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I once had a meeting with a struggling manufacturer. We spent over an hour discussing his operations, the market conditions and the general health of the company. I had some ideas for both quick hits and longer term investments that the owner agreed with, no, was enthusiastic about.  He agreed that I would not only pay for my services, but make him additional operating profit and give him breathing room.

Yet, when I asked for the deal, the owner said he needed to think about it. When I reminded him that even he thought going forward was a good idea, he smiled and said, “I have twenty places for a dollar, I just can’t make it twenty-one.”

I could have probably closed this deal, but I don’t believe in pressuring people into what will be a very close relationship. Too much of what we do as consultants involves learning intimate things about people’s businesses and lives. There has to be implicit trust.  I left shaking my head.

If your arm was broken and you believed the doctor could fix you, you’d have your arm set, regardless of the cost.  If you believe that a consultant can both earn their keep and increase your profits, logic would dictate you would start that work. Not proceeding doesn’t make sense. Something else is at work.

In thinking back on the clients that had difficulty committing, some patterns emerged. I know that these are true because we have eventually converted resistant prospects and learned what held them back as well as applied some judgments regarding the facts surrounding the ones we didn’t:

  1. Fear of Failure: Sometimes clients can’t image themselves acting on your advice or see themselves succeeding.
  2. Fear of Change: Change, even if it means more profit, also will mean that roles and authority will shift. Many people have invested years to create the job they have and don’t take kindly to getting boundaries redrawn.
  3. Believing they ‘should’ know: If I’m general manager, I should know the best way to run my company, because I am the general manager. People will push off assistance because they believe that they should know, based on the experience of running one company, what best practices are for their industry.
  4. Rigid Borderlines: If a business has grown up around its founders or early employees, its operation depends on these people. As a result there are multiple ways of things getting done. Rigid boundaries exist between operational areas that are jealously protected.  These businesses are in constant turmoil.
  5. Burn Out: Sometimes prospects have struggled so long with their problems they’ve lost hope. If a snake oil consultant has gotten there before you, it’s even worse. It’s not that they don’t believe you: They don’t believe anybody.
  6. Interpersonal Warfare: This is a staple of family owned businesses where most of the family members, along with extended family and friends, have separated into hostile camps and actively sabotage each other. Refer to a mental health professional.
  7. Criminal or Unethical Behavior: Occasionally a prospect will resist providing basic information about the business. Often information will come out in bits and will conflict with what you were told before. This is a good indicator that the prospect is at least unethical. Time to go.
  8. People Don’t Want To Appear To Be Wrong: Accepting help is an admission of being wrong in many people’s minds. The reasons we feel this way are numerous.  As a consultant, you must be aware that your competence can be perceived as a threat.

The consultant’s dilemma is how to look competent and knowledgeable without antagonizing the very people that they can help.

How do you do that?  Empathy. We’ll talk about that more next time.