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How Narcissists Steal Your Consulting Business (and What You Need to Learn)

Narcissists. They attract admirers like trick-or-treaters to chocolate. Countless throngs buy their offerings—metaphorically or literally. As consultants, we don’t want to be narcissists; yet, narcissistic competitors can eat your consulting business alive.

3-levels-of-narcissism Narcissistic personalities have been very visible as of late. Many may be what Michael Maccoby calls “productive narcissists,” whose aggressive energy, engaging charm, and relentless self-importance power impressive business success.

Why do they succeed? Studies show that people in turmoil or facing uncertainty are especially likely to follow a strong leader who promises easy, pain-free passage to an extraordinary future.

Since buyers of consulting services are typically searching for relief from unsettled, tumultuous situations, or for an easy path to success, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they are especially drawn to narcissistic consultants.

Let’s call this class of practitioners D.O.N.s, for Defiantly Outrageous Narcissists. (D.O.N. is an acronym. It does not refer to any person who happens to have a similarly spelled name.)

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When you compete for consulting business with a D.O.N., he’ll usually win. His sheer bravado, over-the-top charisma, and hyperbolic claims (minimally supported by facts) mesmerize the client.

How do you compete with consultants like that?

First, I am not recommending you become a productive narcissist.

Those personalities can appear pretentious and disdainful of others’ ideas. They often maliciously lash out at others who question them.

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So, what beneficial traits can you adopt from D.O.N.s that will help your consulting business, while leaving the nasty bits behind?

Polish Your Image

D.O.N.s master and maintain an appealing look. They typically dress impeccably and surround themselves with objects that scream success.

You don’t have to adopt a Robb Report lifestyle; however, your marketing materials should present you as financially thriving. Invest in fine clothes and luxurious accoutrements for your client meetings and splurge (without flinching) when you take them out for a meal.

Attend to Your First Impression

Those first moments and minutes with a new prospect are crucial. Practice them.

Carefully consider how you look and sound, as well as what you’re thinking and feeling. Are you internally and externally confident and compelling?

Communicate the Big Picture

D.O.N.s make sweeping, grandiose promises. Before you dive into details, paint an alluring image of the future.

Concentrate on the bold strokes—the handful of major, high-impact elements in your approach. Rehearse sketching out your overarching models in broad, enticing terms.

Get (and Take) Credit

D.O.N.s claim responsibility for every positive client result, from an uptick in profits to sunny weather at the company picnic. It’s an effective approach.

Collect testimonials, track concrete results, and, importantly, highlight your successes when talking with prospects. Toot your own horn, my friend.

By the way, one advantage you have over D.O.N.s is your willingness to share the credit for success with others.

Crank Up Your Charisma and Confidence

D.O.N.s practically sweat charisma, and appear supremely self-confident, which is highly appealing to buyers of consulting.

Take on the hard work of burying your doubts deeper, and identify a handful of small changes that will bolster your personal magnetism. These could include your stance, bearing, speech patterns, willingness to smile, or even your ability to tell a joke or two.

You may also be interested in these two articles: The Self-Confidence Myth and Two Exercises to Build Your Confidence.

Are you already attractive to clients? Absolutely! I have no doubt.

Nevertheless, each of us can look at the example set by narcissists and, without worry of going too far, adopt more traits that appeal to prospects.

Boast a little right now! What attribute of yours has helped your business? (Set aside any shyness about sharing publicly—tooting your horn a bit is the whole point!)


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8 Comments
  1. Richard Middaugh
    October 26, 2016 at 9:15 am Reply

    Wonderful commentary on our contemporary society, with constructive advice.

    • David A. Fields
      October 26, 2016 at 9:24 am Reply

      The article feels like it’s talking about today’s news; yet, I was in some museums in D.C. this past weekend and saw the havoc wreaked throughout history by leaders with the D.O.N. personality. I also see D.O.N.s in consulting, which is why I wanted to pen this piece. I appreciate your supportive comment, Richard.

  2. Robin Goldsmith
    October 26, 2016 at 10:25 am Reply

    Excellent points, though I’d guess most of us wouldn’t have any way to tell that a D.O.N. had scooped our particular prospect. Regardless of whether we’re aware of the potential presence of a D.O.N., the suggested counter behaviors remain good advice. I find the D.O.N. to be more of an issue in industry positioning, such as described with respect to testing in my recent blog post at https://huddle.eurostarsoftwaretesting.com/unconventional-wisdom-v4-testings-donald-trumps/.

    • David A. Fields
      October 26, 2016 at 10:48 am Reply

      Robin, you’re right that we’re sometimes unaware of D.O.N.s as direct competition for an individual project, though, as you said, we often encounter or see them as we look at other consultants in our space.
      Thanks for the link to your interesting blog post, too.

  3. Peter Korytko
    October 26, 2016 at 2:25 pm Reply

    As a consultant in a science-based field, I have the fortune of a relatively level playing field when it comes to personalities. The clients are all scientist which makes them skeptical from the start. They also tend to see right through personalities; they probe skill sets and capabilities often by asking questions for which they already have the answer. The questions is a test.
    There are only a few ways to win over a scientist to make them a client. I can show them that I have the scientific skills that they need and match wits with them. Or, I can explain to them that I know how to get from where they are to the place where they want to be in the future. Or, I can demonstrate that I can move their program forward with a few hints or a touch of free work. The last way to land a client is to get a referral from a friend that includes a comment on skill set and “good guy” qualities.
    With this good fortune, D.O.N.s do not persist for long in my field unless they can also deliver.

    • David A. Fields
      October 26, 2016 at 2:37 pm Reply

      Peter, you are fortunate indeed. D.O.N.s often don’t react well to scrutiny and can even appear affronted when their claims are challenged. On the other hand, I’ve seen some mighty fine razzle dazzle, with just enough depth to convince a prospect that the D.O.N.’s intellectual pool is deep.

      Of course, as you know, scientists can be as prone to buy into grandiose assertions as anyone else. Name an oppressive regime led by a charismatic, narcissistic dictator, and I’ll show you scientists who worked to support that D.O.N.’s crazy schemes.

      Thank you for adding your experience to the discussion, Peter. The scientist angle is a good perspective.

  4. David Discenza
    October 27, 2016 at 1:30 pm Reply

    The one thing I have learned about D.O.N.’s is that they sew the seeds of their own destruction. Case in point: I know of a D.O.N. who could have snagged a large contract with a client. When the meeting began, he talked, and talked, and talked. After 45 minutes, the client said “I thought you’d never shut up. This meeting is over.”

    So, if I lose a project to a D.O.N., I’m going to follow up with that client to see how things went on the project. Maybe they were satisfied with the D.O.N..’s performance but instinct tells me they probably weren’t.

    • David A. Fields
      October 27, 2016 at 1:59 pm Reply

      David, that’s a very good point. D.O.N.s frequently are one-and-done consultants because their results don’t live up to their hyper-inflated promises.

      Your case study is also excellent. I, too, have seen this personality flame out before they close the deal. Clients are, without question, drawn to confident and engaging personalities. However, occasionally they see through the smoke and mirrors to the less-than-impressive core.

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