This week I met a long-time friend who is consulting in the marketing space. During the last few years he ran an agency and mostly sold productized services (done-for-you marketing implementation). Now he's transitioning to advisory, working 1:1 with clients.
He asked me about something several advisors struggle with:
"Dan, how do you say no to clients during an engagement? How do you tell them their ideas make no sense, without hurting the relationship?"
Here are some thoughts about that.
Your main goal as a consultant is to improve your client's situation and deliver the outcomes they need. But what exactly do you need to make this happen? To answer that, it helps to look at the two main reasons why someone hires external support.
- They don't have the internal capabilities: Clients need to generate an outcome or make a change that their existing team is not able to deliver. Most of the time, they need a specialized expert that knows what they're doing. But they might also want to reduce the risk of the project, accelerate the time to see results, or simplify the project.
- They don't know what they don't know: Clients need someone with an outside perspective to identify why they're not achieving their goals. Sometimes they understand there's a problem and don't know how to solve it, but it may also be the case that they're looking for new ways can improve the business.
If you're selling advice, most of the time you see both of these apply. Clients and prospects love to be educated, know what their competitors are doing, learn what are the different ways you can get the job done.
When you decide to take the role of an advisor, you are also choosing to lead the engagement. You are the one who has delivered similar outcomes, for similar companies, multiple times - not the client. Therefore, you have the professional and ethical responsibility to make use of your expertise to help clients get the outcomes they seek.
This means that every time the client makes a suggestion or shares an idea that's not valid or helpful to the success of the project, you need to make that clear. Failing to do so would hurt the result of the engagement. The relationship you're trying to protect won't last for long.
Of course, the friend who asked me about it understands all of that. They know that their reluctance in correcting or rejecting clients' suggestions is detrimental to projects. His challenge is: How do I do this without hurting the relationship?
I believe this question reflects a misunderstanding of what trust really consists of.
Likability matters. People trust and hire you because they like you - few clients will agree to work with you if they feel like you are not someone they can relate to. But it's far from being the only attribute of trustworthy consultants.
To show you're trustworthy you must provide evidence of competence, honesty, and reliability. And it turns out that rejecting bad clients' suggestions (when done correctly) improves each one of these elements. Here's how:
- Competence: You demonstrate competence by trading value. There's no value in saying you don't like an idea. But if you share what are the main challenges in implementing it, how the idea did not work in previous projects, and what are the most relevant alternatives or best practices... that's a lot of value and clear proof of your competence.
- Honesty: You demonstrate honesty by telling the truth. We all know that in business (and especially in consulting) context matters, and every piece of advice is subjective. But remember: you are the expert here. If you know that a suggestion is not relevant or effective, pointing this out will certainly make the client see you as an honest partner.
- Reliability: You demonstrate reliability through consistency. Saying yes to every client suggestion might seem like a consistent behavior, but only in the short term. Every time you give in to a bad idea (and results don't follow) you'll need to explain to the client why you haven't warned them. One of the best compliments I received from a client was: "I enjoy working with you because if any of my suggestions are not sound, you will immediately tell me so."
Disagreeing, when done right, earns trust from good clients. You will need to do so if you want them to see you as a true advisor.
Now here's a follow-up question for you:
What can you do to reduce bad suggestions and ideas coming from clients during an engagement?