Consulting Conundrum

Every once in a while, we have a consulting lesson smack us in the face. If you’ve been at this work as long as we have, we guarantee there will come a time when you will say aloud, “I knew better than to do that! What did I expect!?”

We have had two of those smacking-myself-upside-the-head moments in the past year. Both incidents have been the result of having a long term relationship with the client. And while we are all taught that having long term client relations is a dream come true, what they don’t teach in consulting school (ok, who out there really went to consulting school?) is that working with long term clients brings up a whole ‘nother set of issues – issues we may not always have answers for in our bags of consulting tricks!

Twice now we have gone against our own cardinal rules for taking on a new client. Twice we have been angry with ourselves afterwards. Twice we have sworn we would do better next time. So now I am hoping that writing it down and focusing on it will help us to not do it again!

Consulting Issue #1 for Clients Who Are Friends
With new clients, we spend a ton of time up front, interviewing everyone, bringing folks together, asking about the organization’s potential and what is keeping them from accomplishing that potential. When the group sees the proposal – the scope of work and the outcomes we will be aiming the work at – it is no surprise, as we have worked with them from the start to come up with the project together.

In addition to this just being smart business sense, it is also the only way we can begin moving the client away from just thinking about their day-to-day issues, and start putting those issues into the context of the big picture change they want to create in their communities – the whole point of our Community-Driven approaches!

BUT, with an existing relationship, all that gets short-cut. We know they already know us, know our work, know it is transformational – because we have already done that work for them in one form or another. We know they already have been through a planning process with us and know what that will entail, as well as what it will accomplish. We know they are fully aware that our focus is on their highest potential to create visionary community impact, and that that is where we will help them go. And we know all this because they have already worked with us, and spent lots of time with us, and experienced the results we are able to help them achieve.

Well that’s one big mistake, now isn’t it?! Boards change. Time passes even with board members and staff who are still there. People forget some things, assume others. If failure to do adequate homework is what tanks consultant-client relationships in new clients, it can also tank our relationships with clients who are now old friends!

But this is not a simple matter of taking each other for granted. It’s more difficult than that. The question becomes this: If the client also thinks they already know what you are going to do, and therefore also feels they don’t need all that up front stuff, how do you convince them to have those meetings anyway? We are all far less likely to push a friend than we are to push someone with whom we are first establishing working parameters. Once we are friends, how does one now do that dance, to push for what is right when the client is saying, “The board said they trust you, and no one really has time to meet, so let’s just get started”?

Consulting Issue #2 for Clients Who Are Friends
Another lesson with clients who are old friends is that we fail to go back to the decision-maker. With a new client, we know that in order to lead the group towards transforming their community, everyone from the top down must be on board. And so those initial discussions will include the board and the leadership on the staff, even if the eventual work will not include those individuals. We do that because those are the people who will be asking the questions related to “Did it get done? And what were the results? And why does that need to be in the budget again?” They may not be the ones doing the work, but they are the decision-makers.

But after you’ve already gotten the gig and worked closely with the 2nd and 3rd in command for 2 years, and you’ve got a wonderful working camaraderie, and the next project comes up, how do you say, “Oh we can’t just talk to you, we need to go back and talk to the board, and talk to your boss.” Even if we have maintained a reporting relationship with those in charge, these are awkward moments, and so we defer. “My boss says he trusts you and trusts me. So let’s get started!”

Bad mistake again. Because when that new project does come up, in the time it takes to say, “Sorry, it’s not in the budget!” we have left the land of Organizational Potential, and are on our way into the land of Bureaucracy. The person you have the relationship doesn’t have the authority to say yes, despite the fact that they love your work and may even have grown personally fond of you.

My friend Renata Rafferty calls this the Tyranny of the Nice. But it is truly our latest consulting conundrum: So what does one do when a great client relationship is standing in the way of having the work reach for the organization’s highest potential?

5 thoughts on “Consulting Conundrum”

  1. Excellent statement of the problem of working with clients with whom we have established relationships.
    One of the handicaps that we have, in this regard, is that we put it on ourselves to solve the problem. If we cannot easily address and solve it, then we tend to want to live with it in hopes that a window of opportunity will come along, which is usually a delusion allowing us to slip into that “Tyranny of the Nice.” We are problem solvers, after all, and we want to get it right.
    One strategy that I have found successful is to offer options, which means choices. There are three types of options. The first is where both options are positive, with one much more attractive — which really doesn’t solve the problem here.
    The second is equal options, or equal for at least one of the parties. An example would be, “Okay, think about whether we should start by pulling people together for the strategic planning or if we should work just with the office staff to nail down the financial picture.” If these are equal for someone, the consultant or the client, it may be a way to get the client off the dime to at least do something.
    The third is to offer unequal options, which gets us more to the point of the “Nice” dilemma. An example might be, “I believe we are the point of either nailing down a schedule where we agree to a series of steps to address the goals we have discussed, or possibly we should set a date sometime next year to see if we want to go forward then.” It’s the choice of either moving off the dime to make some kind of commitment or forget it, at least for now. Consultants, after all, must actually work with their clients to earn fees. It’s a reasonable position to want to keep things moving.
    All three types of options — all positive, equal and practical, or unequal options — have their place. By using the options strategy, the onus is placed on the client to make the decision, and that’s why it works. The consultant, on the other hand, must only offer options that he or she can accept. And it may mean temporary or permanent separation from a client, which may be inevitable but which may result in a strong sense of loss or even guilt, at first. A sense of joyous liberation may emerge from it all when one has broken out of that “Tyranny of the Nice.”

    Channing Hillway, Ph.D.
    Ventura CA USA

  2. At the risk of being over-simplistic, maybe you have them read this blog entry?

    Seriously, I can’t think of a better way for a client (especially one with whom one has a relationship) to understand why you want to “go back to basics”, if you will. I’m going to use it, even if you choose not to!

  3. Would like to hear more from all involved on the “Tyranny of the Nice.” When I think back on my own history of agency-client experiences, it is all about the relationship and where it is maintained. But these relationships are just that: two-way relationships. So can one side of the relationship ‘manage’ these? Or are relationships by their nature nurtured?

    (Cool, I just put ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ right next to each other.)

    I realize that this is exactly what my job was for many years – client management. And now I wonder, particularly as we move forward into a more interconnected and conceptual age, whether or not that is a model that simply doesn’t – or won’t soon – apply.

    The last agency I worked for intuitively didn’t embrace a client management role. We were all in charge of the real products – creativity, ideas, strategy and implementation. We considered these the currency of the relationship. Is that enough?

  4. Havi and Jon:
    I am smiling at Havi’s response – being a writer, I think by writing. But that doesn’t always mean the written word is the best method to use when all is said and done! So I am hoping through writing this and through all these responses that perhaps we will have collectively worked through how to perhaps say these things aloud to a client. Because again, that’s part of the problem when “client” becomes “friend and client” – even just handing them a piece of paper that says all the right things is an act that requires finesse!

    We have had a policy in our practice for years now that we don’t work with friends – that adding together business and pleasure and money and trust and the fact that suddenly one of you is an ‘expert’ where 2 days ago you were equals, and etc. – well we have just seen it go badly too often. It adds “stuff” to a friendship that before had just friendship!

    Which I think is at the heart of the issue of the friendships that blossom and flourish with clients – you wind up having more than just the ‘client’ expectations. You wind up with friendship expectations, which gets to Jon’s post re: those expectations.

    There are consultants who do indeed, as Jon noted, see their work as just a series of deliverables, and one of the means to get to those ends is the client relationship. And there are those who form real relationships, and then have all the issues of those relationships – and the Tyranny of the Nice happens in friendships all the time! Where you don’t want to rock the boat by pointing out things about which your friends later say, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

    From your posts, though, it is nice to know I am not alone in this! And I confess that our outcomes from these types of situations have been very mixed. So I’m hoping others will share – has anyone else had this issue come up for them? Can you share how it resolved itself?


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