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Beware of the Experts: Fakes, Fiction and Facts

Dec 20th, 2011

Recently, everywhere I go, everywhere I look and every time I turn around — poof — there’s yet another IT/web development/web design/SEO/online marketing/[insert_random_area_of_expertise] expert.

Don’t get me wrong: I dig experts.
I follow them on Twitter. I like their facebook pages. I subscribe to their RSS feeds. I want to chain myself to their hip 24/7 so I can watch what they’re doing, how they’re doing it and so I can learn from them. If they are real experts, that is.

Now, after being in the industry for quite a while now, and after time and time again thinking I’ve seen and heard it all, there are two main things that never cease to amaze me:

1) – The ridiculous, outrageous, completely incomprehensibly stupid and preposterous statements and promises so-called specialists keep making; AND:
2) – That people STILL actually fall for it.

Well, here is why they fall for it:
While for me and fellow web-workers with the appropriate level of education and adequate experience (yes, I think both are required) it is generally fairly easy to spot a fake and/or a self-proclaimed guru; the general public, the unsuspecting Small Business Owner and therefore our beloved "expert’s" preferred target has almost no way to detect a fake.
They simply don’t have the necessary knowledge to determine if the talk they’re being subjected to has any substance, if any of the claims that are being made have any validity or if whatever product they get pressured into buying is of real value to them or if the service they need to "sign up for immediately before it’s too late and they get left behind" will be in any way beneficial to them or their (business) goals or if it will only fatten Mr. Guru’s wallet.

Especially in our technology-heavy field, I hear big words and acronyms being thrown around like they’re going out of style all the time.
The normal person however, the occasional web user (and the majority of people still fall into that category – believe it or not), has absolutely NO clue what they mean.
To me it’s nothing else but an intimidation technique with the goal to completely confuse the customer; to scare them by showing them how inadequate the little knowledge they might have is and that they have absolutely no way of surviving without joining the cult, immediately.

What I am trying to do in this series of posts is to give everybody out there little and hopefully valuable guidelines on how to spot a fake expert.

And while certain things are very specific to a certain area of expertise, there are some very steps everybody can take themselves and some basic questions everybody should ask their potential expert before signing anything, entering into a contract, or handing over any kind of sensitive information.

  • Ask questions. Lots of them. And insist on an answer.
    Feel free to jump in and interrupt if you are under the impression that something has not been explained thoroughly enough or if you didn’t understand something. Insist on an answer and don’t let them continue before you’re satisfied. You have a right to understand what they’re trying to sell you.
  • Ask for proof: credentials, certifications, referrals, testimonials.
    Any honest person will be more than happy to provide those – in most cases they probably have them ready for you.
  • Take your time
    Don’t allow anyone to rush you or pressure you into signing something.
    Tell them you need time to verify their statements and contact previous clients or to check referrals.
  • Be proactive: Do your own research
    Don’t solely rely on what they hand over or show you. It can be as fabricated as their claims. Ask Google for help: search for the company name, the individual’s name, check for reviews on consumer review pages like Yelp or Google reviews. Check them out with the Better Business Bureau or Consumer Affairs.
  • Verify all required (business) licenses
    This might be the most important one. A corporation better be listed on the Secretary of State’s web site, and anyone who is trying to sell you something (product or service) better have a business license with the state/county/city/municipality.
  • Ask for experience
    Technology is constantly evolving, and especially in newer fields it’s sometimes hard to prove adequate experience.
    But: someone who studied computer science and has been working as a software developer for 10 years is very likely to have more experience (in software engineering and related fields) than someone who until recently worked as a sales rep for a pharmaceutical company and thinks programming is his newly discovered calling.
  • Check out their presence on the web
    Another obvious one. Go to their website and poke around. See what information is available, look for a physical address. Check who is the registered owner of the domain. Check for any read flags. If they are reputable, all the information should be readily available – they have no reason to hide anything.
  • Never make out a check to a person’s name
    Really. True experts have a business account in the name of the business.
  • Pay by credit card
    While certain companies specialize in high-risk merchants and accounts, getting a new merchant account (and therefore being able to accept credit cards) nowadays has become slightly more difficult; as banks require all kinds of proof before they accept a merchant.
    And – if you find out you still got scammed but paid by credit card, you can at least deny the (latest) charge and get some of your money back.

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