(Image - side by side of an illustration of a waiter next to text over a blue block) - Are you a doctor or waiter?

Are You a Doctor or Waiter?

The quickest way to devalue yourself as an expert consultant

There’s a sharp pain in your stomach.

At first, you thought it was just something you ate. It had to be.

But then the pain was still there, weeks later, growing worse by the day.

Eventually it got unbearable, so you went to the doctor.

The usual rigamarole ensued. Wait in line. Check in. Sit down. Get called. Do paperwork. Wait. Watch. Wait. Wonder. Get called. Sit in a smaller room. Wait. Wonder. Wait.

The doctor walks in, sits down next to the examination table, asks what medicine you need, the dose you’ll be needing & if you need the prescription to be refillable or if one script will fit the bill.

That’s not right. Not by any stretch of the imagination.

Doctor’s diagnose

They examine us. They ask questions. They test, analyze, research, reflect & test.

Eventually they start diagnosing, they start prescribing either medicine or actions to cure whatever is ailing us.

I remember one time I went to the doctor because I was having knee pain. I’d just finished a race, and all the running had done a number on my knee.

After a bunch of questions, movement tests & measurements he showed me some stretches to do to fix my injured back.

That wasn’t a typo.

The difference between causes and symptoms

I went in with knee pain and he diagnosed me (and gave me a treatment plan) for an injured back.

I did the stretches, skeptically, and after about a month I was feeling better.

The doctor had mastered his craft so well that he could spot the real issue, even through my description of the pain. He knew the difference between causes and symptoms.

Equally important, just being a doctor endowed him with such authority that I did what he said even though it made no sense to me.

Most importantly, the expectation was set: you go to the doctor and you do what they say if you want to get better.

Can you imagine this happening in some other industries?

Waiters take orders

Out to dinner with a friend, we each ordered the ribeye. He ordered his medium well and I ordered mine seared.

When the food came out the waiter placed a medium rare steak in front of my friend and a salmon fillet in front of me.

We protested. Surely a mistake had been made. This was someone else’s food.

“No mistake,” said the waiter. “I brought you the steak medium rare, sir, because it is a better texture, particularly for this cut. And you, sir, I brought you the salmon because I’m worried about your cholesterol. This is the meal you each really should have.”

Did I handle this with the same blind, even if somewhat skeptical trust, faith & grace that I handled the doctor’s diagnosis and instructions?

Absolutely not.

But why? This waiter was acting out of his experience, skill and knowledge. I dare to say that even if this were a formally trained chef I wouldn’t have responded any differently, though.

Expectations matter

While I expect a doctor to treat my pain, I also ascribe knowledge, skill and expertise to him that I don’t have. I expect that he or she will do the right thing to heal me. I expect to be uncomfortable, to be confused, to be told what to do.

My expectations at a restaurant are totally different.

There I expect to be served, verging on doted upon. There I, the customer, am always right.

I expect to be able to make tweaks, even to a carefully planned menu. “Oh, I don’t want fennel on that,” and the staff doesn’t put fennel on it and is forced to rapidly come up with an alternative.

Are You a Doctor or a Waiter?

If you’re a waiter you take orders, you carry them out and that’s the way it is.

Bring me a website.

Build me ads for a new spring collection. They should say this and look like that.

And so it goes.

There’s nothing wrong with being the equivalent of a waiter, taking orders and delivering exactly what was ordered. You can do good work, make a good living, be promoted and live happily ever after.

If you own the company, your company can still do well. You can win lots of projects, do quality work, and be profitable.

But if you are a consultant or run your own agency, you are now competing largely on price, and there is always someone that will do the job for less.

If you’re a doctor, on the other hand, you don’t take orders. You diagnose.

Your patient (client/prospect) comes in and you ask questions. You examine. Test. Analyze. Research. Eventually you tell them what you think they need and how to get healed.

This is the way to command top dollar. To be able to be more selective about your projects. To have a backlog of people waiting to work with you.

It’s hard to be a doctor. There will be pushback. You’ll lose pitches to waiters a lot.

But being an order taker is the quickest way to devalue your expertise, your brand & your solutions.

You can be successful either way, and you can change your mind and adjust. It’s all about expectations.


Which are you, a doctor or a waiter?

If you enjoyed this piece, if you took any value from it, then I highly recommend you spend some time with Blair Enns. Whether you contract him, read his blogs, read his books, or listen to his podcast, this man is a genius, and I've learned quite a bit through all of those methods.