Working With Your Client’s People
post # 357 — April 17, 2007 — a Client Relations post
Hereâ€™s a reader question based on THE TRUSTED ADVISOR:
â€œA 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.
â€œI 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.
â€œAfter 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?â€
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, itâ€™s not surprising that you are not treated as the subordinatesâ€™ trusted advisor, because you are not. You are managementâ€™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 canâ€™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 whatâ€™s good for them personally. They may never say it out loud, but thatâ€™s what they are thinking — always.
Thereâ€™s even an acronym for it: WIIFM? (Whatâ€™s in it for me?)
You describe the store managersâ€™ attitudes as â€œcomplacencyâ€ and â€œindifferenceâ€ but Iâ€™ll bet dollars to donuts that what was really going through their heads wasnâ€™t that neutral.
So, whatâ€™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 â€œyesâ€, 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, youâ€™ve got to convince me youâ€™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. Iâ€™d stop talking about â€œhow much the marketplace can change from shifts in customers’ tastes and from new competition.â€
If the answer is â€œnoâ€, the proposed changes are not in the subordinateâ€™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.) Letâ€™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 itâ€™s absolutely typical in consulting. Management always wants consultants to â€œgo persuade my people to do X.â€ Thatâ€™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?