The tweet below was inspired by a prospect I met this week, whose biggest issue was his insistence on accepting consulting projects that are a bad fit for his firm.
After I published it, however, a few consultants wrote me in private to share how much they struggle to say no to a client, during an engagement, in a way that doesn't strain 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 reasons why someone hires external support.
- They don't have the internal capabilities: Clients need to implement a change, but to do it they need an expert that knows what they're doing. Usually, this involves a complex or technical solution - if it was easy to solve, they would have done it already internally or with low-cost freelancers.
- 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 high-ticket offerings, 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.
In either case, the main point stands: You are the expert. 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.
Leveraging your expertise means that, if the client makes a suggestion or shares an idea that is not valid or helpful to the success of the project, you need to make it clear. Failing to do would hurt not only the final result of the engagement but also your own reputation as an expert.
The consultants who messaged me understand all of that. They know that their reluctance in correcting or rejecting clients' suggestions is detrimental to the project. Their challenge is: How do I do this without hurting the relationship?
I think the problem here is a poor understanding of what trust 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. Here's how rejecting bad clients' suggestions improve each one of these elements:
- 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 and effective alternatives... 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 that 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. When you accept a bad idea and results don't follow, you will need to explain to the client why you didn't warn them. What you want instead is the clients to say: "I enjoy working with you because if any of my suggestions are not sound, you will immediately tell me so."
If you want clients to see you as a trusted adviser, you will need to reject some of their ideas. Now here's a question for you:
What can you do to reduce bad suggestions and ideas coming from clients during an engagement?