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I have always believed that a DJ at a party had one job – to make sure the dance floor is full of people having a good time.

So, it came as a surprise at a party I attended recently when the DJ seemed quite happy for the dance floor to remain empty for most of the night.

Every so often an old ‘classic’ would come on – “Oh I love that one!” – and the dance floor would quickly fill up, only for the DJ to follow up with something unrecognisable – “I don’t know this one!” – and the floor would empty as fast as it had filled.

It became apparent that the DJ at this party had decided that he knew exactly what music the audience liked, he was the expert and he would play his set whether or not anyone wanted to hear it.

Every time someone tried to request a particular song (“Got any ABBA?”) the DJ would simply nod his head blankly or give a look that said “Really?” and carry on playing exactly what he planned. He had turned up to play his default party anthems and nothing and no one was going to stop him. At the end of the party, the only person who was really satisfied was the DJ.

It was clear that this DJ had completely misjudged the party setting and the audience that would be attending. On the night, he didn’t listen to what people really wanted and he wasn’t able to adapt his music accordingly. He completely misjudged which music would give his audience the most joy. Above all, he was determined to force his predetermined playlist onto his audience.

Unfortunately, business leaders tell us that consultants and professional advisors often behave just like the DJ in this story. They turn up for a business development meeting or present an analysis to a client knowing exactly what they’re going to propose or recommend, despite what the client might actually be looking for or if the situation they find is different to their preconceived ideas.

A lead buyer of consulting services recently told us that many consultants who turn up to meetings with him simply do not listen: “Don’t just tell me what I need, ask me what I want!

Another client of a consulting firm told us of their exasperation during a recent engagement. Despite what they told the consulting firm in many conversations, they already knew the recommendations that were going to be made and that the consulting firm would try to force the client into their predetermined ideas whatever the client told them.

As these two examples illustrate, forcing a predetermined solution onto clients – whether in the business development process or after a diagnostic process – leaves a very negative perception in the mind of the client.

It shows them that you haven’t listened. It makes the client question whether you really care about their needs. It makes the client think that you see them as just the same as everyone else. It makes the client question whether they really matter to you or whether, in fact, you are pursuing your own interest at their expense. It could also leave them with the impression that you are arrogant and uninterested.

To follow the DJ analogy, if you are determined to play your set whatever the audience response, it’s likely that everyone – apart from you – will be frustrated and leave the dancefloor.

But consultants could justifiably respond:

Hang on! You asked me to come and see you because I am the expert!

It’s true that, more often than not, clients employ consultants and professional advisors for the simple reason that they don’t have the knowledge or expertise in-house. So it seems a little contradictory that clients now aren’t happy that the consulting firm, based on their experience, is telling them what they should do.

What’s more, client’s expect consultants to turn up to a meeting with solution or point of view in mind – if a consultant turned up to a meeting empty headed and unprepared, the client would take a very dim view.

However, this is critical: While it’s true that more often than not a consultant will know what solutions the client will need, based on their experience and knowledge, no one – particularly a client – wants to feel stupid, put in a box on the shelf marked ‘standard’, left unheard and ignored.

Ultimately, forcing a preconceived solution on a client can irreparably damage the brand and reputation of your consulting firm.

So how can consultants and professional advisors ensure that they don’t make the client feel that they are being forced into a predetermined, off-the-shelf solution – even if it’s mostly true?

How can professional advisors offer recommendations and solutions to clients without making them feel that they are simply listening to the standard playlist?

Our recommendations

Here’s what we would suggest to consultants and professional advisors:

1. Understand and summarise the client’s context first

It’s critical before any client meeting that you have carried out a proper analysis of the client’s situation, needs and objectives. What does the client want to happen as a result of this engagement? How does this project fit with what else the client is trying to achieve? What are the current challenges and opportunities the client is facing?

2. Earn the right

Confidence is a prerequisite mindset for a successful management consultant and is an essential trait when meeting a CEO, senior stakeholder or potential client. Occasionally however, confidence can be superseded by a sense of entitlement which can also breed complacency. This is bound to leave a negative impression in the client’s mind. Instead of entitlement, consultants can ‘earn the right’ to offer their views or recommendations by doing the necessary pre-work to understand the client’s context and then by…

3. Asking questions, listening to the answers, empathising, not being judgemental and framing their responses

As a consultant, you might know what the client needs and what you will recommend in advance, but by actively listening to the client you can frame your recommendations specifically to their context. Make the client feel like they are different, that you will take a unique approach. Don’t ignore what they tell you even if you know it’s not accurate or helpful but guide them in the direction you believe is right. And when you do frame your recommendation…

4. Make the client the ‘Hero’: 

No one likes to feel that they need help or saving so when offering your solution, help the client to envision themselves as ‘the hero’, not your consulting firm riding in to save them. Make the client look good. As a consultant you are engaged to change something, to add value and to do something different but this should never leave the client with an inferiority complex.

5. Be adaptable and cognitively flexible: 

If you turn up to a meeting with the client and the context or situation isn’t as you had expected, you have to be able to adapt and think creatively. A consultant should never turn up to a meeting ‘empty headed’ but have a few ‘points of view’ up their sleeve – based on their knowledge and experience – that they could apply to any unexpected scenario or when they have mis-understood the client’s context. You might turn up to DJ a party thinking you know what music the guests will like, but if you have misread the situation, you need to have the ability and the tracks to start playing something else.

6. Understand the client’s drivers of value and ‘co-create’ the solution:

Whether clients choose to engage – or not – with a consulting firm, comes down to the perceived value that will be created by the firm and whether this aligns with the value they are seeking. Critically, ‘value’ is a highly subjective and personal construct, different for each client. Consultants shouldn’t assume they know what value the client is seeking and force their solution onto the client but should try to understand the key determinants of value for each individual client, and then use behaviours, stories and anecdotes to co-create a solution that meets the value expectations and requirements. Even if the solution you eventually create with the client is the one you preconceived, has ownership of the idea and is more likely to give the project the buy in it needs.

Not everyone wants to dance to the same tune

Clients should never feel as if they are being forced into a predetermined solution. If a party DJ doesn’t recognise or listen to what his audience really wants, he will have an empty dance floor and won’t get booked again. If a consultant tries to force everyone to dance to the same tune, they will end up with an empty order book, no repeat business and a damaged reputation.

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