Contrary to popular belief, there are clients in the world that a consultant cannot help. It has happened to me on a few occasions. There have definitely been cases where we were just unable to help the client. In each of those cases, I learned a lot about the importance of making sure there is a good fit between client and consultant.
Case 1: Hidden Agenda
I can remember one client where I spent a fair amount of time interacting with the company’s Board of Directors. At one point we got into a lengthy discussion about how their product had become a commodity. The Board collectively felt that it was in the company’s interest to start focusing very heavily on customer service. We left that meeting with an agreement that a new initiative would be developed to focus on reducing backorders and errors from order entry all the way through to billing. In short, the Board was looking to focus on the Perfect Order rate.
I drafted the plan and took it to the CEO, with careful attention to issues covered by the Board. After a careful review of the plan, the CEO asked if there was a way we could just build some reports to track the metrics that looked the best and not worry too much about trying to drive wholesale changes through the company. This is a no win situation for everyone involved. Hidden agendas are poisonous for companies. In this case, I didn’t feel like it was going to work. This was I client I couldn’t help because not everyone was on the same page. The best thing I could do was bow out gracefully. I recommended that the Board and the Executive team spend more time getting aligned on the strategy.
Case 2: Too Far Gone
There have been a few cases where I had a first contact with a prospective client where they were in dire straits and there was no clear path to survival. In one particular case, there was a client who was in a severe cash crunch. There were a series of really unfortunate events that cost them their largest clients, and there was no way for them to reduce costs enough to stay solvent.
This was one of the hardest things I ever had to talk to a client about. This was a very passionate business owner. Telling this gentleman that his life’s work couldn’t be salvaged was very tough. However, I felt it would have been far worse to take his money and only prolong the inevitable by maybe a year. I advised him to think through his situation carefully, but that the longer he delayed, the more it would cost him. Within a month, he closed the doors, which was sad, but it was also the right thing to do. It allowed his employees to get on with their lives quickly, which I felt was the most honest thing he could have done.
Case 3: Out of my Wheelhouse
Good fit between a consultant and a client is important. This is as much the consultant’s responsibility as it is the client’s. A consultant has to have the candor to be up front with a client. He or she must tell them that the fit is not right for an engagement. This can happen for a variety of reasons. There might be a difference in core values. Also, there are cases where the consultant may not be comfortable with the client’s industry or business model. There could also be a situation where new information reveals that the real issue is something other than previously thought.
In my case, the example that sticks out was a warehouse automation project where we needed to make some major changes to the way that the client’s inventory management system was configured. The project seemed to be going along fine until we found a major challenge executing the configuration. It required figuring out how to manipulate the inventory in and out of the system in a way that was pretty far beyond my previous experience. I felt the best thing to do was tell the client we needed to bring in someone else. I felt like I could probably figure it out, but their project was too big and the timeline too critical for on the job training. The right thing to do was get them an expert who had seen this before.
Wrapping it Up
There are all kinds of reasons that there may not be a good match between client and consultant. I think it is very important that both the client and the consultant be up front with each other. This will help avoid resentment and keep everyone on the same page. For consultants especially, I think it is also important to tell a prospective client if they are not a good fit for your services. This may cost some billable time in the short run. However, that shouldn’t matter if the customer’s needs truly come first.