Have you ever had a client who filled you with dread each time you met because they used their temper to manipulate the conversation? Or perhaps a client who made plenty of promises to follow-up or follow-through but never delivered. And then there’s the client who never takes personal responsibility, looks for others to blame or stumbles from one drama to the next without ever learning any lessons that can be applied to solving problems. Most consultants and advisors have had a least one experience of a client that makes a normally inspiring job feel frustrating or depressing.
How can we learn to spot these clients, manage the relationship more effectively and be prepared to walk away if this really isn’t a good fit? Here are some techniques that I have employed over a 30-year consulting career:
- Be very clear about the type of client you want to engage. This is a relationship—and in many cases, it is a long-term relationship. It is important that you understand the types of people that you are more likely to be able to build a trusting, mutually beneficial partnership. My personal list includes the following:
- A sense of humor,
- The ability to take personal responsibility for his/her actions,
- The ability to sincerely apologize,
- Both a spoken and demonstrated willingness to learn and apply new behaviors,
- A willingness to listen (even if sometimes they need a reminder about interrupting),
- The courage to give me direct feedback (rather than speak to others about me), and
- Some evidence of compassion.
- Be clear about those behaviors that are a no-go for you. I will politely decline opportunities to work with people who:
- Constantly speak ill of others without ever implicating themselves in the dynamic.
- Use anger, through raised voices or intimidating body language, to manipulate the conversation.
- Treat co-workers, family members and/or me and my professional colleagues disrespectfully.
This doesn’t mean that I won’t consider taking on a challenging client–one who may be rough around the edges, lacking skills or demonstrating frustration and anger. There have been plenty of times when I have decided to rise to the challenge in hopes that I might be able to have a positive influence. And sometimes, I am successful. In addition to being clear about my own boundaries, I also strive to manage expectations and build trust by developing an explicit project partnering agreement–in the belief that to be successful, we will need to be partners in this project.
My Project Partnership Agreement (sometimes referred to as an MOU) contains these elements:
- An outline of the purpose of the project.
- A list of shared expectations – what each party will do, provide or manage.
- An agreed method for giving feedback and overtly checking on the relationship and expectations.
- Agreement on dates and costs, milestones and final product.
This document differs from the project scope of work or proposal in that it is aimed at managing behavior on both sides of the relationship.
Finally, there are times when I just have to say ‘enough’ or no thank you. This has only happened a few times in my professional career, but when I was able to be crystal clear, and professionally walk away from an engagement, the relief has been immense. I usually stick to these 4 steps:
- I clearly inform the client that I (a) am not going to enter into an engagement or (b) am going to suspend or conclude the engagement. This is much better and more professional than just not responding or trying to fade away.
- I let the client know that I do not believe that we are a good fit—that my style does not mesh well with his or her style and/or I do not believe that I will be able to assist the client to meet his/her needs due to a mismatch in philosophy.
- If I believe that he/she might work well with someone else, I may offer to introduce them to another resource.
- I follow-up with a written note, thanking them for the opportunity to meet or work on a project, wishing them well, and suggesting some books or other resources that I believe might be helpful.
I firmly believe that one of the most powerful actions we can take as consultants or advisors is to demonstrate our character and values by being true to ourselves. This sends a mighty and influential message that may do more to impact another’s thoughts and feelings than any coaching or advice we could have offered. While we would all like to work with wonderful clients who blossom under our careful coaching and guidance, sometimes we may make the biggest difference when we honestly and directly choose not to engage…when we learn when and how to say “no.”