Dealing with a mistrustful client

A CIO hires a consultant to examine the feasibility of outsourcing his IT team. When the consultant tries to handle the inevitable bad feelings of the in-house team, he finds that this extreme challenge also raises ethical questions.


As consultants, we dream of meeting clients who really want us to be there. The team will welcome us with open arms, yearning for our sage wisdom to solve their deepest problems. Unfortunately, reality usually looks more like a hostile invasion. Team members reluctantly assist us in executing jobs that they consider of dubious value; or worse, they actively impede our progress under the belief that we are trying to take their jobs. One particularly unpleasant encounter with this behavior forced me to think about its origins in the way that we do business.

My mission involved a quick "advise and consult" for a new client. The CIO asked my company to provide an expert opinion about a new operation plan presented by his team. On the face of it, the plan looked reasonably sound. I told the CIO as much during our first phone conversation. He asked me to come in anyway to clarify a few matters that remained open to discussion.

Breaking with tradition, I contacted the team before my arrival with a number of questions about the plan. Usually, I avoid blind e-mail to people, but the project looked to be in order. The questions were mostly clarification requests, having more to do with inconsistent editing than flawed thinking.

A week later, I arrived for my first meetings with the team. The meetings went rather poorly. However, compared with how the final meeting turned out, the first ones were a marvel of communications. If they did not trust me when I arrived, they liked me even less when I finished. I know (from other sources) that my recommendations and even praise for their work ended up in the circular file.

After giving things a month to cool down, I got up the courage to give the client's senior network designer a call.

What he said

Since I was no longer in a position to judge him, the senior engineer opened up a bit. It turned out that, unbeknownst to me, my project's primary goal was to justify the replacement of his organization with an outside, third-party contractor. Worse, I was the third consultant of six that would eventually thunder through the environment. Five consultants failed to find meaningful problems; the sixth reported that the team was extremely uncooperative and probably lacked a strong team leader.

After thanking him for his frankness, I sat down to examine the engagement from a new perspective. Although we often talk about being change agents in our environments, I had not considered exactly what that change might mean and how it could affect the trust that my clients placed in me.

The first issue, and probably the most important, lay in the misdirection from my client at the beginning of the engagement. Rather than assuming that the CIO spoke for the organization, I should have delved deeper. An e-mail to my client counterpart asking for a frank opinion about the assessment would have avoided the situation entirely -- or at least, it would have presented me with the opportunity to establish a less judgmental tone early in the engagement.

The second issue, and probably the most embarrassing to me, lay in my initial approach. I knew better than to send a blind e-mail to someone. E-mail, by its nature, exists as a blended oral/written medium that transmits very little information about the sender's intent. Unfortunately, because it uses the same structures as oral communication, the reader can easily assume intents never dreamed of by the author. In this case, by phrasing the e-mail as a set of questions, I successfully established myself as a judgmental consultant. Once that initial impression settled in, nothing I could do over the week could change it. The client team believed that I was there to judge them. In their minds, that meant that they needed to obscure as much as possible, so that I would not be able to deliver a damning report.

The third issue revolved around the fact that the team and the CIO engaged in a covert conflict. As an agent for the CIO, I was an agent in that conflict whether I wanted to be or not. My traditional, somewhat naive, approach of "I'm here to help" begged the question: Who was I there to help? The CIO? The IT team? In my original approach to the consult, I assumed that I was there to simply judge the success or failure of a specific project. In reality, as an agent of the conflict, I was there to provide ammunition for the CIO. Failing to do so, I failed to win a friend on either side of the conflict.

Finally, I realized that my failure to approach this engagement properly made it difficult for my company to win further support. "Advise and consult" engagements are often loss leaders for a company. We send someone in to wow the client and discover what the client needs. However, by failing to provide the CIO with what he wanted, I failed in my sales mission.

This situation raises a sticky ethical issue: What was my responsibility as a consultant? Or to be more precise, were my responsibilities as a consultant, an agent in the CIO/team conflict, and an employee at odds with one another?

Fast forward

Three months later, another "advise and consult" request came across my desk. Mindful of the lessons of my most recent failed attempt, I called the sales rep. We talked for an hour, and he agreed to set up phone interviews with some of the client team.

After those interviews, it became obvious to me that I was about to walk into the same situation. Because I had not yet (and still have not) resolved the ethical conflict, I asked one of my peers to take the challenge. After I explained the situation to him, he agreed. As with my previous assignment, he found little technically wrong, but he did ferret out some team leadership and project methodology issues that indicated sloppy work.

Striking an ethical balance

Seven years later the fundamental questions raised by my experiences still haunt me. Although I have learned a hundred techniques for gaining trust, there are times when I do not deserve it. How do we reconcile the needs of our clients with those of our customers and with our own need to act as ethically responsible professionals? This is a question that consultants need to consider each time they embark on a new assignment.

alan williams
alan williams

I think that the main point here is communication. You really need the cooperation of the group to do your job an explaining what you are asked to do and asking what their perceptions of why you are there, give you the basis to continue/refuse/talk to the client. In this case you need to go back to the client and state the teams perceptions, then decide whether to continue or just bill for the time taken and bow out.


A very thoughtful, enlightening post. I have found myself in positions like this, although not in IT consulting. This helps me to be more observant and really take a deeper look at what I am being asked to do, before accepting. A client (spelled: t r o u b l e) like this is just looking to make the consultant be the bad guy and neatly extricate themselves with: "Well, the consultant said...". If one can learn prior to accepting the commission whether there actually is an indecision that needs outside perspective or that their mind really is already made up and they want a scapegoat, it will go a long way in keeping one's reputation and peace of mind intact.


I think the issue for yourself is that you are effectively wishing to please incompatible people. The conflict is not within yourself but within the company that contracted you. You cannot resolve the ethical issue in your own mind because it is beyond your remedy.


I usually steer clear of this type of client. My job is not to make him my friends and help him with his issues. I usually add at least 10% to my estimate if I am forced to deal with this type of client.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

A very good post, Shannon. As you stated, the biggest problem you had was being brought in under false pretenses. You can never be successful if you don't know why you're there. If you had known your CIO's intent, would you have taken the engagement? I would usually refuse any engagement that requires me to work with a hostile team. But if you did accept it, then you are beholden to the person who hired you to do what they are asking of you. OTOH, if all they want is your stamp of approval for what they intend to do anyway, then your best service to them is to give an honest answer no matter whether they like it or not.


I welcome your regard, warmth and empathy for the people in technology, something at time lacking in IT professionals. Your question is a difficult question to wrestle with and at times probably feels near impossible to balance. I think that striking a balance between providing a consistent quality and level of service to your clients while being empathy is the best you can do. It?s kind of like seeing the drug addict asking for change by giving in to the empathy and giving him/her money you really aid and enable his/her addiction crippling them even further. Rather than helping in other means that allows the individual to acknowledge and bear the responsibility and at time pain of recovery. You should never view your service as unethical if it causes faults and issues to surface at the client site that is outside your jurisdiction. If the quality of work can be completed and or improved at the site then you actually assist the team/group to hopefully aspire to another level indifferent to the politics at that site. I think each individual or group makes or breaks themselves and others really can?t affect that with out solid reason and or evidence. If the client site is that hostile to the group perhaps it would be better for the group to leave obviously better than staying at a location where you are gunned at all day (I?ve been there). Hopefully you don't lose any sleep over it as ultimately in my humble opinion every person's fate is in the hands of the God and despite our effort or lack of effort to be ethical ultimately we can't be savior to the whole world or the employees and environments of our clients we only do what we are paid to do our due diligence with just that in mind hopefully with a pure heart and the right motives. Take care, Mike

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