Deciding Between Competing Assignments

By Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR Nov 7, 2011

You’ve been fortunate recently to be faced with increasing demand for your services. But, now you face the challenging task of deciding between two—or more—competing assignments. Whether the assignments compete for your time or the clients are competitors, you need to make a choice. If you make a bad choice it could impact future business opportunities. On the other hand, even if you say “no,” if you handle the situation effectively you could preserve the relationship and still have the chance of generating projects from the client in the future.

As the economy begins to show some signs of an uptick, this is a situation that HR consultants hope they will begin facing more frequently.

Richard J. Lukesh, managing partner with Your Part-Time HR Manager, LLC, said this is a situation that he faces regularly.

“In working with small businesses, we often run into this issue as there are so many more competitors within the small and mid-sized business market.” In fact, he says, he’s currently dealing with this situation with two competing charter schools.

“Our solution consists of one or both options which are: a strong confidentiality agreement and/or the ability to have one of our partners, who is not working with a competitor, handle the account,” said Lukesh.

Trust is a significant issue here, he adds, noting that it is possible to work with competing clients as long as all parties are fully informed and in agreement.

Marlene Caroselli recently sold her business, but said she has faced this situation on numerous occasions. Caroselli founded The Center for Professional Development in 1984 and is the author of 55 business books and is an international keynote speaker and corporate trainer. In dealing with this dilemma, she said, her decision was based on two factors:

*Did one assignment represent an opportunity to develop new business?

*Could I find someone who could take on the not-chosen assignment and represent me and my company as well as I could have done?

When dealing with a situation where an existing client is being weighed against taking on work from a competitor, it would seem that giving preference to an existing client would be the best and most natural route to take. However, what if the potential client represents an opportunity that is significantly greater in terms of bottom-line value or might boost the reputation of your firm?

Be careful here, advised Lukesh. “If you discharge an existing client to achieve some short-term goal such as a lucrative engagement, you need to consider the impact of such a decision on your marketing efforts within your target market,” he said. “Considering the fact that disgruntled customers tell, on average, 20 others about their dissatisfaction, the loss of trust and the negative PR created by discharging a current client may not be worth the expected gain.”

Start with a Discussion

When faced with a situation like this, Lukesh suggested first advising the current client that you are considering working with a competitor and engaging the client in a discussion about how you plan to handle the situation. “If the current client approves, you then need to confer with the prospect and provide that company with references from clients where you have been similarly engaged,” he advised. If the current client does not agree, then you have a tough decision to make. “Without the approval of both companies, you have a difficult choice,” he acknowledged.

The same type of difficult choice might exist when considering opportunities from two new clients which seem to offer benefits. Which one should you choose?

Lynne Sarikas is executive director of the MBA Career Center at Northeastern University. This same type of situation often comes into play, she pointed out, in employment decisions. “Whether you are seeking a new job and find yourself having to choose between two offers, or you are an entrepreneur or consultant and need to select between two assignments, it can be a challenge, she acknowledged. She advised the following:

*Assess the pros and cons of each opportunity honestly and independently. Do the industry and company fit your interests and passions? Does the work culture fit your style? “It can be helpful to actually list accounts for each opportunity with pros on the left and cons on the right,” said Sarikas. “Force yourself to think about and write it all down so you can reflect further on it.”

*Revisit your original goals. What types of opportunities are you looking for? What industries and types of companies are on your target list? Based on these original goals, how does this new opportunity fit your strengths, interests and passions?

*Step back and think about what each opportunity does for you. Are you gaining new experience or expertise that makes you more valuable going forward? Will the job provide specialized training or learning opportunities that would be helpful in the future? Is this an opportunity that allows you to apply your skills in a different industry or functional area? “If these are your goals, gaining this experience could be very helpful,” said Sarikas. “Think about what you personally gain both long term and short term from each experience.”

*Avoid the temptation to decide based on money. “Making the most money today is not always the best choice,” Sarikas noted. The other opportunity might give you experience that will help you earn more in the long term. Or perhaps it offers better opportunities for additional business. “Try to take a longer-term view before making a decision based on money,” she advised.

Finally, said Sarikas, “trust your gut.” “While all the analysis will be helpful and will support an objective view of the option, at the end of the day you have to trust your gut. If one opportunity ‘just feels right,’ go for it. Your gut is telling you something you haven’t been able to articulate, but it is typically right.”

To get in touch with your gut, try this simple exercise. Flip a coin. Then monitor carefully your immediate response to the results of the coin toss. Did you feel a sense of relief or a sense of regret? That immediate reaction can be telling.

Having multiple, competing assignments to choose from is not necessarily a bad spot to be in. The key to making the right selections depends upon your goals, your consideration of long-term success from a financial and client service perspective, and, as Sarikas pointed out, “your gut.”

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues.

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