Stories about Software


Don’t Throw “Consulting Services” Onto Your Website

It’s been a decent run banging out my SEO for Non-Scumbags series, even if there might well have been an audience mismatch.  I had fun with those, but they were fairly trade and theory heavy.  And I’ve found that kind of discouraged me from my writing habit as a whole.

So, if only for today, I’m going to dust that habit off and resume ranting to whoever happens by, like some kind of internet busker.

Today’s topic is on my mind, both because I did a livestream Q&A about it (it’ll be up on the Hit Subscribe Youtube channel in the coming weeks), but also because I see it everywhere whenever I’m poking around freelancer or small, boutique service provider websites.

What I’m Talking About: We Do Labor and Consulting

If you can’t picture what I mean, I’ll default to a hypothetical custom app dev shop for example.  If you hover over their “services” menu on their website, you’ll see a list like this:

  • Custom WordPress Website Builds
  • Monthly Site Maintenance
  • Custom Plugin Development
  • WordPress API Integrations
  • WordPress Consulting

Emphasis mine.  (Well, I mean, of course it is, this is a hypothetical I made up, not a quote.)

The service provider enumerates a series of different kinds of labor they will sell you, and then, almost invariably at the bottom, they’ll throw in that they also offer consulting.

This is what I’m saying you shouldn’t do.

Do as I Say, Not as I Do

Lest someone beat me to the punch, in the immortal words of Doc Holliday (at least, in Tombstone), “apparently my hypocrisy knows no bounds.”  If you look at Hit Subscribe’s offering page, you’ll see this:

Now, I’m not sure if I wrote (or even read) that copy before it went to prime time.  And I’ll also point out that whoever wrote it wisely structured the bullets as all being consultative in nature, at least partially, and they also created a moat around the fulfillment piece as separate from strategy.

But, nevertheless, there it is, a potential example of what I’m saying not to do.

My main reason for bringing this up is simple expediency.  I don’t want to put some random service business on blast, and there just happens to be an example on a site that I presided over, so it’s the most practical way I can show you a screenshot without being needlessly rude to someone.

If you’re wondered whether I’m worried about this and feel any pressing need to change it… neh.  I’ve got bigger fish to fry.

Consulting vs Labor Services

I have beaten this topic to death.  I’ve talked about it here, and here, and probably 10 other places over the years.  So I’ll just do the Cliff’s notes here.

  • Labor services involve acting as a pair of hands.  Someone pays you to do the thing.
  • Consulting services involve acting as the brain.  Someone pays you to do nothing, except offer advice (in whatever form that takes as a deliverable).

If you’re executing something, you’re selling labor, and not consulting.

Mapping Consulting and Labor to the Org Chart

Let’s do another easy one.  Let’s take a look at each service type and imagine that the client liked the provider so much that they just decided to throw money at them until they could slurp them into a role within the organization.

What would that look like for each type of service?  Very simple:

  • Labor services: individual contributor.
  • Consulting services: organizational leadership.

Absurdly Mapping the Org Chart Back to the Services Page

Having drawn that parallel, let’s revisit what the services page looks like from our hypothetical above.

Here are our services, dear prospect:

  • Specific Tactical Individual Contributor Labor
  • Specific Tactical Individual Contributor Labor
  • Specific Tactical Individual Contributor Labor
  • Specific Tactical Individual Contributor Labor
  • We Can Also be Your CTO!

Can you imagine running across something like this in the wild?  It’d be like running across a resume with the usual tech stack alphabet soup for a senior software engineer, but with an objective at the top (is that still a thing people put on resumes?) that read “Seeking a position as a software engineer III, senior software engineer IV, or maybe CTO, whatever.”

Best case is the person reviewing the resume chuckles and ignores that CTO bit.

Now, things aren’t quite as ludicrous or dramatic on your services page.  They almost certainly won’t think to chuckle before ignoring your consulting services completely.

Consulting Services as “Hey, I’m Strategic”

Over the years, I’ve observed that one of the most predictable anti-patterns that indie technicians (laborers viewing their work as a craft) deploy to bolster their cred is to refer to themselves as “strategic” in some way.  So throwing something about “consulting” or “strategy” on your site acts not as a serious offering.  Instead, it’s a strawman ironically intended to differentiate the tactician from other tacticians by making unfounded claims of strategic (consulting) acumen.

But the problem here isn’t so much what happens if clients ignore the strategy offering and detect, at least on a subconscious level, that you’re engaging in a sad form of resume padding.  In fact, that’s the good outcome.

The bad outcome (for them) would be someone taking you up on this strategy.

Technician/Tactician Strategy Is Just Tips about Labor

Why do I say this?

Whenever you ask a technician for advice, something predictable happens.  They bury you in tactical suggestions about how to do the thing better.

Think about our hypothetical offering above around WordPress services.  What do you imagine this WordPress “consulting” from this firm actually looks like?

I suspect that it would involve giving you advice about customizing WordPress themes and maintaining WordPress sites.

  • “You should keep your plugins up to date.”
  • “Here are some best practices for customizing your theme.”
  • “What error are you getting?  Okay, lemme take a look… ah, yep, that’s your problem right there.”

If someone is paying you to say things like this, I suppose it is technically consulting.  They give you money, and you give them the advice to keep plugins up to date or to fix an error.

But there’s a more specific, accurate term for what you’re doing when giving this advice: training.

And training is just one tiny step away from labor, in the sense that the absolute most natural thing for any client or party to do when you say “ah, yep, there’s your problem right there” is to immediately say, “look, can you just fix it for me?”  So what’s happened here — the bad outcome for them — is they started off looking for strategic advice, and wound up in the weeds with you, deciding tactically which one of you should do which labor.  You’re pair programing and just trading off driver and navigator.

And then, by the way, bam, you’re right back in labor-land and not strategy-land.

The “Consulting Services” Throw-In Is Not a Path Toward Strategy

A clarifying way to look at this is to think of labor, for a technician, as having an intense gravitational pull.  You have labored all of your life for money, and you view the quality of your labor as your differentiator.

When asked to be “strategic,” you thus immediately start spewing granular and tactical tips that amount to best practices, often without context.  Make your code DRY.  Do Scrum instead of waterfall.  Whatever.

In short, the advice you will give, naturally, all has to do with the question of how, exactly and rarely, if ever, the questions of what or why.  And those latter questions are where actual strategy and actual consulting live.

In my experience, flipping into true strategy and consulting requires a clean break.  You need to stop answering the question “how” and adopt the attitude of “who cares about the how, that’s below my paygrade,” which is a really heavy lift for a technician.  But you have to do it.

If you’re an individual freelancer, this means that you either remove all labor offerings and the like from your site, or you remove all mention of “consulting.”  For a firm, it’s a little easier, in that you can segment by personnel.  For instance, in the Hit Subscribe example, I personally don’t ever create content for clients myself, but I do act as a fractional CMO for them.

In the end, I’d suggest you indies go with this simple heuristic.  Until you’re ready to offer nothing but consulting services, leave “consulting services” off of your website.

(Also, when you do take the consulting plunge, don’t just say “consulting services,” but that, dear reader, is a topic for another time.)

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10 months ago

Good points! Like Programming or developing software is “Engineering”. hint: Go ask a Structural Engineer what s/he does…

Thanks for a good read!