It’s better to be consistent than to be fair.
(Especially if “fair” means some agonizing custom decision that’s decided at laboriously and at great length from first principles every time. That turns every issue into a question, and every question into a virtual court case, and every agreement into a haggling session.)
My friend Cathey Armillas says it’s better to be consistently good than sporadically excellent. She says that about marketing — and it’s true beyond marketing.
Seth Godin warns about the risk of empowering the “Custom Bully” — and he recommends that you state your rules to your customers up front:
Promising perfect is actually not nearly as useful as promising what the rules are.
Boundaries eliminate the temptation to bully. State them early and often and don’t alter them and believe it or not, the client will be happier as well. They didn’t sign up to ruin your life. They signed up to get the most they could from you and your team, and the limits are the limits.
My friend Jeff Schneider, who taught me much about sales, quotes David Sandler: “you cannot blame the customer for doing something you never told them they couldn’t do.”
Thanks to Jeff, I often start meetings with an “Up Front Contract” — an explicit agreement for why we are meeting, how long it’ll take, what our agendas will be, and what the exit criteria will be. And thanks to Jeff, those are always my best meetings.
So have some guts, pick your rules, and trust yourself enough to be consistent.
Do it with a smile. Don’t hesitate or doubt or argue or get defensive.
Here’s a trick I use when I’m afraid to set a particular boundary with a client, or with a child — first pick the rule, second convince yourself it’s “good enough” to defend, and third set the goal of having the other person walk away rather than agree to your rule.
Example: I want to get my daughter to clean the kitchen, and I want to give her the cookies I just picked up. I can set the rule that she only gets the cookies when the kitchen is clean — but I run the risk that she’ll refuse, leaving me with a dirty kitchen AND cookies that will go to waste.
So I pick my rule — I offer the cookies only on condition of a clean kitchen. I decide it’s actually reasonable. And I agree with myself that it’s worth having uneaten cookies if she refuses.
Example: I want full fee on a proposal. With the help of my mentor, I decide I’ll negotiate scope to reduce cost, but otherwise I don’t reduce or negotiate fees. I decide I really am willing to lose the entire business rather than open a negotiation on fees.
It takes guts. But the more calm, relaxed, and matter-of-fact I am about it, the more Seth-like, the more successful I am.
And the kitchen got cleaned. And I got my full fee. And I feel good about myself and the people I’m dealing with.