Communication TipsConsulting Best Practices

What to Do When Clients Put You in the Hot Seat

Michael W. McLaughlin once faced a situation where a new CFO called him to say he was voiding McLaughlin’s final consulting invoice. That is about as extreme a communication breakdown as can occur between consultant and client. But as McLaughlin explains, there are ways to save the day—and the business relationship—in even these dire circumstances.

Bring an Ice Pack

Nobody wants a project to derail, or for scope creep to rear its head at a bad time. Still, for any number of reasons, some of them unstoppable, these things happen. In such a case, McLaughlin reminds us that the blame game is the game that puts a smile on no one’s face. Trying to blame the client puts you on the defensive, numbing your ability to think about a situation objectively. This in turns slow the process of developing a resolution. At the same time, if you readily take the blame even when you should not, what often ends up happening is that you put in a lot of unpaid overtime to make the problem go away.

Instead, McLaughlin recommends ditching a win-lose mindset and adopting a couple basic principles. First, remind yourself that no one intentionally created the given problem. Second, although most project problems stem from poor decisions, acknowledge that most decisions were made using the best information available at the time. With this in mind, it becomes easier to keep working together to resolve problems. McLaughlin states:

Once you and the client agree on the definition of the problem, get all the facts and assumptions out in the open, even if that’s painful. Sometimes, we convince ourselves that we already know the facts, but resist that notion and keep an open mind. Few things impede issue resolution more than a closed mind…And remember that you are talking to a peer. You’re not a supplicant addressing the Grand Pooh-bah. In an open, objective discussion, it’s common for one or more people to have that “aha” moment of epiphany that allows for a breakthrough.

In general, some rules for not escalating a “hot seat” moment with a client include not affixing blame, testing the validity of facts and assumptions, and being able to disagree without sounding hostile. If you would like to hear a condensed version of the conversation that got McLaughlin and the CFO to see eye-to-eye, you can read the original article here:

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