Client Focus: Telling Him He Has No Clothes

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As you may know, the folk tale The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen is the story of two dishonest weavers who convince an emperor that they can make him a set of clothes which can only be seen by competent people.

When the emperor and his underlings can’t see the non-existent suit of clothes, they pretend that they can, to avoid exposing their own presumed incompetence.

A young boy, who isn’t clear on the concept, sees the emperor parading around naked and cries out, “He’s not wearing any clothes.”

It’s a common parallel in the business world. If the boss says something incorrect – or even stupid – in a meeting, few, if any, will point out the faux pas in public. Many will not even point it out to him or her in private.

The unfortunate result is, by putting the boss’s ego before getting it right, the organization may make bad decisions, based on incorrect assumptions. This ends up reducing productivity, profitability, and most likely both.

It can be even more complex in a consulting environment. The client has brought the consultant in to advise. The consultant, by virtue of her title should provide consultation. For instance, if the client sees a decrease in revenues over a period of time, he may hire you as a consultant to perform some analysis on their strategies over that period of time and provide some advice on 1) why it happened, and 2) what to do to correct it.

See my related post: Communicating Bad News to Clients

Let’s say you do the in-depth analysis and learn that the executive that hired you implemented a change that caused the reduction in revenues. Perhaps he lowered product quality or cut back on customer service or changed the marketing strategy to target only people taller than seven feet.

On one hand, the client wants your advice on how to correct it. On the other hand, you can tell him that he is directly responsible for screwing everything up and tell him to resign.

Another scenario is when a client asks a consulting firm to implement a specific software system. They know, not only what type of system to implement, but also which system they want.

As a consultant, it’s your job to push back. The challenge is to gently second guess the paying client’s decision. Deciding on a software system requires significant due diligence. Choosing the correct vendor requires even more.

For more information, see Client Relations for Consultants

A consultant can simply accept their marching orders and say, “The client wants me to implement this system. Who am I to contradict? He knows his business better than I do.”

The consultant risks doing a severe disservice to the client if it is the wrong system for them.

Diplomatically disagreeing with the client, rather than doing what you’re told is a bold and risky move. A consultant’s success will usually hinge on how it is done.

Were you asked to be an adviser?

Some consultants are simply hired to do what they are told. This is more of an outsourcing situation for hired hands rather than true consulting. Even if the flavor of consulting that you’re doing is just to follow orders, if they are doing something inadvisable, the consultant has a responsibility to raise the question and present some facts.

Did you insult the client?

In the scenario where the client made some bad decisions that caused the problem you are analyzing, it is important to use diplomacy when presenting the news to him. Rather than accusing him of making a bad decision, consider the fact that market conditions may have changed since the decision was made.

Did you expose the client publicly?

If the client made a bad decision, a strategy should be developed for how it to communicate it to him and the rest of the organization. Sugar-coating should be avoided. But a focus on the positive – how to move forward – works better than making accusations and a negative focus.

The bottom line is diplomacy.

A consultant has a responsibility to consult. That may be unpopular with a client. The consultant may be asked to leave if the client is offended or fears being exposed.

The consultant has to ask herself if she is willing to accept that risk. Do you want to work for clients that want order-followers? Or do you want a client who is looking for a trusted advisor, who is not afraid of telling him what he doesn’t want to hear, but needs to hear?

As always, I welcome your questions and comments.

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 

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