Consulting Tips
In the first of a regular series of articles, these "Consulting Tips" thought pieces will look at the types of issues consultants are faced with in their professional lives - and suggested approaches for tackling these sometimes thorny issues.

Consulting Tips - Part 1 - Back to the Future


Even when you have the best of intentions, getting a client to change their mind about something can be a thankless task loaded with risk to the relationship. Malcolm Sleath suggests that changing the time frame is one way to avoid friction.

Q: About nine months ago, mainly because of our credibility in a critical vertical discipline, a large corporation appointed our medium-sized consulting firm as a preferred supplier. However, it was made clear to us that, if we wanted to maintain our place on the list, we would have to broaden our user base to include other departments. It's been a struggle to expand our sphere of influence, but we have finally received a serious enquiry from the head of another department. The problem is that her preferred solution looks attractive now, but is not robust enough to cope with what we know is to come.

When I tried to broach this, she more or less asked me if I wanted the work or not. My colleague thinks I should go ahead with her preferred solution, and then stay close so that we are in a position to carry out the expected remedial steps. My instinct is that if we are associated with something that looks like failure, we won't be around to do the work. How can I get her to change her mind?

A: On a scale of difficulty, in which one is a shoo-in and ten is impossible, you have challenged yourself to achieve grade eight. Prising open a closed mind when it has reached this stage of the buying process is not to be undertaken lightly. You have to be absolutely clear about what you are doing, and rigorous in your self-discipline.

The approach I am going to suggest has two key components. Your primary goal is to get her to express her requirements in terms of the interests she is attempting to serve, as opposed to the inflexible position she appears to have adopted. Once you have achieved that, you can invite her to consider alternative ways of achieving the outcome.

The challenge is to do that without precipitating the confrontation you fear. Don't ask, "Why have you decided to do it this way?" In my experience, asking 'why?' almost always results in a defensive response. Clients need to feel that they are understood, and questions beginning with 'how?' seem to work better. For example: "How did you become aware that there was a need to address this issue?"

By shifting the time frame to the past, you can start the process of getting her to re-examine her criteria, after which you can move forward together. The advantage is that you will appear to be collaborating from the start and avoid confrontation.

It's all about your intention. If you set yourself the task of finding out why your client has been so stupid, that's bound to come through. However, if you set out to discover why the decision she reached seemed to make so much sense at the time, you will be unconsciously sending her messages that you are on her side.

Set up the conversation by saying that you would like to understand as much as possible about the background. Initially focus on when she first became dissatisfied with the current state of affairs, the facts of the situation that led to that dissatisfaction and the problems she was experiencing as a result. Your aim is to create the impression that you understand what was driving her to act.

While you are listening to this, you might also gather information that would support your preferred solution. Forget the idea of trying to push your professional criteria onto her; that will lead to conflict. Think of her concerns as potential requirements and criteria to be addressed rather than objections to your proposal. Focus on gathering evidence that will enable to you position your solution as a way of addressing her concerns.

It is often the case that people are not so much wedded to a given solution as concerned about the risks of doing something else. If you steadily collect all her concerns, you are effectively building up a list of requirements that need to be met. You are more likely to make progress by identifying her perceived risks and reducing them in her eyes, than by advocating hard your preferred solution.

You might also find that she shares your concerns about the future, or you can find a way to introduce the issue so that she becomes concerned. When people identify concerns that seem irreconcilable, they will be tempted to dump some of them, and not always the right ones. Your job as a consultant is to find solutions that resolve the apparent dilemma.

When you think you have everything out on the table, it is time to test your understanding by using the formula, "So what you seem to be looking for is a way of doing 'x' so that the outcome is 'y'." Find a way of building into this as many of her concerns as you can. Bullet point them if you need to. You don't have to know exactly how you can address them off the top of your head. As you will see, you will have time to think about it.

An affirmative answer to this question gives you an opening to ask what is sometimes called the 'miracle question': "If I could wave a magic wand so that tomorrow morning all of that was in place, how would that help you?" Use the question to elicit the benefits as she sees them. Follow it up by getting her to envisage what will be going on in her situation when such a solution is successfully implemented. The more detailed and rich the vision the better, so encourage her to articulate what people will be thinking and saying, what they will be doing, and so forth.

Now you both know why you are there and that you are on the same side. At no time have you advocated your solution or attacked hers. This is the point where you say, "On the basis of what you have just described, it sounds as if this is something really worth going for. Can I have some time to think this through and come back to you with some ideas about how we might move forward?"

But before you leave the room, agree the precise criteria your proposals would have to meet. Bullet point these and confirm them in writing. When you return, you will be able to present clearly the pros and cons of the original solution and the alternative you propose. To reduce the perceived risk of your solution, try to find examples of reference sites with which she can identify. People relate best to people they think are like themselves, so make sure your examples reflect how she would like to see herself, and carry the necessary weight and authority.

When you include your preferred solution in your offer it will be clearly linked to her criteria. One hopes she will adopt your solution on the basis that you have clearly demonstrated your understanding of her concerns and addressed the issues she most cares about. In any event, your position will be much stronger if you are discussing her decision in relation to criteria agreed between you.

Consulting Tips - Part 2 - Stop pushing

In the second of a regular series of articles, these "Consulting Tips" thought pieces look at the types of issues consultants are faced with in their professional lives - and suggested approaches for tackling these sometimes thorny issues.

It is one thing to offer sound advice, quite another to get a client to act on it. Malcolm Sleath suggests that taking the pressure off is more likely to succeed than adding more.

Q: A few weeks ago a medium-sized client called me in to help sort out a problem with a vendor. The initial brief had been sloppy to say the least, leaving my client without legal redress if the vendor failed to deliver. Inevitably, the project had encountered difficulties; the vendor dragged their heels and failed to address them, and it looked as if they were simply ignoring my client. If nothing could be done to remedy this, my client was faced with the prospect of swallowing a significant loss of time and money and starting again.

Despite the shaky basis for the original agreement, I was successful in finding some leverage that would make it imperative for the vendor to sort out my client's problems, even if it meant sacrificing their profit on the deal. But then my real problem emerged.

My client was fully aware of the seriousness of the problem facing him and why he had to do something about it immediately, and he accepted that I had produced a well thought through solution. Despite this, it was now his turn to be hesitant. He has found every excuse not to call the vendor's CEO to set up the meeting and get the matter resolved.

How can I get him to do what he knows he ought to do? I've been called in to sort out a difficult problem, I've found a good solution and I don't want to be associated with the inevitable failure if the client fails to implement it.

A: My guess is that anyone involved in any kind of consulting or advising has come across situations like this. I certainly have, and I blush to think of the opportunities missed because I have failed to address it. It helps if you bear in mind there are three things that need to be in place before a client will seriously engage with change.

Usually, the first thing mentioned is the severity of the problem. The client has to appreciate this to be interested in finding a solution. It sounds as if your client knows they are faced with an uncomfortable prospect if the problem is not resolved, so we can tick that box.

The second factor is that the client has to be aware of a potential solution. In reality, this does not mean the client has to know the detail or understand how the solution would be effective ? that comes later in the buying process, which is often a change process; they just have to believe the solution exists. In this case you are very clear that you have identified powerful leverage to get the vendor to come into line. As this is based on the expertise for which your client thought he was hiring you, we can tick that box insofar as it addresses the problem. However, as we shall see, addressing the problem is not enough.

The third element is that the client has to desire to change the situation. You might think, "Of course the client desires to change the situation, otherwise why would I be there?" But we all know friends and colleagues who ask for help because they know they have a serious problem and who also become aware that several solutions are available ? but they still don't move towards action. They seem stuck. If we don't realise what is going on, we start getting frustrated and find ourselves raising our voice or walking away. Neither is a satisfactory option.

So what is really going on? To understand, we have to examine what 'desire to change the situation' really means. I find it useful to think about this in terms of 'pushing forces' and 'restraining forces'. Let's say that I resolve to get fit and take regular exercise. The forces pushing me towards change are the desire to feel better and look better, with all the attendant benefits. But the restraining forces are also there. From previous training I remember the discomfort of being red in the face and feeling out of breath, the humiliation when people I thought looked like wimps turned out to have more stamina on the treadmill than I did, the effort of leaving my comfortable chair and warm surroundings and going somewhere to physically work hard. To many, these might seem like trivial matters to be overcome through the application of willpower. But I am much more likely to move forward if I reduce the restraining forces.

How can I open the way for the pushing forces to come through? For a start, I should avoid putting myself in the position of having to leave somewhere warm and comfortable to go to the gym. It's better if I work in the gym trip with something else ? like shopping for a book or magazine ? that will get me out of my chair anyway. Then I have to reframe the 'out of breath and humiliated' feeling. Whenever I see someone outperforming me on the treadmill, I could imagine that when they return to the gym after a break, they feel exactly as I do now.

Getting a client to desire to change their situation is not about 'creating' desire; it is already there. It is about creating the conditions that allow the desire to come through.

So how would this work with your current client? My hunch about this is based on the evidence that the deal was not properly constructed in the first place, together with some specific detail about your client I edited out of your question. It seems that your client has little or no experience of what he sees as hard-nosed negotiation and sees the vendor's CEO as a difficult and potentially aggressive opponent. He probably believes that success in situations like this is all down to force of personality, and he has learned that he tends to lose out in showdowns. You might be compounding the problem if you try to increase the pushing forces by saying things like, "You really have to stand up to him."

So how do you reduce the restraining forces? For a start, I suggest you look for ways in which you can support him in his negotiation that do not undermine his authority as perceived by the vendor. For example, it would be quite appropriate for you to attend a meeting as his technical advisor, to make sure that his demands are expressed in specific enough terms for the vendor to respond. But the real clincher in getting him to act is subtler.

He has to understand the big picture. It is not his force of personality that will make the vendor come into line. If the negotiation fails and your client has to cut his losses and start again with another vendor, it will create a difficult situation for him. But quite independently of that, any new vendor will make sure that everyone in your client's sector knows the first vendor failed to deliver. The current vendor knows this because, if presented with a similar opportunity, he would do exactly the same thing.

Your client is much more likely to act if he feels that the real power to get the existing vendor to change his behaviour lies in the inevitable consequences of a negative outcome to the negotiation. The negotiation is not a test of his personality.

Your solution has to be more than a way of solving the problem; you also need to find a way to release the client's desire to change their situation. Reducing the forces that get in the way will enable this desire to translate into action.

Our thanks to Malcolm Sleath of 12boxes for these regular contributions, which will take the form of a question and answer tackling a different issue each fortnight.

Names and details have been changed and events compressed. The essence of this is true, but I've employed artistic licence in the interest of clarity. The steps in this answer were derived from the 12boxes method.

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(c) Malcolm Sleath 2008

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