If You Don’t Want to Walk, I Can’t Make You Run

For the first time ever, I got fired by a client last year. Well, I am not naïve enough to think they were the first ones to be dissatisfied with my service, that other “former” clients were not happy with me either, but never before a client had told me to piss off. The thing is I was even over-delivering.

Although we had agreed that I would be present for about 6 sessions, and then be on standby mode, I got all involved with them, and did 15 sessions by the time the axe fell in mid-project. I was giving them way more than what they had required, all the tricks in my sleeve, stuff that took me 10 years to figure out, so that they could be a great player in their market within a year (they wanted to launch new digital analytics services). They decided to plow the field, sow the seeds, but then left the farm while complaining they hadn’t harvest anything. I never knew why, they never honestly told me what didn’t work.

There you have it: a consultant who’s certain he’s not only doing what needs to be done, but bringing way more to the table, and a client who thinks the consultant is not delivering. What you end up with is one clueless guy on one side, one passive aggressive team on the other. Both sides obviously share responsibility for the problem here, but let’s start first with the one that is rarely discussed, the client’s that is.

In any consulting engagement, there’s a stage where actions and scope are defined. Clearly, no project will start without both parties agreeing that their vision coincide. However, clients do still bear responsibility to manifest any doubts or disagreement regarding how things are going. It is very possible that the consultant’s delivery appears off the mark of the client’s expectations. This is often due to lack of awareness of how things need to be done; some project stages can seem to drag, while impatience builds. One key reason is that not every single action of a consulting engagement will be detailed in a proposal. We are not building airplanes, in which the 30,000 or so parts are clearly list, and how they fit together extremely well established.

What we do is much fuzzier; we deal with human circumstances a lot. Consulting is half expertise, half dealing with an organization’s people and politics. Things come up, situations get exposed through new light, priorities shift, unexpected problems and weaknesses suddenly reveal themselves forcing adjustment, etc. Add to this that project management styles can vary widely, contrary to building methods and you can imagine how much confusion can seep in.

The consultant’s responsibility, on the other hand, is certainly not limited to delivering on promises. He/she must ensure that the client’s team is fully onboard, and check regularly. He/she also must always explain why we are doing so and so, where we are, why it is necessary to take this particular path that seems a detour to get to the destination.

Efficient communication is thus at the heart of all this. And this is exactly where I failed in the example mentioned above. I got complacent, persuaded that I was bringing way more than what was initially asked, while the client was probably wondering why they were seeing me so often with no end in sight. This had nothing to do with expertise, and everything with misunderstanding. Both sides were compromising the project by not communicating enough.

Both sides were responsible for the failure.

In retrospect, I can’t believe I made such a basic mistake, even after 15 years in the consulting business, blinded by my own enthusiasm. I can’t believe they didn’t say anything either, and axed me once it was too late to explain what should have been explained all along. Naturally, beyond the fact that I strongly believe clients are also responsible for giving regular feedbacks, I think the ultimate responsibility belongs to consultants. We are the ones who are supposed to read situations.

Obviously, with internal consultants, i.e. analysts working for an organization as employees, the risks are fewer since the “clients” are usually bosses who will manifest dissatisfaction. However, the risks still exist that those internal clients will not clearly see the big picture, and wonder why people are wasting time and effort on trivial things. Here too communication is of the essence.

Months after the fact, I am still frustrated that they probably don’t think much of what I did. Lesson learned. If you ever hire me, don’t be annoyed by my constant explaining, repeating, and explaining some more.

You’ve been clearly warned.