This site explores scenarios of corporate dysfunction that can derail your career. The Navigator provides guidance of how to advance your career despite these obstacles.

Should a consultant walk away from a difficult client?

A Reader Writes:

I work as a consultant in my own company.  If I sense that a client will be unreasonable and threaten the outcome of my work, should I just walk away?  Or should I take the job and try to be a better influencer?

Dear Reader,

There certainly are parallels of both the embedded employee role and the consultant as they face similar challenges when aligning expectations of their stakeholders. Most of the topics that are covered here apply to both of these valuable organizational resources. (The Navigator is planning an upcoming topic on how to cultivate the ideal relationship between embedded managers and the consultants they hire.)

The Navigator wishes to reverse your two-part question by addressing how to avoid an undesirable client on the outset. The Navigator has found a kind of crystal ball to predict client outcomes, albeit a somewhat cloudy one, gaining inspiration from the risk assessment questions used in the early phases of change management best practices, ADKAR, for example. Most projects that you will be asked to engage in will likely change how people are expected to engage with each other via a process and / or a product, so change management principals apply. Probing questions should be asked of your prospective client: What is their motivation for hiring you? Is it to tick a box to demonstrate effort to senior management? (a wide-spread malady). Can they clearly articulate the problem you are asked to solve? How will success be measured? Do all major stakeholders concur? What were the outcomes of other projects they have managed? Other consultants they have hired? Were they happy with those outcomes? This kind of probing will form a picture for you (let’s hope it’s not of Dorian Gray) allowing you to make an informed choice. As a business owner, you might also decide to take the gig anyway, even if you don’t like the answers. You may feel that your engagement is an opportunity to educate your clients as an argument for future, more productive projects with that organization. If you do decide to go into a situation with reservations, it is vital to align your client’s expectations with reality. The Navigator has learned that the most important metric in many circumstances is the Return on Expectations. Share your concerns with the client right up front. Provide them examples of scenarios that have been successful, and those that have not worked and the reasons why. Advocate for a less ambitious solution to test the waters before over-promising.

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Samuel Wineman
Samuel Wineman
5 years ago

As a consultant, I ran into this problem on occasion . When I was younger and not completely established, and needing every job I could get, I hoped I would do some good by hanging in there. These types of clients are so unreasonable that the individual manager feels he betters himself with upper management by showing that he is better than the firm they hired. The person is well established and an outsider can do no good for himself by trying to go around the individual. These people will eat you alive.They will l destroy your reputation and through… Read more »