client-consultant battlesSome of you know I’m adjunct faculty at Johns Hopkins University. For those who don’t, I am (!), and this is my fourth year teaching a class on “not-for-profits in the digital age.”

Not so long ago, one of them asked me a question that I thought would make for a good blog post:

How do you avoid stepping on the toes of your client, so that they don’t think you’re trying to show them you’re smarter than they are?

Ah, the client-consultant ego clash. I’ve encountered it, and I imagine you have as well.

The irony is that clients often hire us because they think we’re smarter, or more experienced, than they are, at least in the specific area that they need help in … but then the ego kicks in. And they, or we, feel that they, or we, are always right.

How do we get around this? Here’s what I”ve learned:

1. How you ask the question makes all the difference

Let’s say the client wants to do something you don’t feel is right for this particular project or campaign. It could be anything, focus on a particular social network at the possible detriment of others, or … you fill in the blanks, I bet you can!

I’ve found that instead of saying an outright “no,” asking them “why” can make all the difference.

I try to phrase questions/responses so that they don’t come across as antagonistic. For example, if I say, “That’s a very interesting idea, can you tell me how that will work?”

as opposed to

“That won’t work,”

I come across as acknowledging their opinion and willing to work with them. And there’s no harm in praising them … e.g. “That’s a terrific idea” – after all, a little ego massage rarely hurt anyone.

And particularly if you ask them to think through the actual steps in implementing this, including staffing, logistics, and so on, you’re helping them come back to reality and focus on what can work.

2. Bringing it back to business objectives

Second, try as much as possible to bring the proposed action back to their overall objectives.

If I say, “That’s really interesting, can you show me how that will work to do <whatever they’re trying to do, raise money, etc.>?” then I’m bringing it back to the end results, and what is in the best interests of the organization.

This is also a really good way to help clients who are a little too focused on the nitty gritty of tactics (especially tactics they’re in love with) to take a step back and think strategically. Heck, it helps us take a step back and think strategically.

And rarely will anyone argue with that, especially if they realize (with your help, even if they don’t realize you helped them to do so) that what they’re suggesting just won’t help support the organization from the big picture point of view.

3. Breathe

This could apply in so many situations, but particularly if you have a knee-jerk reaction, take a deep breath.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking a while to think about what they’re suggesting, unless it’s a crisis situation. Personally, I think we can be too quick to respond sometimes, thanks to Blackberries and iPhones.

Give it a while, think about it, and reply to them within one business day. Give a thoughtful response and they will appreciate it.

I’ve also found that giving myself time to breathe, and think the client’s suggestion through, makes me put my own ego aside and think of what is overall in their best interests. Maybe this idea of theirs will work, if I can help them connect the dots.

And then I don’t have to be the bad guy (or girl) … and our egos live to see another day.

That’s what I’ve learned so far. How do you deal with the client-consultant ego clash? Do you have any other tips or ideas to share? Please do!

Image: Dunechaser via Flickr, CC 2.0

Shonali Burke
Founder and publisher of Waxing UnLyrical, Shonali Burke helps purpose-driven brands bring big ideas to life. She teaches at The Johns Hopkins University, has gone back to school herself with the Harvard Business Analytics Program, and is creator/lead instructor at The Social PR Virtuoso® online training hub , where ambitious PR pros learn how to unleash their inner Social PR superheroes. Owned by Lola the Basset Hound, she's mad about ABBA, bacon, cooking, dogs, and Elvis, though not necessarily in that order. Wouldn't you like to be in her kitchen?
Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke

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