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Passion, People and Principles

Working With Your Client’s People

post # 357 — April 17, 2007 — a Client Relations post

Here’s a reader question based on THE TRUSTED ADVISOR:

“A client retained me to help implement a re-branding strategy of their retail stores by coaching store managers in how to make the desired changes. One form of resistance I encountered was people saying words to the effect, “We’re doing fine right now” and “We’re already doing it,” which I interpreted as complacency. I was disappointed in the outcome of influencing those managers to change their approach. Most of them eventually left the company, voluntarily or otherwise. After re-reading your book, I’m wondering whether, had I “named and claimed” their resistance, we may have enjoyed more success and retained their experience. Or perhaps they lacked the flexibility needed for a changing environment.

“I celebrated the small wins in making the changes that I saw their employees adopt – usually despite the managers’ indifference. I put most of my efforts toward asking the managers how I could help them remove the barriers they felt prevented them from embracing the new strategy. Neither of those approaches accomplished much and they usually told me they were too busy to give me and the new strategy their attention.

“After reading your book, I wonder what you think might have happened had I said to them words such as, “With so many satisfied customers and your positive financial results I guess it’s hard to understand why the company is investing in this strategy. Please tell me if I’m out of line here, but I get the feeling that because you’ve been doing a good job that you don’t share the company’s concern about how quickly and how much the marketplace can change from shifts in customers’ tastes and from new competition. Could you help me understand why I’m feeling that way?”


I hope other readers of this blog will join in, because this is a classic consulting situation. The core of the problem is that that you get hired by people at one level (top management) and are asked to work with their subordinates (in this case, the store managers.)

In such (completely normal) situations, it’s not surprising that you are not treated as the subordinates’ trusted advisor, because you are not. You are management’s agent, and automatically treated (at least initially) with skepticism and suspicion.

What you were trying to get the store managers to do may indeed have been a wise move for the company, but you must not believe, for a moment, that, from that fact alone, the store managers would want to go along with it. You can’t assume people will want to do the right thing for the company, even if (or especially even if) they hold middle management positions. Like all human beings, they will first filter any proposed changes through questions about what’s good for them personally. They may never say it out loud, but that’s what they are thinking — always.

There’s even an acronym for it: WIIFM? (What’s in it for me?)

You describe the store managers’ attitudes as “complacency” and “indifference” but I’ll bet dollars to donuts that what was really going through their heads wasn’t that neutral.

So, what’s a trusted advisor to do? Well, obviously, one of the first things you have to figure out is whether or not the proposed changes your (top-level) client wants to make actually are in the personal best interests of the subordinates you are working with.

If the answer to that is “yes”, then your counseling job is to earn the trust of the subordinates and work with them to help them see why the change is (potentially) good for them. (You had better not be faking it, either. If you really want me to buy into your program, you’ve got to convince me you’re trying to help me as well as the company, not just the company.) I would try to get the individual talking about his or her job and what the changes would mean to them personally. I’d stop talking about “how much the marketplace can change from shifts in customers’ tastes and from new competition.”

If the answer is “no”, the proposed changes are not in the subordinate’s interests, then (as might be the case with the example you gave) maybe your job is to help the subordinate understand that, the change is going to come anyway, whether they like it or not, and you want to help them adapt to it. (It sounds like some the store managers could not, or did not.) Let’s hope you can do it in a way that sounds like support, and not a threat!

Yes, this is all tough to do, but it’s absolutely typical in consulting. Management always wants consultants to “go persuade my people to do X.” That’s what being a change agent is all about. And doing it well means being able to be an honest broker, understanding changes from the perspective of all the parties involved.

OK, folks. Time to pitch in. A lot of you who read this blog are consultants. How do you handle situations like this? What do you say?


charles tippett said:

I’m an internal management consultant and i find exactly the same scenario over and over. As i read the situation and david’s subsequent thoughts, I’m thinking: How many times do i have to make this mistake before i’m going to learn to avoid it. Perhaps success comes by degrees, but i really appreciate this analysis of the “management’s agent” scenario.

posted on April 17, 2007

James Cherkoff said:

What a classic! I have just had to deal with an example of this. In this instance, the ‘client’s people’ had very genuine and relevant concerns about the strategy in question. I found that by working carefully to feed these views back into the client’s planning I was seen to be impartial which created a helpful level of trust.

posted on April 17, 2007

Mike DeWitt said:


In your second scenario, in which there’s not much of a WIIFM for the manager, I try to focus on MMFI – Make Me Feel Important.

posted on April 17, 2007

Eelke Pol said:


Your point is clear and I recognize this dilemma completely! It ‘s my experience that the personal interest is one thing. Another important thing is the counter pressure as a result of the feeling of the employees that their attitude and behaviour in the past should be wrong. In fact, they feel being denied! In these situations, I try to link their old behaviour to the old situation and, if possible to some degree, I don’t want to blame their “old” behaviour. That behaviour was a good match with the old situation (remember the STAR-methode: situation, task, action, result). Then I try to let the employee(s) describe the new situation and after that, I ask them: does your “old” behaviour fits with this new situation? In most cases, the answer is “no”. Then, most of the counter pressure is lost!

Eelke Pol, consultant Rijnconsult, The Netherlands

posted on April 17, 2007