Just Because You’ve Got Yourself An Expert…

Dumb Idea Multiplier

Everybody likes validation from Experts from time to time, even me. Here’s a little secret, though: true capital-E Experts are really good at making it up as they go along. The bad news for us is there are also frauds – “experts” – who will take you for a ride.

Here’s how to tell the difference.

Exhibit #1: Captain Jean Luc Picard – “There are times when it is necessary for a captain to give the appearance of confidence.”

Don’t jump to the wrong conclusion. Not all Experts are bullshit artists. We’ll get to the difference in a second.

Experts are just better at cobbling together expertise (aka: making it up as they go along, connecting the dots, making it rain) because they’ve reached what Malcolm Gladwell calls The Tipping Point or roughly 10,000 hours of practice. The tipping point gives you a sixth-sense on where the boundaries of plausible and bullshit converge.

I live and breathe marketing. I can’t go to the store without commenting on branding, packaging, or wording. I take photos of interesting labels and study them when I get home. I binge-watch shows I only kinda like (and read Wikis + watch YouTube clips for ones I truly hate) to stay current on trends, sayings, characters, whatever. I devote days at a time to becoming a digital native on platforms I will probably never personally use, just in case a client might be able to use it. I read prolifically – almost anything that’s published in the marketing world – blog, print, magazine, or billboard.

This is my standard for measurement of other marketing Experts.

An Expert’s depth and width of knowledge illuminates the edges of the field that are not apparent to the occasional hobbyist. How on Earth could I have made a funny, timely comic about House of Cards to market my business without having seen House of Cards?

With enough practice, you know pretty well where the bleeding edge is, how far is too far, how much risk is too much. You know the level of your ability so intrinsically, you’ve identified a certain amount of “wiggle room” in which you can make reasonable promises, after which you risk over-promising.

The problem comes in when there’s a big knowledge gap between you and your “expert” AND your “expert” isn’t really an expert but a bullshit artist. Bullshit artists lie about their skills to con folks who don’t know better out of their money.

There’s a difference between failure with honest intent (they’re doing their best but in over their head) and dishonest intent (they had no idea how to do this in the first place and promised to do it anyway). Here’s where you can start to discern where the world of “expert” meets “bullshit artist”.

Make no mistake: lying is a skill, too.

Exhibit #2: Garak – “Lying is a skill like any other and if you want to maintain a level of excellence you have to practice constantly.”

There are few things more dangerous in business than an overpromise bred from the ignorance of someone in over their head, paired with someone with access to money and a trusting nature.

You can throw a rock in Fort Collins and literally hit 30 web designers. All of these people could, with varying degrees of competence, build you a website. Hell, with 15 minutes of training, I could probably show your backwater Amish cousin who’d never used a computer before how to build a relatively decent one, too.

If you only follow my WTF exploits, you might not know that I have over 15 years of experience in developing websites. So when a client asks me if I can build them a website, I can say yes knowing I’m not gonna screw it up.

I know this because I started building websites when I was 12 or 13, going on to win two best of state awards in FBLA and designing and developing my high school’s website as a junior. Maybe a year before I started up WTF Marketing, I was testing the water doing a few freelance web gigs. More recently, I created a sister company to WTF Marketing called Pixelated on Purpose to give better service to our web design clients.

People who are masters of a multitude of difficult skills are called Unicorns (and I do not count myself amongst their sparkly, horned ranks). They don’t exist in large quantities and they typically know exactly how much their rainbow aura is worth. I’ve known exactly 2 in my lifetime.

My personal trifecta – which I’ve tried to achieve but, honestly, will never get there – is Marketing + Website Design + Graphic Design. There’s a reason WTF Marketing’s comic PSAs are stick figures. Much as I would love to be able to do graphic design well – I just can’t. So I outsource it to 3 very talented folks.

Another Unicorn example would be the “personable programmer” – a wiz at coding, suave in front of the client, and an expert at project management. Throw a little marketing or sales in there and you have a one-man wonder like Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, or Bill Gates.

Those who merely claim mastery over many skills are known as “unicorns” (notice the de-emphasis).

So before I started WTF, I had an encounter with a “unicorn”; a graphic designer who secretly believed he was also a fantastic web developer (a coder). Our relationship was pretty simple. I’d find a client who needed a website, have this designer design the website, and then I’d code out his design. Everybody got credit, everybody got paid, everybody was happy.

One day, dude comes to me and asks me to troubleshoot something for him.

Turns out, he’d done an end-run on me. I’d been talking with a client, they were putting off their website. The client went to the designer to see if they could do his piece first so they could do some print stuff, too. The designer – who knew my pricing – cut the price down and offered to code it himself. He proceeded to code – in the kindest words possible – a genetic defect of a website.

Fueled by desperation, a client who was increasingly pissed-off by his error- and shenanigan-filled amateur code, and a website requiring functionality far beyond his ken of coding, he’d hit his breaking point and asked for help. So I helped him out (for my full hourly rate, of course), then I cut ties.

In another instance later on, I was out-bid by yet another “guru” notorious in my community for making their living saying YES! to everything clients asked for. He fancied himself a unicorn, nothing could be further from the truth – he was the very epitome of the label Jack-of-all-Trades, Master-of-None.

Need a Facebook cover image? Done. (with some online tool that did “quality” graphic design that matched your brand if you were a bankrupt 1990’s big box store)
Need a year of Tweets? Done. (scheduled lovingly in HootSuite with absolutely zero relevance to your customers)
Need a website? Done. (in WordPress.com most often. Or rarely in WordPress.org. With a default theme. With no SEO. With no concern for domain, hosting, security, backups…or if it actually does what a website is supposed to do: get you customers)

I realize this all sounds pretty snobbish. I mean, these businesses were able to get the low-cost help they needed to tackle some marketing tasks, right?

When you stop to consider that this “guru” was using social media as a tackboard for ads (and not as conversation platforms), all of their posts were disjointed with no clear campaign behind them, very few – if any – measured ROI, and the business’s brand wasn’t well-represented no matter the work being done, what you have is not a business getting a lucky break to save on their marketing budget.

What you have is a business getting screwed at cost.

Good marketing costs money. Just like good art, good writing, good project management, good coding, good computers, good… see where I’m going here?

Just because you’ve got yourself an Expert doesn’t mean they know everything. A really good Expert will tell you when you hit their limit, an “expert” will just keep on floundering. Too good to be true often is.

So how do you tell the difference between an Expert and an “expert”? Two ways:

  1. Cost. Make no mistake about it – there are good-hearted, wonderful people in the world who will do their best work for practically nothing (or for charity). If your business is not a charity, don’t expect or demand charity from others. Good work costs money. Pay people what they’re worth. Time and experience putting knowledge to use is what turns the truly good into Experts – and it comes with a lot of bruises. Each time an Expert gets a bruise, they raise their rates (and subsequently get a little more cranky).
  2. Pointed Questions. I created a presentation on how to vet your consultant with 15 really important-to-ask questions. Check it out!

Have any horror stories of your own, want to highlight a real life Unicorn, or give props to your favorite Expert? Tell me in the comments!

This post is part of the monthly Word Carnival series. Every month, some incredibly smart people get together and blog on the same topic. This month: Being an Expert doesn’t mean you know everything. Check out the other wonderful bloggers at WordCarnival.com or follow along on Twitter with #WordCarnival.