Beware of Brain Pickers

Published: April 21, 2012

If you've been in the consulting business for more than a year, it is very likely that you were at some point the victim of brain pickers. Brain picking is the practice of gathering ideas from several people without paying for the advising you get. Brain pickers entice their victims by the promise of large consulting contracts. At the end of the day, they will hire a cheap free lance to implement your brilliant ideas, wasting your time and giving away your precious ideas to competitors. The outcome if often negative for the client as well since the ideas are wasted on poorly managed projects.
Here are some advices from my experience to avoid this consulting defect:

Spot them early on

Some signs don’t lie :

• The prospect doesn’t seem inclined to meeting you before receiving a full blown proposal. What kind of client chooses a consultant solely on a PowerPoint presentation anyway?
• A strong interest on methodology is shown. "Our decision will be based mainly on methodology so make sure to go in depth on that matter." If you hear that, there is a 90 % chance that the prospect is planning on running the project on his own.
• Prospects requires you to answer specific questions on a given topic.
• The brief is not precise or simply inaccurate.
• The prospect is very vague when it comes to their budget.
• Business perspectives are too good to be true. "We will have a lot of projects for you in the future".
• The prospect has a well established brain picking reputation.

Outsmart them

Several tactics may be used.

Bring up the question of their budget as soon as you can. Ask for precise deadlines and a time line of their decision process. The answers you get will allow you to clearly assess their buying intentions.

Also try to know if the prospect has any prior experience with consultants. If not, that may be a bad sign. Least but not last, listen to your guts. Looking back, whenever I had any doubts about the prospect’s intentions of buying, my intuition was right.

When business is scarce, you may be tempted to overlook these signs but if you are 80 % sure the person you're talking to is a brain picker, be strong and decline the offer.

Give enough but not too much

When luring consultants into delivering more ideas, brain pickers benefit from our burning desire to help clients and develop our business. We constantly feel the need to prove just how brilliant our ideas are, no matter the risk... When in the end your ideas won’t even get to be implemented the right way, know you are plainly wasting your time.

Let's be clear. If the prospect thinks he got enough from you, he will not buy from you; as simple as that. To showcase your talent choose to focus on a specific issue. If the prospect is serious about doing business with you, a sample of the value you can bring to his firm will suffice. Giving away too much will never increase your chances of closing the deal.

Use brain pickers' curiosity against them.

Simply mention what you can do. A fellow consultant once told me: show them the food, allow them to smell and have a bite, but never ever feed them - let alone give away your recipe.

Consultants need to obey similar rules than strippers: never show everything right away and don’t allow clients to touch. Building up frustrations is a terrific way to sell more.

Tar and feather them

If you think that you were the victim of a brain picker, first wait a little. Some time people just take time to make a decision. Do not waste too much time either. I remember a brain picker who was too much of a coward to say he did not want to buy. I had to call him 10 times at least before I could understand he would simply not sign. One year later, I discovered that a competitor had a similar story with that same prospect.

The only thing you can do at this point, is to learn from your mistakes and for the sake of our trade, spread the word out to your peers.

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Paul Muller
(August 24, 2012 04:58 pm)

On occasion "Brain picking" has happened to me during my 20 plus years of consulting. The deceptive "brain picking practice" is costly and annoying particularly when large opportunities are involved that require a significant investment in developing a winning value proposition and the prospective client organization is a well recognized company with the means to fund a large and complex project.
The game is often played by the brain picking prospect by inviting consultancies to bid on an opportunity through a request for proposal. In bidders conferences the client's needs and requirements are further detailed often followed by one on one meetings by each bidding consultancy with the client's subject matter experts (SME's). In the process the SME's become educated in the technology of the solution and constraints. By an established deadline proposals are issued by the consultants for review by the client. The proposals often vary in approach, scope, deliverable and price. The client may see that the proposals from the most experienced and higher fees consultancies include important items not found in the proposals from the less experienced and less expensive consultants. The client shares the approach and/or proposals from the most experienced consulting firms with the lower priced less experienced firms and asks the reason for any major missing items. If the less experienced firms have no compelling reason for the omission the prospective client requests the firms to include the missing items in their proposal while keeping the price well below those of the high bidders. As the winner is announced and exit interviews with the losing consultants are conducted the value propositions not surprisingly turn out to be quite similar and price is the differentiator in the "competitve" bidding process.
One large client where the project executive had used brain picking to select a low bidding consultant for a large complex project came back to my firm in three months with the request if my firm could take over the project at our original price since the selected low price consultant could not deliver.
When deciding to bid or not to bid on an opportunity I use a decision making methodology that includes raising questions that require me to walk in the shoes of the prospective client. The method includes a decision quality assessment tool that uses Bayesian algorithms. The tool will point out undiscovered risks, biases and surprises in my decision which causes me to revisit the decision. As the bidding process proceeds and more client and competitor information becomes available I revisit my decision using the method and tool and I may cut my losses and submit a "no bid" or proceed with the bidding process.

Charles Green
(July 04, 2012 08:42 pm)

Malcolm is very right. I have found this fear of "brainpickers," as you put it, is usually an excuse for a misunderstanding of the value that great consulting can provide.

Rent-a-brain consulting is essentially database-consulting. If your only asset is proprietary knowledge, get ready to get outsourced; it's all available to a smart search engine. If that's all you can do, your rates will be forever low and you'll get no repeat business.

A much better way to work with a "brainpicker" is to answer their question immediately and directly, though with out much detail, and then to ask them if they've thought of five related questions, the lack of answers to which will render the answer to the first question inconsequential. That shows you know your stuff, you're not afraid to share it, and there's way more where that came from: which by the way, they must pay for.

Defensiveness is one of the worst traits in a consultant. It falls into a general category of blaming our clients, when we have far more control, responsibility and power than we think.

Readers might enjoy my article on this, "My Client is a Jerk."

In the meantime, try this: A "brainpicker" is just a client who hasn't yet met a consultant who can ask a better question than he can."

Chuck Davis
(May 11, 2012 08:48 am)

This just happened to me with a new client. I had three interviews with a lot of questions. I never got my retainer. Finally, I was about to walk away and the CEO said here is your retainer.I had to call their bluff. It worked this time, but this is a great subject as this does happen especially with the many types of scams in today's world. Be careful out there. You just can't be too hungry for work.

Malcolm Sleath
(April 16, 2012 11:39 pm)

As I see it, many consultants treat their meetings with clients as if they are some kind of oral examination and they are supposed to come up with an answer. The underlying belief goes that if you score highly, the client will be impressed and give you work.

It's not an exam. It should be a conversation about value. By that I mean you have to find a way of discussing the client's potential requirement in a way that does not involve you spelling out a solution.

If you express the client's need as a requirement, you don't have to get specific about ways and means. You can ask the client to describe the value to them of satisfying the requirement so that they build a vision of success. The basic question is, "How would it help you to do that?"

At 12boxes we show consultants how to get to the point where they can ask that question in a way that elicits a serious answer and gets the client to set their concerns about cost and difficulty of implementation to one side, until the payoff can be established.

You are quite right to draw attention to the problem of 'brain pickers' but the answer is not to be defensive and indulge in some kind of seductive strip-tease revealing only a little while the client slavers at the prospect of more.

Malcolm Sleath @malcolm12boxes

(April 06, 2012 09:04 am)

Very, very, very good article. I hate brain picker