I was once at a client where I had developed an excellent relationship with one of their employees. We got to the point where we began going to lunch on a regular basis and would occasionally stop for a drink after work. It’s usually a good development when your client relationship gets to that.
The client’s dirty laundry
Our relationship began to evolve from talking just about business and the project we had in common, to talking about our families and hobbies. Eventually, we got to the point one night over drinks where he began talking about office politics and, even worse, office gossip.
In addition to learning about who he was battling for better projects and promotions, I learned about who is having marital problems and which employees were sleeping with each other.
This all made me a little uncomfortable because I wasn’t interested in the least. And as hard as I try not to judge others, I knew I’d never look at these people the same way after hearing that news – whether it was true or not.
The firm’s dirty laundry
But then, the discomfort level went up another level when he expected me to give back in return. He wanted to know what kind of office politics I had to deal with in my consulting career. He also wanted to know if there were any interesting scandals going on in our office.
I was in the fortunate position where I was rarely in our consulting office. I was generally assigned to clients on a full-time basis. When I did go to the office, it was either to drop something off, pick something up, or to have a meeting that lasted an hour or so and I was back off to the client.
I told him that I knew more about the politics and gossip at his offices than I did at our offices. But if I did know something going on at our offices, I would have given him the same answer. I know, I know, after always teaching consultants that they should always be honest with their clients, I’m suddenly promoting a dishonest approach.
This may be one of the only times when I would promote lying to the client. But it’s the most polite way of telling him that it’s none of his business. There are some things that just shouldn’t be discussed with clients. The dirty laundry of the firm is one of those things.
Other sensitive information
In addition to the dirty laundry, some of the information that is taboo includes billing rates (management may know this but most client employees don’t), salaries of anyone in your firm and information about other clients.
In most cases, the client knowing this information will cause little to no harm. But as long as there is a chance that you can damage a fellow consultant’s credibility by talking about her political battles in the office or his extramarital affair, you can damage the firm’s cred at the same time. That person may not be assigned to the project now, but they could get assigned sometime in the future.
If you reveal your salary or billing rate to the client employee, they may use that information in a salary negotiation with their boss. That may be the same boss that signs off on our invoices. Giving his employees negotiating leverage against him may erode any goodwill your firm has built up with the client manager.
So when clients start talking about things you don’t need or want to know about what goes on behind closed conference room doors at the client, I find it best to try to change the subject. If that doesn’t work let them talk, but don’t join in the fray. You have nothing to gain for your consulting career and everything to lose.
Have you ever been pressed to reveal your firm’s dirty laundry?
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
As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.