Are You Working With Clients, Or Against Them?

Your expertise is not enough to calm your clients' fears.

I've previously written about the 50/50 rule here. The idea behind it is that you should devote half of your attention to results, and the other half to your client's experience. Well, here's a hard-won lesson related to this:

It is not enough to be right, you must also be helpful to your clients.

The natural state of most of your clients will include anxiety and uncertainty. They have a difficult and costly change to make - that's why they decided to hire you, the expert, to help. They look at your price premium as risk insurance.

But to do good work you need them to trust you during the process, and specific knowledge is not enough. Your clients are looking for someone who will calm their fears and inspire confidence. Who helps them believe their worst thoughts and worries are unjustified.

To do this, consultants need to stop acting like machines and learn to genuinely connect with clients. Employ empathy when you disagree with their ideas. Don't lecture them - no one likes to be told that they must do anything.

David Maister, in "The Trusted Advisor", writes extensively about this. The most effective way to influence a client is to help the person feel that the solution was (to a large extent) his or her idea. Or at the very least, their decision.

You do that by:

  • Providing them with options: Based on their context and previous discussions, share the two or three most effective solutions to get X done.
  • Educating them about the options: Every decision involves a trade-off. Explore the pros and cons of each solution, and how they would affect your client.
  • Giving them a recommendation: You have helped similar businesses solve similar problems in the past, and can look at your client's situation from an outside perspective. Provide them with a clear recommendation.
  • Letting them choose: It's their business, not yours - they are free to reject your recommendation, as long as they're aware of how this will affect the project.

You can either force clients to accept your ideas or earn trust by educating and being helpful to them. Many consultants default to exercising authority. But ask yourself: Is imposing my ideas the only way to help my clients change, or am I doing it to avoid difficult conversations?

Creating mutual understanding is your responsibility. Stop blaming the client.

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