself the freedom to disagree with your next customer. And help them. Educate them. And enjoy the fact that some people will self-select out of your realm. Trust me, life will be easier for it.

Oh and I did end up paying the $7,000 for my new engine.

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