A friend of mine told me a long time ago that he despised being referred to as an expert in the field of project management. Even though he is indeed an authority in every sense of the word, he explained to me that he has seen so many I stances in his career that the reference of SME – subject matter expert – came back to haunt him and his teams.

Positioning someone as an expert often carries a certain amount of responsibility with it. Unfortunately in the world of consulting I see the words expert, authority, and guru thrown around too frequently.

In working as part of global team attempting to support sales efforts in a variety of organizations such as IBM I was entirely too aware of the challenge of selling talent without over promising. It is a difficult balance to strike between talking about the positive attributes of consulting resources and making claims that border on the impossible.

One company I was part of used to position one of the project managers as their expert on all matters IT. After talking with him for ten minutes it became painfully obvious that this person’s two years as a Java programmer barely justified calling him experienced in IT, let alone giving him the title project manager.

While some of these claims are somewhat understandable during the sales cycle, little annoys me more than having a person overstate their own level of skill, talent, or knowledge.

Here also those of us in consulting where we have to sell ourselves are at a bit of a bind. We want to show potential clients that our background and experience justifies the rates we are demanding. Yet over inflating ourselves is not only rude but will lead us to future trouble.

I quickly came to the realization in my career that honesty is the best policy, even if it leads to leading to losing the job. So the next time that someone asks you “are you considered a subject matter expert in aerospace engineering?” rather than saying “yes or sort of” when you are actually not, you might want to say “no but I’m a quick study.”

During a recent client meeting she asked me how I was intending to overcome my lack of industry knowledge. I simply gave her a couple of examples of how I was able to ramp up on other engagements where I had a limited among of knowledge. It seemed to satisfy her curiosity for the time being, but what might help even more is that recommendation from a previous client to help corroborate the story.

In the end as consultants we have to have an area of expertise because if we don’t we have little business knocking on doors. The key is to play to one’s strengths without overplaying them. I won’t presume to state that this is something that I mastered but will point out that it is something I try to keep developing my skills in.