Why Clients Don’t Trust Us: The Seven Deadly Sins of Consulting

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Author: Steve Polen
Published: July 18, 2012
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As consultants, do we actually know what is going on in the minds of our clients? We might like to think that we have this supernatural power of reading minds, but, in reality, we’re often blind to what make our clients satisfied or not. Based on surveys conducted by various consulting companies, we can notice that the same complaints can be heard over and over again. I, personally, call them the seven deadly sins of consulting. Let’s see what clients say about us and how we can avoid such causes for criticism.

1). Junior resources: Clients expect to be working alongside senior consultants that they meet during the sale process. They feel disappointed when they work with junior consultants who sometimes don’t understand the business.

How to avoid that? Transparency is obviously the best way to deal with clients. During the selling process, we should clearly point out who will be doing what for the client. As a matter of fact, a junior consultant should always be under close supervision by senior management. Clients should also understand that some part of the job, such as analytical work, does not necessarily need to be carried out by the senior manager.

2). Lack of Communication with the Client: Confidentiality is a cardinal quality for consultants. However, it comes with a downside. Clients resent not knowing both what we do and what we think. They give us some time for interviews, but they are often left with no information at the end. That really frustrates them.

How to avoid that? There are simple things that we can do to reduce the communication gap. When initially meeting the client, we should explain as clearly as possible why we’re doing the job and the process that we will take. After the interview, sending a thank you email coupled with minutes of what was said can be very useful. An intermediary presentation of the deliverable will help in showing how far we’ve progressed will give them a first idea about our conclusions. In addition, it is a magical way to defuse potential conflicts and misunderstandings.

3). Lack of Objectivity: Let’s Face It. The reasons why we are hired as consultants are not always the most pure. Clients sometimes have hidden agendas that they want to set forth. They want us to relay their message that they don’t want to send while at the same time wanting us to put forward recommendations that serve their interest. Sometimes they clearly want us just to get information and act as a “spy.” All of these political games give us a very bad name.

How to avoid that? Before taking on the project, we should clarify our ethical rules and set some boundaries. During the project, we should make sure that all recommendations are fact based and solid. By simply taking the client’s word for truth can be dangerous not only for us, but also for our client. In the long run, political games that ignore reality are often fatal for all players.

4). Overpromising: When we pitch, we sometimes tend to be a little lyrical about what we will do. Wanting to win at all cost is human, but when starting out, the project may not be as easy as how it had looked on paper. When this happens, many consultants will say that their clients are far from perfect – for example that the staff is barely available or that they don’t share enough information. Sharing responsibility for a failure is not glorious, and at the end of the day, we will lose the client.

How to avoid that? Managing client expectations is crucial in keeping our clients happy. Overpromising is a two-edged sword. Most clients will not trust a consultant who is overoptimistic. We must also be clear on responsibilities and make sure that the client understands the part of the job that he/she is expected to do. By being realistic, we maximize our likelihood in winning the contest. We also improve the client’s satisfaction once the project is delivered.

5). Useless Abstractions: As consultants, we’re good at concepts and ideas. Sometimes, clients hire us for that very reason. But the managers that sign our proposal are also paid to get results. They want our recommendations to be implemented quickly and they want to those improvements on their KPIs. When they don’t see how our recommendations can be translated into action, they become frustrated.

How to avoid that? The first thing is to obviously work closely with the client’s team, and by team, I mean not only the top managers but also the teams that work on the field. A good way to make sure that our recommendations work is to organize a pilot phase that tests our ideas. Even if it is not possible in every project, this will provide a reality check that will strengthen our ideas. Last, but not least, in the early stages of the job, we should set up some KPIs that we can both follow and check up on to see how well we’ve progressed.

6). Stolen Ideas: Our project often includes interviews with the client’s team. Typically, we then gather all of these ideas and suggestions for our deliverables. Some people will always criticize us because they think that we had stolen their ideas that we later repackaged in a sleek PowerPoint presentation.

How to avoid that? Such a nasty criticism is often the result of bad communication. In order to avoid that, I always have a list of interviewees with a special thank you note for their contributions within my presentations. Of course, we also have to add some specific value. We may achieve that by both challenging internal ideas and adding new materials. Creativity is, therefore, critical to avoid the ‘stolen ideas’ syndrome.

7). Uncontrolled Invoices: Some clients will not be willing to take on a consultant because they think that they will not be able to control fees. They fear that the bill may come in as a bad surprise that will ultimately create conflict between them and us.

How to avoid that? We should let the client know exactly what we will be doing, what deliverables we will produce, and at what cost. During the assignment, if we notice that the client requires new deliverables, we should clearly notify, in writing, the additional fees that will be billed. Transparency is always positive in the long run. When we reduce the risk factor for our client, we help them feel confident enough to order from us.

Like bankers, consultants are often criticized in the business world. Like bankers, we are needed to make the economy functional. We should, however, make sure that client buys from us for positive reasons and not just because they cannot cope without us.

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