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Lessons in Consulting: When a Client Doesn't Heed Your Advice

image-uploadThe Problem

During the course of my career, I have held many consultative positions.  Whether as an IT services employee working on government contracts, leading and delivering professional services to large enterprise and service provider clients, or in my current role as co-founder of an advisory company that helps clients increase their operational velocity, I have been part of many deliveries – some that I’d call very successful, and some not so much.  While I have enjoyed almost all of these engagements due to the lessons I have learned and people with whom I have forged strong relationships, there is one challenging scenario that every consultant faces sooner or later: when a client will not heed your guidance.  Here are some of the situations I have encountered and lessons I have learned along the way that have allowed me to manage these situations in a professional and constructive manner.

When the Client Makes Yesterday Perfect

A common reaction to my consultative process improvement suggestions, is to hear from the client the history of How  the process was developed.  Clients are often very attached to particular ways of doing things and are looking for validation of those norms rather than fresh perspectives, and they become defensive.  While the situation can lead to friction during the course of an engagement and cause frustration, it is important to note that this is a very common scenario.  The key is to understand the client’s perspective and plan the rest of your engagement accordingly.  In this situation, it is important to call out the expertise that you bring, based on your personal experience, and how that translates into the Why  of the transformation. 

When Team Members Feel Stymied by the Founders

One element of company culture that usually comes into play for small companies is Founder's Syndrome.  This is usually manifested through symptoms such as no decisions being made without going through the founder(s), or hesitance from the rest of the team to go against the founder's views.  Although many team members may be proactive and have great ideas to improve the trajectory of the company, they are hesitant to express these views that could result in conflicts with the founder (or worse, being shot down when trying to recommend changes).  These are real impediments on the path to progress, and you must constantly remind the team that the current processes are inefficient and must be improved to enable growth and scale.  Constant communication and positive reinforcement are the keys to success.

Bringing it All Together

Play to Your Strengths & Experience

Clients see through theoretical or academic recommendations very quickly, so you must establish credibility based on experience and results.  If you’ve been through multiple transformations and have seen leaders make the same mistakes which have led to disastrous outcomes, you can save your client significant cost, time, and trouble by recommending a course of action that avoids those mistakes.  Leverage your real-world examples and explain the findings and recommendations in the context of your client’s line of business, market, industry, and their company culture.

Become a Trusted Advisor

Another key element of building trust with the client is showing empathy.  The goal of any consultant is to establish trust with their clients which will lead to a long and rewarding relationship for all parties.  In order to do this, the client must feel that they are being heard and their position is understood.  Using active listening principles while showing empathy when discussing recommendations goes a long way towards building long-lasting trust.  Set up a cadence with your client team and reinforce these themes throughout the project.

The Path Forward

As with all transformations, it takes time for new behaviors to sink in, and the risk is always high of reverting back to the old, comfortable ways of doing things.  Having regular check-ins with key team members, reinforcing the “Why” of the transformation, and actively listening to their updates and concerns will help ensure steady progress – as well as a renewal of your contract!

I’d be very interested to hear about some of the lessons you have learned in dealing with clients attempting to transform their business to improve operations.  Please take a moment to comment below and share your lessons learned with the community.