Consulting advice: Help your clients save face

By | April 4, 2014

Save face. This is a simple concept that is critical for consultants and sales people to understand. Never put your client in a situation where you are directly and publicly disagreeing with them. Never box them into a corner where they might be ashamed of the situation. Never embarrass them. It’s a very Asian business culture concept of harmony, and it is super-applicable to consultants. Some of the most deadly phrases:

  • I think you are wrong . . .
  • Let’s agree to disagree. . .
  • Well, I have a different opinion. . .
  • Well, if that is what you think. . .

All consultants know that words are powerful and frame a discussion with the client. A few good phrases that I have found useful during my career in consulting:

  • In my experience. . .
  • Maybe it is just me, but. .
  • Yes, I agree, AND. . .
  • Makes sense, do you think that its possible that. .  

In my experience. . . this is a (not so) subtle way to tell your client that you have done this kind of work before. It allows you to lead into a recommendation that you are advocating for. It might be something that worked at a previous client. Don’t be afraid to use an anti-example. . . In my experience, ABC does not work because. . .   

Maybe it is just me, but . . . this puts the burden of being wrong on the consultant, and points out that the sample size is small.  It is just 1 person’s opinion.

Yes, I agree AND. . .  this is a little verbal judo. Don’t want this to seem disingenuous, but there probably bits and parts of what the client is saying that you DO agree with. Build on those. Think incremental improvement. Rarely is life black & white.  Nudge.

Do you think it is also possible that. . . ask the client to agree to a small part of your argument first. Often times, clients who have been in the same company for 30+ years have hard-core biases on what works and what does not. Part of our job is just to open the curtains and let some light in, just the possibility of different outcomes.

Recommendation: 

  • Win-win. Build on the analysis that your client has already done
  • Emphasize the headwinds:  Make it clear that the current problems have many factors (of which some / many) are out of the client’s control
  • Gain trust early. The sooner that you gain the client’s trust and become an adviser, the sooner you can push-back appropriately.
  • Ask for feedback too.  Ask the client what areas you can improve and get better.  They should not be the only ones who improve.
  • Let your clients present.  Don’t take credit.  Let your clients present the results to their boss. Make them the heroes.

Pond

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5 thoughts on “Consulting advice: Help your clients save face

  1. Tom Treuten

    In most of the cases you are probably right. But there is a kind of client out there that is different. One of my most appreciated clients was surrounded by people that weren’t arguing with him at all. He really loved me because I said out directly what I think. Even though I used the “deadly phrases” that was exactly what my client was looking for for. Honest and straight talk.

    Reply
    1. consultantsmind Post author

      Awesome Tom. You are a trusted adviser. Glad to see you making tough decisions in a professional and caring way to get the message across. No way you could do that without the data, conviction, and relationship to build on. Imagine you gave advice to your client in way that made it easy to accept – even if bad news – in private, or with emotional intelligence. Well done.

      Reply
  2. vishalsomani

    I am just an aspiring consultant as of now, but I think even my current job in Sales operations requires me to take up that role many a times.

    I believe your points are even apt in my world. After all, Each one of us has to be Demi-consultant at least some point of time in our profession.

    Reply

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