International consulting, part deux

The trip to Bahrain, which I wrote about in my previous column, was a success. There are a lot of ways to measure success, but in this case we used these:

We arrived OK after 24 hours of travel.

We returned home OK after another 24 hours of travel.

My presentation transpired without any unexpected profanity on my part.

From the business side, we were extremely well received because we had a product that was relevant to the people to whom we were pitching. This has led to new leads that would have been much more difficult to obtain had we not gone to the conference.

It is emotionally trying for anyone to expose themselves to a large number of prospects. It is easier to pitch to everyone at once, but if you screw up you get to alienate the entire bunch. The real key to international consulting is to set reasonable expectations – i.e. none.

Of course that conclusion is the result of 20/20 hindsight.

Originally, we had the idea that we would come back with a reasonable number of new leads and contacts. I gave these notions up shortly after arriving. We arrived at 6:30 a.m. local time and were utterly jetlagged and sleep deprived. Luck was with us and a room at the hotel was open. I slept for four hours and then pulled myself together enough to register for the conference. As I and my team – there were three of us on this trip – left the elevator and entered the lobby of the Gulf Hotel, I realized there was no way to predict how this was going to turn out. We knew only a few of the other conferences attendees, we were in a very foreign country, and we were scared to death.

Other subtle points came up that made it clear there were priorities other than our little presentation. The hosts of the conference invited dignitaries to attend the opening ceremonies. This included the American ambassador to Bahrain. Prior to the conference, there had been the terrorist attack on a U.S. ship and the tension in Israel and the West Bank were, and still are, high. The Ambassador assured us that we were safe; the Fifth Fleet was in the Gulf to back us up. The thought of locally-available Tomahawk and Cruise missiles didn’t give the sense of calm that I was striving to achieve before the conference.

Another lesson learned was about service. The Gulf Hotel does an excellent job of running the hotel, but you have to come half way. For example, for our booth, we had asked for a computer monitor and it hadn’t shown up. I spoke with one of the organizers and she made the lads working for her jump. High. But I was explicitly told that I should have brought my service issue to her attention sooner. Point taken. How can you expect good service if your needs are not spelled out in a timely fashion? This made me think about IT. How many times have we been caught off guard because the client didn’t complain soon enough? Every one who has coded anything realizes that knowing what the customer wants in the first place saves costly jury rigging in the second place.

In the end I travelled thousands of kilometres only to reflect on the service my own company provides. Are we reaching out half way? Are we seeking out customer issues so that they don’t bite us later? Or are we, like so many in the IT business, saying, “We’ll take care of that problem in the next version.”

Ford owns Quokka Systems Consulting Ltd. ( and recovers from jetlag at his home in Vancouver.