It’s 10:15 Thursday morning.
You are sitting at your desk, headset on, phone at hand.
In just a few minutes you’ll be talking with Phyllis for the first time.

Phyllis sent you an email on Monday. She mentioned that she has a website that needs some changes — “It’s just a simple site, nothing special.”

What happens during your call depends on where you fall in the range of business maturity:

  • between freelancer and CEO…
  • between winging it and strategic…
  • between Hot Mess and Favorite Client.

In the early years of your business maturity, you and your prospective customer are both going through your own (fairly predictable) emotional roller coaster.

While you are waiting to make the call you are experiencing two emotions, and both of those emotions are in conflict.

You, the voices in your head, or possibly talking aloud to your cat:

“Please, let Phyllis need something more than a few tweaks on a one-page brochure site. My car is making a weird noise as it vibrates down the road, it’s leaking oil and I think the dishwasher is leaking. PLEASE, LET HER NEED TO BUY A BIG WEBSITE.”

Let’s call this experience

A few minutes later the chatter in your head changes:

“Dear God, please don’t let them be a train-wreck. Please, please don’t let them be a total screw-up.”

We’ll call this experience



At the same moment that you are babbling in your head, they are ALSO thinking about the phone call with you, and their emotions are also in conflict.

They, talking aloud to their cat:

“Please, let them know what to do. Please, please, let this work out.”

We can also call this experience 

A few minutes later there’s a shift:

“Oh, Lord. Please don’t this be weird. Please don’t let me sound like an idiot. Please don’t let them sell me something I can’t afford.”

We can also call this experience



Fear and hope are pretty far apart on the emotional spectrum.

Feeling both at the same time tends to turn people into a hot mess.

YOU are full of hope, and fear, and turning into a hot mess.

THEY are full of hope, and fear, and turning into a hot mess.

As you are sitting at your desk, thinking about the call I want you to


To understand what is meant by collaborative consultant we need to examine the 3 different roles in process consulting:

  • Pair-of-Hands
  • Expert
  • Collaborative

Many freelancers in the early stage of their business see themselves as being hired for a particular skill — designer, developer, copywriter, ecommerce specialist — and frequently choose the Pair-of-Hands role.

The customer presents a list of needs and you fulfill them.

Another choice is…

The Expert Role

Customer: “I have neither the time nor the inclination to deal with this problem. You’re the expert; find out what’s wrong and fix it. Keep me posted.”

Problems that are purely technical are rare. Most have a human element in them. People may withhold or distort essential information on the human part of the problem. Without valid data, your action plan won’t work and you, the expert, become a convenient scapegoat.

The Collaborative Role

Problem-solving becomes a joint undertaking with equal attention to both the technical issues and the humans dealing with the technical issues.

The collaborative consultant doesn’t solve problems for the customer. They apply their special skills to help them solve problems themselves.

The distinction is significant.

The key assumption underlying the collaborative consultant role is that the customer shares responsibility for the success or failure of the process.

Working collaboratively takes time, patience, and a lot of experience. It slows down your workflow and will impact your cash flow until fully implemented into your strategic business model.

Regardless of your area of expertise, the more the process can be collaborative, the better the odds are for success.

Let’s look at 3 case studies and the outcomes of each to better clarify the consultant roles.

Alice hails a taxi.
Bob pulls over.
Alice gets in.
Bob asks, “Where to?”
Alice hands Bob a piece of paper.
Bob glances at it. It’s a list of directions:
“Turn left at the corner, turn right at the second light, stay left at the fork…” and so on.
It doesn’t identify the destination.
Just step-by-step instructions.
It’s a long list.
Bob isn’t sure where they lead.

Three Different Scenarios:

1. Alice doesn’t know her way around very well. She found the directions on some website. Bob doesn’t bother to ask where she is headed. He just takes the directions and follows them. They get to the end of the instructions, but Alice is not where she expected to be. She gets panicky and starts ordering Bob to do things like, “drive around the block” or “try the next street over”. Bob complies silently. Meanwhile, the meter is ticking away. Alice is getting more and more agitated. She’s now running late and her fare is ballooning. Bob has done exactly as instructed, but Alice is increasingly dissatisfied. They eventually find her destination. Alice begrudgingly pays $120 for the ride. Alice gets out of the cab and Bob drives away.

2. Alice doesn’t know her way around very well. She found the directions on some website. When she hands them to Bob, he asks, “Where are these supposed to take us?” Alice says “123 Main Street.” Bob says, “These directions are out of date. There’s construction on this route and terrible traffic this time of day. I know a shortcut that will get us there in half the time.” Alice fears Bob is trying to scam her and she tells him so. Bob asks, “How much were you expecting the ride to be?” Alice says, “About $100.” Bob says, “I’ll get you there my way for $75. Deal?” Alice agrees. Bob gets her to the destination quickly and without incident. Alice pays the $75 fare and gets out of the cab. Bob drives away.

3. Alice doesn’t know her way around very well. She found the directions on some website. When she hands them to Bob, he asks “Where are these supposed to take us?” Alice says “123 Main Street.” Bob asks, “Why do you want to go there?” Alice says, “It’s a flower shop. I need to pick up a dozen roses.” Bob says, “That shop is closed today.” Alice asks, “How do you know for sure?” Bob says, “Because it’s my shop. I drive a cab on my day off.” Bob continues, “As luck would have it, I’ve got a dozen roses in the trunk. I’ll sell them to you for $60. Deal?” They both get out of the cab, having driven nowhere. Alice gladly pays Bob $60 for the roses. Bob gets back in the cab and drives away.

Three Different Outcomes:

In the first scenario, Alice spent 60 minutes in a cab and is now standing in front of a closed flower shop. She has spent $120, is late for her next appointment, and still needs to figure out where she’s going to get a dozen roses. Alice is angry. Bob has driven his car down half the blind alleys in the area, endured an insulting amount of micromanagement, and been brow-beaten by a disgruntled customer for a full hour. For this, he grossed $120 from which he must deduct his time, gas, and wear and tear on both the vehicle and his emotional well being. Bob is dejected.

In the second case, Alice spent 45 minutes in a cab and is now standing in front of a closed flower shop. She has spent $75 and but still needs to figure out where she’s going to get a dozen roses. Alice is satisfied by the cab ride specifically but is distressed overall. Bob minimized his costs (e.g., time, gas, mileage, stress) and is enjoying the small rush of pride that comes from a job well done. Bob grossed $75, which is significantly less revenue than the $120 in scenario 1, but arguably more profitable because his costs were dramatically lower. Bob is energized.

In the final scenario, Alice hasn’t had to travel anywhere. She has spent $60, is early for her next appointment, and is holding a dozen roses. Alice is delighted. Bob has eliminated his costs completely, sold a dozen roses for triple what he paid for them, and has delighted a customer. Bob is exhilarated.

Bob’s behavior in each scenario represents the three consultant roles a professional can perform in any project.

As a therapist turned coach I have witnessed these behaviors countless times over the last 30 years.

My labels for these roles are:

  • Robot (Pair-of-Hands)
  • Technician (Expert), and
  • Agent (Collaborative).

None of the three is right for every client situation. The right role depends on the customer’s needs.

Let’s say Alice is heading home, knows the area like the back of her hand, prefers a particular route because of the scenery, and she provides flawless directions.

In this situation, Alice is the routing expert and the appropriate consulting role for Bob isRobot (Pair-of-Hands).


The Agent is the most profitable of the three roles.

A quick comment about Bob’s pricing…

Pricing was differentiated on the roles Bob performed — hands, expert, collaborative.

The collaborative relationship provided the highest value and yielded the greatest financial return.

We don’t have time today to delve into pricing methodologies but I am compelled to ask:

Most customers do not like for you to bill by the hour even when they ask for your hourly rate! That’s a hot mess question.

Hourly billing puts the consultant and the customer in an adversarial position.

It’s in your financial interest to maximize hours. It’s in the customer’s interest to minimize hours. Hourly billing is focused almost exclusively on the convenience of the service provider, not the customer.

The primary input into pricing is the value to the customer.

  • No one cares about your costs.
  • Customers will always want the price to be lower.
  • Both of you want maximized value. 

The trouble is, creative professionals really like to solve problems, even though the problems might have low or no value to the customer. Professionals tend to have the “disease” of solutionism. Solutionism is very much akin to a substance abuse problem.

In fact, the brain function is almost identical. Professionals get a “high” – a rush of the hormones oxytocin and dopamine – when they solve a customer’s problems. We become addicted to it.

This interferes with the ability to actively listen (a therapist term for deep listening) as the customer is speaking and think about the best questions to ask.

Moving off the solution requires professionals to fight their inner desire to talk about and even solve the customer’s problem during the initial conversation about the problem.

Without deep listening, you won’t develop a collaborative relationship and will continue a tumultuous ride on the emotional roller coaster.

The mindset and behavioral shift to collaboration help you move from freelancer to CEO of your business; from winging it to strategic business maturity; from Hot Mess to Favorite Client.