When a consultant shows up at a new client, it’s always a good idea to have one’s guard up. It’s very possible that he or she is entering hostile territory. It’s nothing personal. Okay, maybe it’s a little personal. You did decide to become a consultant after all.
I used to wonder why clients distrusted us consultants so much. Over the years I learned that it was a combination of past experience, confusion, and a little over-generalization. One of the major causes is, like any category of people, there are always some people in a group that give everyone a bad name.
I’ve always been able to calm down unreceptive clients over time. But some clients have been harder to convince than others. I learned that there were several reasons that client employees hate consultants.
They’re tattletale spies
One of the biggest reasons we can be hated so badly is that we were brought in by the client management. What are they up to now? Don’t they have anything better to spend the company’s money on?
Client employees get the rumor mill started and begin feeding their paranoid tendencies. Those consultants must be agents for the management team.
One of the first things consultants do is spend time with the client employees to learn their business practices better. This leads the suspicious employees to think the consultants have been placed there to find out everything they do wrong so they can report it back to the brass.
For more information, see Client Relations for Consultants
We had a good thing going. We’ve all been here long enough to learn the ropes. Now these consultants who don’t know anything about our business start implementing changes willy-nilly under the ruse of adding value.
Whether the change is a new process, a new software system, or a redesigned form, what was wrong with the old way of doing things?
I used to know what I was doing when I came into work. Now I’m all confused and my work takes twice as long. How is that more efficient?
They’re just plain stupid
How do you think this guy in the designer khakis, who just walked in the door knows more about our business than those of us that have been doing it for years? Now I’m supposed to spend all of my time showing him what I do, and how I do it, so that he can tell management that what we do is all wrong? If you’re so smart, why didn’t you come in and tell me what I do?
Sometimes consultants just can’t help it. Consulting firms seek out the best and brightest college graduates and drill that label into their heads. When the consultant is introduced to the client employees, they are told that he or she is the expert. Before long, the consultant has a big head.
Even when the consultant is not so arrogant, that’s just how they come off. They’ve been hyped by management to appear better than the company’s common employees. They’ve been brought in to improve whatever the employees are doing. No matter how humble the consultant is, the arrogant label is going to stick.
They’re not committed
Consultants have been compared to pigeons. They swoop in, leave their droppings all over the place and then fly off to their next client. If their suggestion ends up screwing everything up, the consultant is long gone and the employees are left to clean up the mess.
The general consensus of the employees at the client is that the consultant doesn’t care because they don’t have to be around for the fall-out.
They’re right sometimes
As many a married man will tell you, the wife is never more annoying than when she’s right. When the client employee has all of the above predispositions toward outsider consultants, it burns the most when their suggestions and projects that get implemented, actually end up creating value for the company.
The client employee is proven wrong and the consultant can only bask in his glory. That nasty arrogant consultant.
How to overcome the hatred – It’s all about trust
Hatred is a strong word. I exaggerate here to prove a point. Although I’ve felt some animosity from client employees in the past, the most common, issue I’ve dealt with is mistrust.
When management hires outsiders to interfere with your work environment, ask you a million questions, with the possibility – make that probability – that they will suggest new ways to do your work, using new software, at different locations, with different people than you’re used to working with, it is bound to lead to mistrust.
It is well known in consulting and professional services that the way to sell successfully is to develop relationships. Consulting sales executives develop relationships with senior business people, and before long, those senior business people become clients. Those senior business people are the ones that tell their employees to cooperate with the incoming outside consultants.
The outside consultants and the client employees usually have no previous relationship. They’ve been thrown together like an arranged marriage. It’s up to the consultant to set the client employees at ease.
The first step is to be aware of the distrust. Going in and expecting the client staff to welcome the consultants with open arms is naïve and likely to start things off on the wrong foot.
Humility and transparency are always good. Explaining to the employees exactly what you’ve been assigned to do, how you will be evaluated for success, and how you intend to accomplish your goal will give them some visibility to your intentions. They won’t immediately begin trusting you, but you will have laid some hopeful ground work.
Be faithful to your words. Once you tell them exactly what you intend to do, do it. Nothing will establish trust with the client’s employees as much as proving your honesty with your actions. Nothing will erode any trust you may have built up faster than going against your word. If anything happens that will cause you to change course and go against your word, let them know what you’re doing and why. This can still create some distrust, but not as badly as if you didn’t let them know.
You may never remove the suspicion and doubt that a client employee has about consultants. By establishing a trusting relationship and showing the client that you have no ulterior motives, you can make great strides and establish a good working relationship that can extend beyond the life of the engagement.
How have you overcome trust issues with clients?
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