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#635: How To Answer a Client Who Says "Tell Me What To Do."

Posted By Mark Haas CMC FIMC, Friday, August 19, 2011
Updated: Friday, August 19, 2011
I've been burned a few times over my career by making recommendations before my analysis was complete. More experience has meant I won't be pressured into making a prescription before my diagnosis is in. But what do you do with an insistent client who reminds you that she is paying the bills and wants you to tell her what to do when you are not ready to do so?

Beyond the expertise we bring to an engagement, a consultant's major contribution to a client is our independence and objectivity. Being pressured to give an opinion before you are comfortable serves neither party well. Remember that the consultant's role is to ask the right questions, research and reveal issues, bring alternatives to a client and lay the groundwork for the client to make the decision. Consulting standards are clear that the responsibility for making the final decision rests with the client.

That said, there is an effective approach to help a client who trusts your judgment and wants you to make their decision (although it's expressed as "What do you recommend?"). When your client asks you to tell them what to do, recognize it as a request to help them organize their thinking. They are likely overwhelmend by the options (part of why you were retained) and want to get on with implementing a solution. Your orientation now shifts from an organizational to a personal level.

This is where your coaching, facilitation and leadership skills combine to draw them through a series of scenarios and stories. By doing so you help them isolate important parts of the issue, focus on one aspect at a time of the problem or opportunity and give them a frame of reference through which to see a series of choices, and eventaully a set o fsolutions. Each of your examples of how company X or agency Y addressed (not necessarily solved) their issues narrows your client's field of vision. Of course, the stories you select will be guided by your work with this client to date. In the end, you will bring them along to your current state of knowledge and understanding of the issues. Once you are in sync, the clilent may be able to see a soltion or recognize that your work is incomplete. At a minimum, the deisre to "just decide" is repressed.

Tip: This does not abrogate your responsibility to provide logical, defensible advice. It also should elevate the need to have a lot of stories about how differnt companies face challenges. These are best from your own client experience but can be from the literature. Russ Ackoff's descriptions of the thinking proceses he went rhrough are an excellent source. A good one is Ackoff's Best: His Classic Writings on Management.

© 2011 Institute of Management Consultants USA

Tags:  advice  client relations  communication  consultant role  consulting process  customer understanding  recommendations 

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Comments on this post...

Deborah A. Smith CMC says...
Posted Saturday, August 20, 2011
Thank you, Mark, for all your informational posts. This one particularly resonates with me, as I can't tell you how many times I've heard, "Just Tell Us What to Do".
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Richard P. Morgan CMC FIMC says...
Posted Saturday, August 20, 2011
I'm glad you mentioned Russ Ackoff's writings as a source of ideas about creative thinking and his problem-solving processes. Dr. Ackoff continues to be an inspiration to many who knew him. Another Ackoff resource is his illuminating and entertaining book, The Art of Problem Solving, John Wiley & Sons, 1978.
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