Learn to help people solve problems by offering about three possible solutions, with your favorite in the middle

“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
– Neil Gaiman

That’s good advice, but tough for a consultant. Aren’t we supposed to know how to fix it? Because we’re special exceptions to Gaiman’s observations?

Heh, yeah right.

Like Karl Marx and a thousand others, we’re better at diagnosing the problem than at prescribing a fix.

This is why you should offer, given the chance, a variety of options over a specific option.

Just as it is with tiered pricing((Tiered pricing strategy is covered in depth in Pricing Creativity)) or product ladders((Roundup of consulting product ladders)). Options.

And how else is the “choicing” of price points, product suites, and consultative options related?

By limited choice. As in 3 or 4.

You may have heard the story about the jam seller with 26 varietals of jam at the Saturday market. He sold almost nothing compared to the jam seller with 3 choices.

Three choices lead to another significant pattern: the allure of middle choice. One product will perform better just as one price point will. It’s almost always the one in the middle. 

That’s because we talking-apes survived by avoiding the extremes; not the lush mountains, not the treeless plans, but the wooded savannah.

This preference is automatic, like a dog rotating around in circles to make an invisible bed on an empty wooden floor. We’re a bit smarter than dogs so such behavior amuses us. Yet we’re like them in this respect, as cataloged in Baldacci’s Influence.

Also consider Seth’s post on “reorganizing the time stack”:

If you spend about the same amount of time as everyone else, you’re likely to get about the same amount of benefit.

There are two other choices, worth considering:

Spend significantly more time than anyone else thinks is reasonable. Charge appropriately. Perhaps this will lead to an extraordinary outcome.

Spend far less time than you’re supposed to, and invest that time into processes and alternatives and benefits that everyone else is overlooking.

In this case, two of the three choices are recommendable but the middle choice (“extraordinary outcome”) is the clear winner. Did he put this choice in the middle on purpose? I don’t know but there it is, where it belongs, attracting us.

The upshot:

  • Can you train your mind to develop, on the fly, three recommended courses of action to problems that come up? Instead of spitting out the first that comes to mind? 
  • When you are dead certain you know the right fix, can you still sandwich it between two alternatives? 
  • Can you do the above without sounding like a choice-making robot or otherwise disrupting the flow of conversation? That’s true choicecraft: conversational flow trumps all else.

Consulting is about helping people think like an expert in your areas of expertise, not about thinking for them, let alone making their decisions.