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.
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
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