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Back to the Future

In technical or management consultancy, trying to get a client to change his or her mind can be risky. Changing the time-frame is one way to avoid confrontation.

Question: 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?

Answer: 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.Final