How top professional services advisors answer difficult questions, even when the response might be hard for the client to hear.
I might be in the minority here, but having listened to row upon row of interviews with politicians in recent weeks, I find their ability to avoid giving a straight answer to a direct question strangely impressive and skilful.
Where I won’t be in the minority is that I also find their equivocation – “the use of ambiguous language to conceal the truth or to avoid committing oneself – also see vagueness, prevarication, fudging” – extremely frustrating.
This excellent article by Peter Bull from the Department of Psychology at the University of York who has studied politicians’ prevarication in detail gives some good examples of “a non-specific response to a specific question.” He argues that the key to a politician’s equivocation is to ignore the original question being asked and instead to rephrase the question in a way that she/he wants to answer.
The reason politicians have become so adept at avoiding the question is down to what has been coined ‘Communicative Conflict’ – when all possible responses have potentially negative consequences but where a response is still expected.
Whilst it is understandable that politicians are reluctant to give a response that might make them look bad or hinder their future actions, equally one argument is that by choosing not to take a specific position and keeping their cards close to their chest, politicians are more likely to gain a position of power.
However, as Peter Bull argues, not taking a clear position is unsustainable in the long term: “Giving evasive responses to specific questions becomes increasingly transparent, and open to challenge” and eventually; “Opaqueness might be less an asset, more a liability.”
Managing Communicative Conflict in Professional Services:
Unequivocally, avoiding the client’s question is not an option for professional services advisors.
Even when advice might be challenging for the client to hear, avoiding the question will damage your credibility, your firm’s credibility and give the client far less confidence in your ability.
However, it is also true that those working in professional services do sometimes have to deal with a form of ‘Communicative Conflict’ when dealing with clients. There are occasions when advisors know the advice they must give will be contentious or perhaps not what the client wants to hear.
But if avoiding the question isn’t an option, how can professional services advisors deal with this form of ‘Communicative Conflict’?
Having worked with and observed some the world’s leading professional services advisors, here’s how we would expect them to face this communicative conflict:
1. They show their reasoning:
If the advisor knows the client isn’t likely to embrace their advice with open arms they need to be able to justify the reasoning behind their recommendations.
To do this, the top advisors begin by carefully talking through the process for arriving at their conclusions. These conclusions should be irrefutable because they are based on the findings and data collected.
Once both parties have agreed on the diagnosis, the best advisors will then offer a list of potential recommendations – along with ‘cost benefit’ analysis for each – to aid the client’s final decision. The client can then take the best decision based on their existing conditions, barriers and resources.
You might argue that giving different options to the client is an example of equivocation (using ambiguous language avoid committing oneself). However, there will rarely, if ever, be just one option open to the client and it’s the advisor’s duty to explain all options before making the final recommendation, in the knowledge that the client might still decide to take a different option.
2. They have a clear understanding of the client’s context:
When offering a challenging point of view, the top advisors will have spent time developing an understanding of the client’s context. Their clear understanding of the client’s context also means they can discuss the potential opportunities and difficulties the client will face using evidence from their firm’s experience, further building their and their firm’s credibility.
3. They explore the situation as equals:
When giving advice they know the client might not want to hear, the top advisors explore the situation as equals and resist the urge to be judgmental, knowing the client is far more likely to accept the opinion of someone they regard as a peer.
4. They listen to the question and don’t offer a predetermined answer:
Politicians are well known for their ability to simply acknowledge the question they don’t like or can’t answer, before going on to talk about what they really want to discuss. Likewise, professional advisors are sometimes criticised for answering with a predetermined ‘solution’ having created a ‘problem’ rather than creating a solution based on the problem. The best advisors listen to the client’s question, validate what they’ve heard and respond in a way that directly answers the question.
5. Their response helps the client to envision a better future:
Even when faced with giving the client difficult feedback, the best advisors frame their answers in a way that helps the client to envision a better future for them and their business. They use language of possibility, perspective and candour. They discuss what the aims and objectives are, what the result might mean for the client and what must change to get there. By framing their answer in a positive light, while still being honest about the difficulties ahead, clients can see that the advice, however hard to swallow, is in their best interests.
6. They demonstrate high levels of Emotional Intelligence:
One trait that all the top professional services advisors share is emotional intelligence: the ability to correctly recognise and manage the client’s emotions as well as to understand and manage their own moods and emotions and how they will affect the client.
When faced with a challenging question, the top professional services advisors use emotional intelligence to remain calm and resilient under pressure, to think before they speak, to build empathy, to listen, to find common ground and to build rapport.
Let’s be clear…
Is prevarication an acceptable response in professional services?
Clients engage professional services advisors for their ability to solve a problem or identify an opportunity and not offering an answer is damaging for both the individual’s reputation and the firm’s brand.
However, there are occasions when professional services advisors must face similar communicative conflicts to politicians – when the advice they must give a client is contentious or unlikely what they want to hear.
In the same way that politicians undertake media training to deal with difficult questions, professional services advisors can learn and practise how to succeed in these critical client conversations to ensure they get the client’s vote of confidence.