How do I deliver a tough message to a new client?

The short answer is to deliver the message the same way you’d like to hear it: respectfully, objectively, and with brutal honesty that will get you to a better place.

Many consultants confuse being liked with being valued. Of course, it is possible to be both at the same time! The danger, however, is that some will err on the side of softening—or worse, obscuring—a message that is genuinely in the client’s best interest out of fear that the fierce message will somehow damage the relationship and therefore threaten any future pipeline of work.

As a consultant, your clients hire you to provide advice to help them make informed decisions. The important elements to highlight here are the content and sources of the information, along with the retention of decision making authority.

By now I expect most readers to have spotted the irony and deeply irrational nature of this concern…but to drive the point home, please review the table below containing some tips for consultants in a fresh client relationship to maintain their reputation and truly help their clients in the longer term.

Irrational Urge Sensible Action Reasoning behind the action
I had better water this message down. The cold, hard truth could really upset my client Describe the risks/opportunities/ situation you see objectively, respectfully, and with an intent to bring the organization to a better place. You have been hired as an objective, external viewer, free of any political or experiential baggage within the organization. if you pull your punches, you are not doing your job.
I had better protect my sources, or I risk jeopardizing the trust I have built with junior staff that have provided me key information, and just becoming another consultant who “steals your watch to tell you the time” Be transparent about how you reached your conclusions, and be open about any biases that may have influenced you as you gathered and interpreted primary or secondary source information. Even if something is unpleasant to hear, knowing where it came from and what it represents will reduce the risk of a negative emotional reaction.
Let’s just do what it takes to get started on the next phase; I know what my client wants and it’s not worth raising issues right now that could stand in the way Give “equal air time” to arguments in favor of the desired outcome and contradictory information. Make it easy for your clients to draw conclusions without making decisions on their behalf The business world is a constantly shifting playing field. By your nature as an external partner, you have limited information…therefore you are not acting in your client’s best interest if you reach beyond your authority.

Further Reading?

David Maister literally wrote the book…his older stuff is better:


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