Weiss Advice Issue: 136, December, 2014
What happens when the buyer says, “Do this,” and you know that “this” is not proper, is unethical, inappropriate, illegal, and/or just plain wrong? Many consultants bend to the pressure. That makes them accomplices, not consultants.
Here’s what to do when the buyer, no matter what his or her title or position, needs to be told to “back down.” People who demand things because “they say so” are no different from schoolyard bullies. Give them an inch, and they’ll make your life miserable. Stand up to them, and they’ll crumble. Here are the positive options.
- Ask “Why?” Find out their underlying rationale for their demand. You can then often point out a better, more appropriate path to reach their goal (let employees choose who works overtime rather than ordering them all to do so).
- Point out that this is a collaboration, which means that you have to treat each other with respect and consideration and, frankly, at the moment you are not feeling that you’re being treated that way. Ask why the buyer is so mad or so demanding. Focus on his or her observable behavior, and don’t argue for the moment about the arbitrary alternative being demanded.
- Stress that your worth is that of an independent observer and counselor, and that you can’t serve in that role if you’re simply expected to be an unquestioning implementer. Why hire a consultant if you don’t want to listen?
- Emphasize that the buyer felt the need to bring in a consultant because the issue was not being handled well internally. Therefore, why ignore the expert in favor of one’s “gut feel” or uninformed opinion?
- Detail the adverse consequences—on morale, safety, image, profit, customers, etc.—that the buyer’s course of action will create. Establish that the disadvantages far surpass the presumed advantages.
- Assemble your facts and stand tall. Don’t be bullied by threats or volume. Aggressive behavior is usually caused by an inferior self-image.
- Be willing to walk away. If you’re bullied on this, you’ll be bullied on everything. Besides, the stress level is something that no amount of money can compensate you for.
Of course, there are clear preventive actions to consider in any engagement. Get paid in advance. Establish a positive, trusting relationship with the buyer at the outset. Don’t accept business that makes you uncomfortable. Be clear about the nature of your contribution, and how you will respond to unacceptable choices. Make sure you meet all the key players. Specify your “ground rules” for the engagement.
It’s no mystery why bullies get into the messes that they do, expecting someone else to bail them out while still giving all the orders themselves!
Don’t become an enabler. The beauty of a consulting practice is that you can choose your clients. I try never to accept a client I wouldn’t invite to my home.
You don’t want to soil your carpets or your reputation.