How clearer rules of engagement lead to better relationships all round.

“Here’s the thing,” proffers the CEO of a major client over breakfast one morning. “Our business was moving forward, was getting results. Until we started working with you. Then things started going backwards, and our results went down the tube.”

This never happens to me. In fact, I can count on zero fingers the number of times that this has happened in my entire 20-year career. Except that it is happening, right now.

And the one thing that no self-respecting consultant ever wants to hear is that his or her actions are having a detrimental effect.

So I did the only thing I could do.

“I see,” I said. “You’re fired.”

The CEO looked shocked. “What? Why?”, he asked.

“Because one of two things is happening here. Either what you’re saying is true – in which case, that’s horrifying, and I’m so sorry, and the best thing we can do is stop working together. Or you’re trying to game me, in which case we can’t work together anyway.”

It should go without saying that you don’t want to fire your clients. Generally speaking, it’s bad for the bottom line, and bad for the brand. And it’s a disappointing end to a relationship that probably looked promising at the start.

As his reaction made clear, the client’s CEO was playing with anything but a straight bat. Bluntly, he was uncomfortable with the questions that I had been asking him about his leadership of the marketing function, and had apparently decided that the best way to deal with this was Lynton Crosby’s Dead Cat on the Table manoeuvre. There’s no option but to part company when that happens – the relationship is no longer an open and honest one.

But if you’re smart, you’ll have spotted that the failure here was mine, though perhaps not in the way you might think. The mistake I made was not my decision to address his failure of leadership. Rather, it was agreeing to work with the client in the first place. I had guessed early on that the CEO was the wrong kind of trouble. And I’d ignored it.

Like all people, consultants aren’t perfect, and we can be prone to ignoring our instincts for all sorts of reasons. In the hope that it helps you to head problems off at the pass, here are five behaviours that in my view give you immediate cause to fire any client. More importantly, these reasons might also help you to avoid working with the wrong ones in the first place.

Here’s a liberating fact: if any of your clients are behaving in any of these ways, divorce is inevitable. It’s just a matter of when, and how much blood gets spilled on the carpet.

In my experience, accepting the inevitable failure of flawed relationships is a great way to avoid getting into them in the first place. You can further focus the mind by correlating factors like bad behaviour and unprofitability. More often than not, they go hand in hand. Clients can easily become ‘major’ in damaging as well as healthy ways.

Incidentally, if you’re a client, it might be helpful to reflect if you recognise your own behaviour or your organisation’s in any of what follows. If you do, it’s likely that you won’t get the value you seek out of your consultants.

Reason 1: “Trust me, that’s all you need to know.”

As I always say, everybody lies. (I’ll be talking more about this next week, in fact.) This is because human thought processes are largely non-conscious, which means that people don’t really know why they behave as they do. What’s more, they will lie about their reasoning when they feel under pressure.

So we’re all liars. But there is a big difference between the liar who is doing his best to engage openly and honestly with a process and the liar who is doing everything he can to undermine it. A deliberate failure to disclose key information is a classic pitfall in consulting. It is perhaps understandable amongst more junior employees who might feel vulnerable. But if the project sponsor turns out to be working a hidden agenda, head for the exit. There is no future here.

Reason 2: “Over to you, then.”

Consultants need clients (the clue is in the word ‘consultant’). Yet behind this seemingly obvious point lies a world of pain for many, who are often expected to perform miracles in a vacuum.

A core principle of our work at Corporate Punk is that clients must own and be accountable for the decisions we jointly make and the actions we jointly agree upon. We are not employees so we rarely have the mandate to bring about change on our own accord. Because we don’t have to live with the long-term consequences of our actions, this is the correct state of affairs. But it does mean that we need internal partners with whom we can work closely.

Consultants: if the advice you give is bad, expect to be held to account. But if your clients are expecting you to do things that only Directors are empowered to do, that’s an abdication of responsibility – and you should get the hell out of Dodge.

Reason 3: “Don’t care how, I want it now.”

Good diagnostic processes have a habit of uncovering gnarly, long-standing issues in a business. This can lead to the ‘boil-the-ocean’ problem, where a client expects the entire issue to be resolved in unrealistic timeframes. Unfortunately, complicated problems don’t generally lend themselves to quick fixes, and it’s unreasonable to expect consultants to deliver them.

Any good change process starts by picking one small but important problem, and making it go away as fast as possible (but no faster – rigour matters). When that’s done, you move on to the next one – then rinse and repeat.

Related problems to ‘boil the ocean now, please’ include a sort of Pacman approach to scope boundaries (‘now you see them, now you don’t’), and the inexplicable belief that extra work shouldn’t merit extra investment.

In all instances: vamos.

Reason 4: “We are having some budget challenges.”

Isn’t it amazing that some businesses still trot out this line when it comes to mission-critical problems? But here we are.

To be clear, I’m not talking about a total lack of ability to pay – that’s clearly a knock-out for anyone. I’m talking about a lack of willingness or ability to engage fully with the financial realities that accompany well-realised answers to complex problems. People’s time costs money. Good talent is rare; some consultants (in hard-to-find disciplines) command high rates. The complexity of some problems can sometimes mean that many hours of labour are required.

When cost conversations end up being driven by price rather than value, the situation gets dangerous for everyone. The problem with focusing on price is that it often leads to compromises in scope quality or quantity that in turn dilute how effective a solution is, or the willingness of both parties to stay the course.

Consultants: ask your clients to hold you to account for the value you deliver. But get paid proportionately for it – or else one or other of you might well give up along the way.

Reason 5: “The dog ate my homework.”

Great advice means nothing if it remains in a desk drawer, on a file server, or knocking about in someone’s head. Many consultants are trained to think that this isn’t their problem – if clients don’t listen to recommendations, it’s a matter for them.

But here’s the difficult thing about human nature: a client who doesn’t execute on the advice you give them will fail to make gains and then blame you for this. Your relationship with the client will suffer, and in time so will your reputation.

In many ways, this is the sort of ur-failure into which all the others fit, like Russian dolls. Bartering down on price reduces a consultant’s leverage (for the reason that the client is less invested in the return), meaning that the client is less likely to take the advice being given. A client who unfairly places the onus for change on the consultant is unlikely to keep to their side of the bargain. And hidden agendas often show up through inaction – in all businesses, actions that are genuinely believed to be important have a habit of getting done.

This is not about an occasional failure to do what’s agreed, or understandable slip-ups when momentum is otherwise positive – we’re all human. But, over time, the consulting relationship that sees clients doing diddly-squat to change the status quo is something that no-one wants to be a part of. Do not try to tango alone.

I didn’t enjoy my conversation with the CEO, and I didn’t much enjoy reliving it while writing this article. It’s far easier to bury your failures than to talk openly about them.

But all failures point in the direction of success, if you let them. Ultimately, that CEO did me a favour. In helping to crystallise nearly 20 years of thinking about what I do and don’t want from client relationships, his actions set the tone for all our work now and in the future. We work hard for our clients, and our clients work hard for themselves. We have clear rules that govern who we partner with, and who we don’t. We actively champion the value we create. And I now look forward to breakfasts where CEOs say “…our business was going backwards, until you got involved”.

Clients: if you’re good, or want to get better, act with integrity to your consultants. You’ll get much more value out of every pound you spend.

Consultants: if you’re good, or want to get better, ask your clients to act with openness, honesty, respect and commitment, or turn them away. Removing dead leaves from a tree might feel like painful work, but it leaves room for new ones to grow.

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