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Stop pushing

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

Question: 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.

Answer: 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. Final