The late and very lamented satirist Willie Rushton once suggested that the prerequisite for suggesting that the lady in your life may not be entirely correct was a very stiff drink. At this point I hasten to reassure my fellow Enterprise Britain blogger Colin Perriss that I never need alcohol to suggest to my wife that she is mistaken, mainly on the grounds that she never is. However for most consultants it does take a certain amount of courage, Dutch or otherwise, to tell a client, the person who let’s face it is paying your bill, that they are er ever so slightly er wrong.
In an ever changing world, where all the old certainties have long gone, and that most businesses are still struggling to come to terms with, it is not easy to tell somebody, who may have done very well in the past that they are no longer doing what is necessary to be successful in the future. There is a particular danger in owner managed firms that any such criticism will be seen as a personal attack.
However it has to be done. When you have been taken on board to add value the worst thing you can do is offer tea and sympathy. You have to be bold and point out where things are going wrong and where they can be changed and improved. That does not mean you go in with all guns blazing. Not everything is bad. Tact and discretion can be just as effective as bluntness. It is OK to call a spade an earth moving implement if it gets the job done. Encouragement is part of the process. Evidence to back up your proposed solution is also necessary.
A recent example of this was an owner managed business that had previously been very successful purely by word of mouth referral. In the good times the phone had just rung and orders had flooded in. It had never actually had to go out and sell. However this was no longer the case. Competing products had provided a viable alternative and customers were ebbing away. There was still a high value niche market to go for but that required a change of approach. A sales function had to be developed. Employees had to be remotivated and refocused. But the owners did not seem to want to change their approach and found it difficult to engage with key members of staff. It took a mixture of persuasive logic and tough talking, coupled with hard work alongside the senior management team to change things around and get the business working on the changes required.
It was not a pleasant situation and one that could have meant a rapid termination of the engagement. However there comes a time when you have to take that risk. Clients may well be paying your bills but they are paying for your knowledge, experience and expertise not your subservience. There are times when the customer is not always right…..