It’s Your Duty To Tell Your Clients When They’re Doing It All Wrong
Navigating the uncomfortable problem of raising obvious problems when selling advice to companies
As I’m fast finding out, along the rocky road to making a career as a full-time self-employed marketing consultant there are a lot of bumps to transverse.
There’s firstly the whole business of finding — and maintaining — enough clients to make a living from. That calls for a whole skillset of its own in marketing, sales, and lead generation (lots of my thoughts on all those topics below).
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There’s what you actually get paid by those clients to do — in my case provide advice about, and execute on, marketing communications strategies. Yours might be coding or managing sales.
Finally, there’s the whole issue of navigating internal politics. Because instead of having one “boss” you might find that you now interface with up to half a dozen organizations. And you never know quite what to say when:
There’s A Big Fat Elephant In The Room But Your Client Doesn’t See It
Those who only know me from my evolution in marketing might be surprised to discover that my undergraduate degree (yes, I passed!) is actually in law. I earned it from University College Cork (UCC) in Ireland which has a quadrangle that looks vaguely like something out of a Harry Potter movie.
My college years are a strange blur of starting a news website (a lot of fun!), learning a lot about beer (also fun!), and picking up random tidbits about the Irish legal system (less consistently fun).
One of the nuggets that remains lodged in my brain all these years later is the concept of fiduciary duty.
I wasn’t a particularly diligent law student — probably because I was never that interested in studying it to begin with (another day’s story) — but all the definitions lurking around the internet make a lot of sense to me. Investopedia’s one goes like this:
A fiduciary duty exists in law when a person or entity places trust, confidence, and reliance on another to exercise discretion or expertise in acting on behalf of the client. The fiduciary must knowingly accept that trust and confidence.
The Problem With Being A Sunny Day Consultant
Whether you want to refer to it as your legal duty or more simply as “you should do whatever is in the best interests of your client” there’s going to come a time when you begin working with clients who don’t really know what they’re doing or who take decisions that you know, in your gut, to be horribly misguided.
Depending on how much experience you’ve accrued and how much your client knows about what you do that differential could begin to look very large indeed.
A common symptom of this is observing teams focusing inordinate time and energy on unimportant things while neglecting something fairly massive that’s immediately capturing the wrong kind of attention from sales prospects.
Perhaps it’s an obvious missing feature — or compliance certification — that the founder has deemed unimportant but which every prospect is puzzled, and frustrated, to find missing.
The founder mightn’t want to hear that it’s a deal breaker — and be stymieing efforts by product to address it. But that might be why all the leads are falling through even though the collateral being used to sell the solution are great.
In the marketing domain, I’ve commonly seen early stage startups who are so fixated on getting buzzwords across that nobody ends up listening to what they have to say because — to the skeptical and weary of the world like me — it just all ends up sounding like a crock of rubbish.
Others haven’t really done the hard work of figuring out what really makes them unique and keep ticking over and therefore it’s not getting across to prospective customers (because the founders themselves aren’t clear on it). Those too busy “doing” — or fighting fires, or shifting priorities around — tend to fall into the trap of forever deferring the big strategy conversation.
Others again limit their market research to asking around in the company. Sticking one’s head out into the market periodically is essential to understand how objective users perceive your solution against that of your competitors. Throwaway tidbits gleaned from an hour’s conversation could make or break a messaging strategy. And all for the price of lunch.
The elephant in the room might alternatively be that your product is broken — or addresses a problem that nobody really cares about or cares about enough to fix (yes, these concerns should be addressed at the feasibility testing phase but … there was market research done at some point, right?!)
Or it might be that that website you’re building — the same one that has seen the input of four expensive consultants and been through as many iterations — is actually likely totally ineffective because it doesn’t actually explain in intelligible terms what you do. Yes, in spite of the money that you’ve already pored into it. Yes, in spite of the eyeballs that have looked over it.
You’ll likely feel crazy for feeling the urge to point out that something obvious is amiss. In a sense this is a form of gaslighting: you have to work up the courage to air your sole voice versus an often unspoken consensus that this mustn't be a big problem. But that sense of trepidation is often the best clue that you have something really unique and important to contribute to the internal discussion.
Pointing out that really simple things are wrong with how your client is approaching an area of their business isn’t something that comes naturally to me. And of course: anybody that wants to play this card should come with solutions ready prepared in the other hand.
The consultant: in-house dynamic creates a sort of awkward power imbalance from the get-go that is only compounded when the outsider starts making a ruckus almost the moment they step in the door.
Is that advisable? Possibly not depending on what kind of internal politics you’re facing. But if you want to feel a sense of satisfaction in your work, you’re going to have to air your views on what’s not working sooner or later.
Yes, you might parachute into a project with excited new colleagues only to find that you have to point out a litany of basic mistakes from the get-go. But sometimes, that’s just what you have to do. Simply because it’s your professional and moral responsibility to do so.
Will your clients listen? Sometimes they will, sometimes they won’t. I never expect all of my input to be listened to. But if none of it is taken seriously by people that don’t have experience in what they’ve hired me to do … inevitably the frustration and professional slight from not being valued chips away at self-esteem. When that process gnaws on for long enough, an exit is the inevitable consequence.
I can conjure more reasons why — if you’re in the business of selling knowledge — you simply have to put the company’s interests first even if doing so might risk rattling some internal bridges.
One of those — this one I know well from writing projects — is that you want the ultimate result of your engagement to reflect well upon yourself and your reputation which is worth more than any one project. A piece that got butchered is likely one that I’m not going to put in my portfolio. And that non-existent portfolio piece isn’t going to help me sell my services to future clients.
Or perhaps you want to help make a sales proposal great because you want the company to win the bid so that they can keep paying your salary.
Ultimately, the reason that moves me is the moral one. But I can find self-serving reasons why being the company contrarian can play to my advantage if I really want to.
Pointing out when obvious things are wrong with how your client is doing business can be a tricky move to pull off.
It can shake up blossoming relations. Those newer to the game, like me, tend to loose sleep at night worrying about summary ejection from projects. I don’t doubt that it can happen and that removing the bearer of bad news might be an easier “fix” than actually sitting down to resolve the problem itself.
But I believe that it’s a skill that everybody who sells their knowledge to companies — whether as a consultant or as a salaried employee — is going to have to eventually develop.
The alternative is being another overpriced yes-man or yes-woman. A sunny day consultant. And if you’ve found something that’s glaringly amiss, there’s a good chance your client has already had enough of those.