Consulting’s dirty little secret; And how to overcome it

Consulting's dirty little secret and how to overcome it.

Here it is: You might not like what they tell you.

And that often goes for consulting or business advice as well as for legal advice. The latter is often even harder to accept than the former. That’s because it’s often based on a law, regulation or rule that makes it harder to refute.

Maybe this is not much of a secret. Advice givers always risk the possibility that the advice is not well received. That doesn’t mean it’s not good advice, though. On the contrary, poorly received advice is often the advice that companies and executives most need to hear.

Let’s avoid the uncomfortable feeling that goes with unwelcome advice or counsel. Here are three tips for the consultant on how to make sure that unwelcome advice is better received. Plus, three tips for the company or executives for how to best handle advice you may not wish to hear.

CONSULTANT TIP #1: Always have back-up.

No matter how smart you are. Or how much experience you have. No matter how much the client is paying for your advice and counsel. Or how obvious the recommendation seems. ALWAYS reference sources that reinforce your recommendation. Do not rely solely on your own experience or expertise.

The most common objections after an unpopular suggestion or plan are predictable. “Who else is doing this?” “Who else recommends this approach?” Or “What other industry is doing that as well?”

For all presentations look beyond your own background and experience and find other sources that reinforce your position. This can be easier for attorneys (and more frustrating for clients) because there is often legal authority requiring a certain action. As a consultant, you need to look for these same kinds of resources. And you have to be prepared to present and discuss those sources with your client.

Add this statement to your presentation: “We looked for others who are doing this or have tried a similar approach and this is what we found…”

CONSULTANT TIP #2: Provide alternatives and be flexible.

My way or the highway is almost always a losing proposition. Nobody wants to hear it or accept it. For consulting advice that includes singular recommendations for which there are no practical alternatives or choices.

As a consultant you may truly believe that only one GOOD method exists to address a given issue or opportunity. To sell that method, you must review at least 2 or 3 other alternatives and provide the pros and cons of each approach. Your favored approach may still be the best approach based on the analysis of all of the presented options. But you must be prepared to entertain objections or questions from the client.

Here’s the awful truth for consultants: You don’t know what you don’t know. You probably asked specific questions to get data for your recommendations. And you still may not have gotten the answer(s) you needed. That’s okay. Flexibility will improve the client’s perception of you as a consultant. It can also increase the likelihood of additional projects and referrals!

CONSULTANT TIP #3: Lead with the expected result.

Your client’s attainment of tangible value from your services is absolutely the only thing that matters.

So start with the value proposition in any recommendation that you make.

Don’t say, “This approach will be the most efficient and effective way of streamlining order processing for XYZ Corp.”

Say, “XYZ Corp can achieve time savings of up to 10 hours per week per resource and avoid materials expenditures of $XX,XXX by ….[fill in the blank with your amazing approach to handling XYZ’s problem].”

If bad news is couched in terms of tangible results, even the worst news is more palatable. Think, “Hey, Mr. CEO, your company is currently wasting tons of money and time on order processing. But that means you can save your company $$$$$. I’m here to tell you how.”

EXECUTIVE TIP #1: Keep an open mind.

Your consultant may still not follow the 3 Consulting Tips outlined above. They might bring suggestions that totally irritate you and your team. But you MUST keep an open mind. Even in the midst of PowerPoint hell there might be a gold nugget that makes the investment worth it.

The consultant may be oblivious to the nugget. As long as you stay focused and notice it, you will be able to capitalize on it.

Avoid rushing to judgment. Even if the beginning of the presentation is methodology and data review fluff, pay attention. Look for gold nugget hints within the consultant’s presented conclusions.

Remember you can also ask the consultant to skip ahead if you don’t see value in one of their slides. You can always backtrack or dig in when you find that nugget that makes you want to know more.

EXECUTIVE TIP #2: Ask questions and seek to understand.

Following closely from Tip #1 is to remember to dig in. You paid for this work and you paid for the material that is in this presentation. Don’t let anything stop you from asking probing questions to obtain your expected value.

If you find a nugget of insight, dig in. Ask questions and force the consultant to report everything they know and admit everything they didn’t dig deep enough into. Understand what the consultant has already identified as well as what you still need to know about that value nugget.

Don’t lose sight of the fact that the answer you need might be just below the surface.

EXECUTIVE TIP #3: Stay focused on the goal.

You had a goal in mind when you signed on for the consulting project. Even if you find yourself getting agitated with seemingly non-valuable conclusions, you must not give up and don’t lose sight of the goal.

Keep an open mind and ask questions until the consultant either catches on or agrees that they need to dig some more. Don’t allow yourself or your team to get frustrated.

If, at the end of the presentation, you still don’t feel like you’ve achieved your goal, ask for the project materials and notes. Then, assign a member of your team to review through them. See if the nugget exists in the materials and go from there.

You may still not have what you need after you’ve exhausted all of these steps. At that point, you need to sit down with the consultant. Talk them through what the goal of the project was and still is. Inform them specifically how their presentation failed to achieve your goal for the project. Put it on them to tell you how they are going to make it right.


Consulting engagements have to focus on value. To the extent that a consultant understands the goals of the client and presents workable options or guides the client with plans for achieving those goals, the engagement will be a success and the dirty little secret won’t be an issue.

If you’re a consultant, remember to focus on the goals, bring support for your conclusions and recommendations, be flexible and focus on the results.

If you’re the executive that is getting news from your consultant that you didn’t really want, keep focused on the goal, ask questions and dig for the gold that may be just under the surface. And if all else fails, reset the relationship with an even greater focus on the expected outcomes.

Happy consulting!

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