Perhaps you were raised with the old adage, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” While that is good advice around the dinner table or in the schoolyard, it’s not always true in business. When should you not be nice? When your client’s business future is at stake…and that is more often than you probably realize.
Many times, clients will hide problems from you. They will only give you surface-level information about key issues affecting their business. You will get the filtered version of the challenges they are facing. And why is this? Because you are too nice and don’t ask the tough questions that will get to the heart of the matter.
Deference Is Not Partnership
It’s one thing to respect your clients. It’s another thing to defer to them as the smartest people in the room. So many times, I see people engage with clients as if they are the student at the feet of the teacher. Yes, your client knows their business better than you do. However, you know YOUR business better than they do and that’s why you are in the room in the first place. If you aren’t asserting yourself with that confidence, you will not get what you need from them in order to do better work.
Here’s an example. Recently, I worked with an account director who was charged with renewing a 10-year relationship with a client. I reviewed the probing questions he was going to ask. If questions could be a flavor, these would all be vanilla!
“What can we do for you here?”
“Where would you need help with this?”
“What do you want us to do here?”
So, I said to him, “Where are the questions that ask your client what they are worried about? Where is their competition clobbering them? Where are they vulnerable?” His answer was:
“On no…I couldn’t ask that. That’s too direct and he might not like it.”
In other words, it wouldn’t be nice. But if you aren’t getting information that can get your team working on key issues that affect your client’s future, how can you make recommendations that matter? You can’t, and that’s not good for anyone.
Ask Questions that Matter
So, if you aren’t deferring to your client, how should you act? I tell my clients to act like you are the sole person in charge of increasing their clients’ sales by year’s end. You’re it. You’re the only one. And, your client is the person who has all the information you need in order to help you achieve your goals. Now, if you take this on, do you think you might ask a better question than, “How can I help you?”
Stop being nice, start being commercial. What I mean is that you have to get into the tough business issues that are of great concern to your client, even if your client doesn’t want to reveal them at first. I have worked with a luxury car brand over the past few years. After doing my research on their market, I asked a pointed question that opened my client up and let me know about his greatest concerns. The questions was:
“How worried are you about your aging customer base while the younger generation seems less interested in things versus experiences?”
Wow…did that start us down a different path. In fact, finding 30-somethings who could be convinced to purchase their first luxury car and become a brand loyalist was the issue that kept him awake at night. Did he resent the question, since it pointed to a possible company weakness? No, he didn’t…because it was already on his mind. I just needed to probe to get it out in the open. It was conversations like this, and my recommendations based on them, that has kept this company as a client for many years. Which leads me to…
Discover, Create and Charge
One of the “nice” things many consultants do is either not charge enough for their service or they “over deliver,” providing more service than contracted. Why? Mostly because they fear losing the business and want to demonstrate they are a valued partner. That’s not a strong position and it leads to the expectation of more work, less income.
What I recommend is a three-step process:
- First, you must discover what their next problem is before it becomes unfixable. That comes from the probing discussed above. And the problem will always be a commercial one that has a solution.
- Next, you must create solutions based on your expertise and that of your team. Remember, that’s what you bring to the table. Use the swagger that you’ve earned by being good at what you do and having gotten prior results for clients so that you can confidently deliver solutions you believe will work. That’s your value.
- And lastly, charge them for it! Asking for the contract, the renewal, the money…those are not bad things. If they balk at this stage, it’s not about the money. It’s that you haven’t established their trust and thus, they aren’t realizing what your value is. Figure out where you went wrong, fix it, and ask again.
I’ll leave you with advice from a very unlikely source, the movie “Road House.” In it, the bar manager played by Patrick Swayze advises his staff, “I want you to be nice…until it’s time to not be nice.”
It’s hard for some people to get past being nice. What’s your challenge in this regard? Share it below. – SG