When Bad Things Happen to Good Partnerships

Today I take a brief recess from directly addressing actionable analytics in order to discuss a topic that will resonate with anyone who runs a small business, especially in the professional services arena.

This will include lots of folks in the analytics space, as analytics in general requires lots of smart-human involvement to make it deliver on many of the promises made by application vendors.

One thing I have learned over the years is that it’s very possible to witness many different ramifications of both wonderful and bad partner behavior. Wonderful behavior is dull to talk about, so I won’t.

But bad behavior is interesting, especially the kind that hurts analytics businesses and ultimately their customers. This is why we read novels filled with mayhem: there’s something fascinating about chaos, even if we want to avoid it.

In that light, here are some lessons I’ve learned:

Be Careful Whom You Partner With

There are lots of dishonest people in the world. Some of them are even professionals in the analytics space! Some of these may even be both entrepreneurs and sociopaths. You know what some sociologists have said about senior management and sociopathy (there’s noticeable overlap) – so for the more analytics-oriented among us, it’s important to note there’s actually data to suggest that egregious behavior might be worth looking out for.

Once upon a time there was a (hypothetical) consulting company with three partners. The company operated for several years without an operating agreement (OA), which, if you do not know, is a binding set of rules by which the partners must abide, else be punished in a variety of carefully detailed ways.

Then one day two of the partners presented the third partner (at long last) with an operating agreement of a fairly stringent nature. Feeling as if it were a boon to the partnership that they should have a fairly stringent OA, he had no problem signing it.

Not much more than a year later, the first two partners decided they did not like the OA and that instead of abiding by the rules they had devised, they would simply defy every rule they didn’t care for, and deride the rest as “defective.” The attorney who wrote it for them naturally took exception, as they had carefully devised it with his collaboration. Their goal was to dissolve a profitable company because they didn’t want to be partners with number three anymore – but refused to go about it in the way that was carefully laid out in the OA. Indicative of how desperate they became, at one point they surreptitiously withdrew from the bank all the company funds and hid them in an effort to force negotiation on their terms.

A long and costly lawsuit followed. Only lawyers win lawsuits, whereas plaintiffs and defendants almost always both lose at the same time.

The moral of this story is: contracts (like operating agreements) are only as worthwhile as the parties signing them.

It may astonish the reader how often bad actors simply ignore their contractual obligations and force the offended party to spend money trying (usually in vain) to get them to comply. More often than not, and especially in small businesses, they get away with it. So it pays to know the characters of your partners, rather than just their signatures.

Not All Business Is Good Business: Getting Free From the Toxic Client

You’ve agreed on an analytics project. You’ve agreed on a price. You feel like you have a good understanding of how you are going to achieve success – and how you are going to show value. You’ve done it before and it has always worked.

But not in this case.

This client cannot be satisfied.

You start to hear things like: “We don’t think you did your work. We don’t understand how this helps us. Show us one more time and we might be satisfied.”

You’ve already gone several extra miles and they’re still churlish. Maybe they don’t even pay you (actually, non-payers should be broken out as a separate sort of demon, because they can also be very nice to you while picking your pocket).

Eventually this client becomes a no-win time-suck. And it isn’t because you didn’t deliver what you said you would deliver. Most likely the client has problems that have nothing to do with you.

For instance, their company may be in serious trouble and they are not thinking straight. Or, their job may be in serious trouble and they are hoping that if they can heap enough blame on somebody else, they can avoid getting fired. Or, they are impervious to facts and never intended to accept your work.

Some of the signs you should be looking to disengage are as follows:

  • Receding goalposts: every time you meet one requirement, there’s a new one you’ve never heard of before but which has suddenly become essential (perhaps because it just occurred to them, and new ideas have a way of seeming important).
  • Fundamental misconceptions: for instance, an unfounded belief that reporting systems are the exact equivalent of natural language, real-time answers to any business question that seems fancy at the moment; or a complete and utter failure to understand the nature of statistics and trends.
  • A debilitating hunt for self-serving “success” metrics, even as the data seems to suggest “failure.”
  • Most important: they have lost respect for your expertise.

The moral of this story is: you should assess your customers as carefully as they assess you – because it’s a partnership!

The moment they doubt your domain authority, you can only look for diminished returns. Of course, we are assuming here that you are in fact delivering what you said you would. And if this is the case and you know it, yet it’s unrecognized by the customer, then it’s time to cut the cord. You’ll feel much lighter without that anchor around your ankle.

Image on home page via Shutterstock.