Category Archives: Client relations

Getting to Agreement

Getting to Agreement
Getting to Agreement

We live in divided times today. And as much as we want to complain about it, it is nothing new. Abraham Lincoln famously said “a house divided cannot stand.” There are many examples of major disagreements throughout history. We humans can be a disagreeable group of people.

You see it on projects on a daily basis. We disagree about how to implement software and who to hire for a project. Different people disagree in different ways. Some people get mad and start to yell when someone disagrees with them. Others stay calm and try to plead their case.

Can’t we all just get along?

A good consultant is able to work with diverse people with diverse goals and diverse opinions. They figure out how to “herd the cats” in the direction of a successful engagement.

Here are some tips on bringing people together and getting to agreement when warring factions butt heads.

What problem are you trying to solve? When people disagree, sometimes they are simply disagreeing on what the actual problem is. The first step is to make sure they agree with what they are trying to solve. This gives them a common vision and the first step toward agreeing with each other.

What assumptions are you working with? In the U.S., we have Republicans and Democrats. There are two primary differences between them. The first is the role of government. Republicans want a limited role, while Democrats usually advocate more government involvement. The second is taxation. Republicans want lower taxes, particularly for the rich. Democrats want to tax the rich to pay for the increased government programs.

Each group is working on diametrically opposed assumptions. Trying to bring them to agreement is a great challenge because of the vast difference in their assumptions.

What do you agree on? Try to find areas where they agree. Most Republicans and most Democrats agree on world peace. They may disagree on how to get there, but finding their common beliefs and values is a great starting point.

Finding as many points of agreement as possible, not only provides a starting point, it develops trust between the two. When they realize how much they have in common, they realize that they are not that different. They’re likely to approach their differences in a more cooperative light.

Find a middle ground. Once you have identified their areas of agreement, it might be easier to identify opportunities for compromise. Points of agreement are a bridge; a meeting of the minds. With that connection point, you can begin breaking down additional walls to see if there is any point of compromise.

The tricky aspect of compromise is that both sides need to give a little. But it takes one person to start the process. If you can convince one person to give in a little, it sets the example to his counterpart. They will be challenged to give some more. It may take each side to give just a little in multiple alternating sequences to get anywhere.

This is the hardest part. When arbitrating this between two sides, it usually requires creativity. Providing hypothetical situations can force each side to see the other person’s perspective. You might describe scenarios where one person’s approach would fail and their counterpart’s would be successful.

Based on their deeply-held assumptions, they may think your scenario is unlikely or impossible. It is your job to convince them that it may be more realistic than they think. This should be done as equally as possible with both sides of the argument.

The ultimate creative solution may look completely different than what either side proposed. The critical point is to make both of them feel like they own the solution together.

Document any agreement. You probably won’t succeed every time. Some sides are just too stubborn. They may be under too much pressure from their factions to give an inch to compromise. But if you are successful at getting either side to compromise, make sure that it is written down and published. This enforces the agreement and reduces the chance of either team backing out of the agreement.

When documenting the agreement, all credit should go to the warring parties for getting to agreement for the common good.

Conclusion

Whether you live in the political world, the business world, or some other type of community, you will always deal with people who disagree. Some are more willing than others to work towards a solution of compromise. Some simply can’t be budged. But working in a strategic, creative, and methodical approach with two groups that disagree can help in getting to agreement.

Have you ever been successful facilitating two parties to agreement?

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.

If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Overplaying Your Leverage

Overplaying your leverage
Overplaying your leverage

Our current president has been given the opportunity of doing something that many new presidents do. With his party holding a majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, he has leverage.

This gives him the ability to push legislation through congress with relative ease. Bill Clinton and Barak Obama both started their presidencies with majorities in both houses.

This led them to use their leverage to push legislation through congress as well. But those two former presidents lost those majorities in the mid-term elections two years later.

While there are many factors involved, it is safe to say that taking advantage of their majority leverage may have offended some voters. This could have caused them to swing to the opposite party when voting for congressmen two years later.

I’ve seen similar occurrences in the business world. Someone has a very powerful position and uses it to manipulate people. Sometimes they mistreat their employees, making them do unpleasant tasks or publicly berating them. Sometimes they force policy through to the chagrin of their peers within the company.

But the same thing can happen that happened to the former presidents. Someday that powerful manager is going to need something from some of those people he was so abusive to. Then they learn a valuable lesson: Overplaying your leverage has political consequences. Those people may be a lot less willing to cooperate with someone who showed them no respect in the past.

While working in business and politics are different animals, we all know that there are plenty of politics that go on in the business world. It may be necessary to “play nice” with people even if you have the power to be otherwise.

As a parent, some of the best advice I received from a friend was to pick your battles. Kids get out of line a lot. If I had reprimanded them every time, that’s all I would have done. And the kids would probably get pretty tired of my demands.

I learned that you let some things go and pick the fights that are worth fighting.

Two types of power

The same thing goes for getting things done at work. You could force things through with all of your power. But that could be short lived. In the business world, you have two types of power, official and unofficial power.

Official power is the power that the company bestows on you for your position. If you’re the boss, you have official power over the people that report to you.

Unofficial power is what you get from people that will help you out. If you are nasty to the people that work for you, they will probably do the minimum work that they must do under your official power. But if you treat them well and they respect you, they will give you additional unofficial power. This will likely get more done for you by your people.

You get unofficial power from other people within the organization. When you cooperate with your peers and help them get what they want, they will likely grant you unofficial power. You will get their cooperation for help on a project or to help get a policy changed.

Overplaying your leverage can hurt both types of power. You don’t get much unofficial power if you are seen overplaying your leverage too often. It could also stunt your growth in the company. Make enough people mad and the word gets out that you’re not a team player. If that gets back to the executives, they may be more likely to pass you up for that next promotion. That’s a big hit to your official power if you can’t build on it.

So here are some tips for balancing your power in the workplace.

Play nice. Perhaps you have a powerful position. You may be able to get your way at the expense of another department’s manager. But you may need that manager’s help someday. Establishing a reputation as a team player could give you more unofficial power than your official power. And that could come in handy.

Treat people like you would like to be treated. Some see it as a sign of weakness to be nice to people. “I’m not here to be liked. I’m here to get things done.” But being kind and fair is not being weak. In fact, it could give you enough unofficial power to make you much stronger.

Give and take. Some people see everything as a competition that they must win. They don’t stop to think what the other person may want. That type of person doesn’t see win-win scenarios very often. They only see things as win-lose and they don’t want to lose. Open your mind and negotiate with people in a way that will make them want to deal with you again.

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.

If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com

Image courtesy of Keerati at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It Depends is Always the Answer

It Depends
It Depends

I’ve heard people – mostly clients – that joke about the fact that you have officially made it as a consultant when you learn that the answer to everything is It depends.

There is a lot of truth to that. It’s not a matter of being evasive. And it’s usually not a matter of hiding behind the fact that the consultant doesn’t know the answer.

The answer always raises a client’s eyebrows, if not their blood pressure.

“It was a yes or no question. Can’t you just give me a plain yes or no answer?”

The answer to that is, of course, “It depends.” And there are several reasons for that.

Nothing is black and white – even with facts

Imagine that you are meeting with the CEO of a manufacturing client and she blurts out the question, “Should I invest in additional capacity?”

Would you simply answer “yes” or “no”?

Granted, most clients would provide some context around a question like that. But it is a major decision. There are reasons that the answer would be yes. There are reasons that it would be no.

In business, most decisions like this involve a lot of context. The consultant’s job is to understand the critical components of context and weigh the pros and cons of each decision. They then present reasons for yes and reasons for no and make a recommendations supported with assumptions.

There are many variables involved

Republicans and Democrats love to boast how their own party’s philosophy is better for the economy. Republicans argue that lower taxes stimulate the economy by reinvesting those funds. Conversely, Democrats claim that taxing the rich will fund social programs that will help the poor to be more successful and thus, help the economy.

Both sides argue vehemently that they are proven facts. When the economy is strong, each side points to decisions their party made. When the economy dips, each side blames its opponent’s practices.

The fact is, there are so many factors and inputs that affect the economy, that anyone can blame someone else or take credit.

When a client asks for advice on what to do next, the answer is…it depends. It depends on a thousand external variables that could affect the outcome. In this case, it is the consultant’s job to point out as many of those variables as possible. Then, work with the client on determining their assumptions on how they will affect the decision.

We need to sort out fact from opinion

Decision making is the practice of determining cause and effect. We implement plans with a desired effect. As neutral as we’d like to think we are, we all have our bias.

Do employees perform better under pressure? Or do they do better when you provide positive encouragement? It depends. It depends on who you ask. Ask two managers and you’re likely to get two answers.

This has been a debate in management circles for many years and isn’t likely to be settled any time soon. It is based on the opinion of whom you ask.

Facts are hard to refute and can prove a causal effect. Opinions are based on assumptions. Some people’s opinions are so strong that they mistake them for facts. It is the consultant’s job to diplomatically help sort the two out.

We can’t tell the future

Many decisions are based on speculation. All the signs may indicate that we should invest in additional capacity. But the stock market could crash next week sending the economy into a tailspin.

What sounds like a sound decision today always depends on unknown events that can happen in the future.

A better answer than It depends

Although I argue that “It depends” is a legitimate, and even a necessary response to many client questions, is it the best answer? For many clients, it can sound like a cop out. It’s a way of hiding behind an even less legitimate answer: I don’t know.

Perhaps a better approach is something like, “There are many variables to consider with a decision like this.” Alternatively, complex decisions are rarely black and white. When there are many variables to affect the decision, there are usually many decision options to consider.

When that is the case, consider a decision tree where you can determine the odds of different variables affecting the decision. This can help the client understand the complexity of the decision, while facilitating them to the correct decision.

Conclusion

Clients turn to consultants for decisions. And while consultants want to please the client, their job is to facilitate decisions rather than make decisions for the client. When difficult questions are asked, the answer is almost always that it depends. The consultant’s job is to diplomatically explain what it depends on. This is the best way to help the client make sound decisions. It is the best way for the consultant to become the client’s trusted advisor.

How do you answer your clients’ questions?

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.

If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The Importance of Feedback

Importance of Feedback
Importance of Feedback

I have a friend who is one of the nicest and kindest people I know. Unfortunately, she gives off a bad first impression. Although she rarely has a cross word for anyone, she doesn’t always express her appreciation to people.

She’s friendly to them. But if she’s invited to a party for which she can’t attend, she’ll just say “No thanks,” without an explanation why or an explanation that she has a conflict. People sometimes think she’s aloof and distant.

Neither is true. She simply isn’t good at providing feedback.

Have you ever sent an email or text to someone and never got a response. Even if the message wasn’t asking for a response, sometimes it’s nice to get an acknowledgement from the recipient.

Acknowledging messages

People are busier than ever. Most people I know get more than a hundred emails a day. It’s a skill to scan our emails, find the important ones we have to reply to, and continue on with the rest of our work.

Many emails simply inform us that something got done. When we ask for a report and receive it, we read it and continue on. Put yourself on the other side of that situation. Imagine that your boss asked you for a report and you provided it correctly and on time. It was a great report that allowed your boss to give an excellent presentation to the board. Yet, there wasn’t so much as a “Thanks” in return.

That can be demoralizing. Some bosses are just like that. But sometimes, the boss is just so busy, he or she didn’t have time to even think about it.

When you send an email to someone requesting information, remember to take a moment to follow-up with a thank you. You might even comment about how quick they responded.

A job well done

Aside from reports, sometimes people do their job exceedingly well. You might have been hoping for and expecting them to do it exceedingly well. So you didn’t notice how well it turned out. They simply met your high expectations.

Take a moment to notice when people do exceedingly well. Even when people do something well, take time to give them recognition. It means a lot to the recipient.

Some people are uncomfortable lavishing praise on people. They feel like it’s artificial to always tell people how much they appreciate them. It can be awkward if it’s not something you do regularly. But it’s something to get used to.

You don’t have to go on and on so that it’s embarrassing. A simple “Great job” is often enough.

Make it public

People like to be praised in public as well. If you have a daily or weekly status meeting, praise your team members in front of the team. Again, it doesn’t have to be lavish praise. Say something like, “Mary, you did a great job on that presentation yesterday. The CIO was very impressed. Thanks for your efforts.” Gratitude like that creates gratitude and loyalty from Mary. It also demonstrates to the rest of the team that you appreciate good work. This will encourage them to perform well too.

Feedback in conversation

Listening is one of the most underrated forms of communication.  Some people are able to listen while they check their emails and read whatever they’re reading on their phone. Maybe they are able to get most of what somebody is saying. But that’s not the message they send back.

If someone is talking to you and you are listening to them, you both gain by practicing engaged listening. You get more out of their message by looking them in the eye. They provide better engagement and a better message knowing that you are listening.

Active listening is the act of focusing on the speaker. Look them in the eye. Nod in agreement when you understand what they are saying. Ask follow up questions when you’re unclear. Restate things in a different way to verify that you understand.

Practicing active listening will help you get better clarity and understanding. The speaker will get feedback from you and feel listened to.

Conclusion

We get caught up in our busy day and often forget about the effort involved from our team members. People go out of their way to help us get our job done every day. It is important to provide feedback to them to let them know you appreciate their effort and hear them when they speak.

It creates an environment of trust and gratitude that improves morale and productivity.

How do you provide feedback to your team?

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.

If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com

Image courtesy of Sira Anamwong.at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Dealing with Your Nemesis at Work

Nemesis at Work
Dealing with a Nemesis at Work

One of my favorite televisions shows is Modern Family. I can’t think of a character on that show that I don’t like.  But one of my favorite characters is Cam. He was a college football player who now coaches a high school football team.

As a former athlete, Cam is uber-competitive. And he always seems to have a “nemesis.” It may be another teacher at the school where he coaches. It might be someone in his social circle. But he always seems to find someone who he must compete with.

I think we’ve all run into that in our professional lives at one point or another. It could be the insecure boss who has to find fault with everything you do. It could be the peer that is competing with you for the next promotion.

It doesn’t matter how competitive you are. The other person may just be the type that has to beat someone at something. If you are the competitive type, it will definitely fuel the fire.

Recognize the situation

Some people are so non-competitive that they don’t even realize they have a nemesis. They assume that since they are both on the same team and they will naturally work together.

When something goes wrong for you and the other person gains an advantage, the first assumption is that that’s just how it works out sometimes.

At some point, you must recognize a trend. If the other person is not so subtle about it, it may be a blatant competition. Even the most trusting person in the world needs to keep their eyes open to people who will take advantage of their good nature.

Are you being singled out?

Once you recognize a nemesis at work, you need to find out what drives him. Is this person just out for himself and competing with everyone that gets in the way of his career advancement? Or has this person singled you out? Maybe you made him mad about something in the past. Maybe you have something that he wants, like a title or position, or control of a primo project. Sometimes, having access to a high-ranking executive is enough for someone to try to bring you down.

What is driving your nemesis at work?

So you have identified a nemesis at work and determined that he has singled you out. What now? You want to find out why this person is suddenly your nemesis. Does he want something you have? You may not think you hold all that much power. But if someone sees you as a threat, they at least perceive that you have some form of power.

Take an inventory of what you have. Do you have a unique relationship with someone in power? Even if your nemesis saw you laughing and joking with the boss, he may perceive that you are extra chummy with the boss.  And he’ll want to bring you down. He may bad-mouth you behind your back, or point out some of your errors or weaknesses.

You could simply be a threat because you are successful. There is an old saying that there are two ways to have the tallest building in town. Build the tallest building, or tear all the taller buildings down. Some people who are incapable or insecure may not be able to compete with your success. They will resort to tearing you down to make themselves look better.

Dealing with the nemesis at work

Build the tallest building. When people resort to tearing you down, it is best to continue to build the tallest building. Take the high road. A good manager should see your nemesis’s negativity and the fact that you are adding legitimate value.

Promote your value. It’s great that you add value to your workplace. And few managers like self-promoting people that always brag about their accomplishments. But managers need to be made aware of the value you are adding. Instead of telling the manager everything you’ve done, promote it in terms of the value you are adding to the manager’s area.

Be honest about your mistakes. Nobody likes to point out when they make a mistake, especially to their boss. But you have to realize that if you don’t report it, somebody else probably will. Informing the boss of your mistakes gives you two advantages. First, you can put it in the best light. Report the error and diffuse it by also reporting how you plan on fixing it. Secondly, it preempts your nemesis. By the time he gets to the boss to report your screw-up, the boss already knows about it. You’ve stolen the thunder away from your nemesis.

Conclusion

Perhaps nemesis is a strong word. But every once in a while, we run into someone who plays politics and works against us. You need to always have your guard up for these people and know how to deal with them to avert their schemes to defeat you.

How have you dealt with your nemesis at work?

If you would like to learn more about a career in Project Management, get Lew’s book Project Management 101: 101 Tips for Success in Project Management on Amazon.

Please feel free to provide feedback in the comments section below.

Image courtesy of Geerati at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Using a client laptop

Client laptop
Using a client laptop

I heard a consultant talking the other day about a client experience he had. He had a client laptop issued to him. He carried it home with him every night in case he needed to do any work off hours.

One Saturday night he had a few friends over. He powered up the client-issued laptop and started playing music on it. Later in the evening, he was in another room, not paying attention to the laptop. When he walked back into the room, he saw that some of his friends were viewing porn on the client-issued laptop.
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Effectively Reporting to the Client Executive

Reporting to the Client Executive
Reporting to the Client Executive

For any consultant, reporting to the client executive can be difficult. Clients don’t always specify what they want and how it should be reported. Even when things are agreed upon early on, it sometimes takes time to refine status and other reporting to a point where it satisfies the client.

Although it takes some time and effort, the more you learn about the client, the clearer your reporting becomes. You also eventually develop a better relationship with the client.

Understand what she wants when she makes a request

Clients, especially busy executives, often give what I like to call iceberg instructions. They expose just a little bit of what they want. They can envision the entire thing – at least to some degree. But the consultant listening to these directions only can see what is provided.
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Throw the Client Under the Bus at Your Own Risk

throw the Client Under the Bus
Don’t throw the client under the bus

It happened almost by accident. Jim was presenting his change request to the change review board. He had to expedite it to make the deadline. He needed approval from Paul, his client manager, in order to expedite it. He tried calling Paul a few minutes before the meeting but he didn’t answer.

He decided to attend the meeting anyway.

“Why don’t you have Paul’s approval for this?” one of the board members asked.

“I called him, but he didn’t get back to me.” Jim responded.
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Are you a bridge for the client?

Bridge for the client
Be a bridge for the client

I’m very fortunate to work for a consulting firm in which my engagement manager and client communicate on a regular basis. That hasn’t always been the case. Engagement managers get busy. They assume that you as the client-facing consultant are there to provide communication. The client also gets busy and doesn’t have time to meet with the engagement manager. The EM is usually just trying to sell more services anyway so they often just avoid them.

Maybe so. Engagement managers are often motivated to increase sales at their existing clients. And when that gets in the way of providing the best client service possible, communication breaks down. That is when the consultant that has daily access to the client is most needed.

Providing information about the firm

The client doesn’t usually care about the inner workings of the consultant’s firm. But every once in a while, there is information the client should be made aware of.
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How to Balance Priorities for Your Client

Balance Priorities
Helping the Client Balance Priorities

When a consultant begins a client project, there is a desire to keep a laser-beam focus on that project. It seems logical. Whether you are managing the project or simply a cog in the great wheel, that project should be the one and only thing to focus on.

However, it is likely that that client project is one of many efforts in progress for your client. And those efforts almost certainly are interrelated with your project.

The division you serve

The client manager that you report to has a vested interest in the project you’ve been assigned to. And she wants you to keep your attention trained on your project. That is after all what you were hired to do.
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