Project Management

When to apply the shut up strategy

Before offering clients your unsolicited opinions, you should consider whether holding your tongue might be necessary in order to maintain a good client relationship.

Clients pay us for our input -- that's why we call ourselves consultants. But that doesn't mean clients want our opinions about everything. Knowing when to speak and when to keep silent distinguishes the art of consulting from its imitations.

Obviously, if your client asks for your opinion on any subject, you should provide a response. But don't be afraid to admit your ignorance and offer to research it, rather than fabricating something on the spot.

When you consider offering your unsolicited opinion, ask yourself whether this topic could impact the outcome of the project for which they hired you. If so, then you must speak up, no matter what other objections you face. Otherwise, you're neglecting your duty to your client.

Even if not directly related to your project, if you perceive a potential advantage for your client to embrace, or a disadvantage for them to avoid, then you should bring it to their attention. The more the subject falls into your realm of expertise (or out of your client's), the more this rule applies.

Consider whether your client has already made up their mind on the subject. Unless you can demonstrate a clear risk or opportunity, you have no need to beat that dead horse just to voice your personal preferences.

Don't discount emotional ties to a prior decision. Humans naturally favor their past course of action (choice-supportive bias). They may possess other non-logic-based ties to a particular path, too. These might include feeling aligned with a group, especially the "in crowd." You can spot that by their use of the word "everybody," or its equivalents like "enterprise developers these days." Questioning their decision threatens to separate them from the right-thinking group. The need to stay with the herd runs deep.

Given these considerations, we can easily see that topics such as religion, politics, and sports fail nearly every test. I avoid having these conversations with clients unless I know them well enough to feel certain that we can conduct a friendly, non-threatening discussion that won't strain our relationship. In fact, when you can do that, such dialogues strengthen the bond between you and your client. But if you try to open those subjects too early, they'll likely label you an opinionated jerk.

It gets much more tricky at the edge cases, however. Something like your client's choice of development frameworks can border on religion, yet it can also pack a heavy punch for your project. You need to balance each of the considerations above, and if you decide you should speak up about it, be careful how you approach it. "I can't believe you're using X! Man, you should be on Y!" is equivalent to saying "Whoever decided on X is obviously a biased idiot, or at best negligent in considering your options." That directly threatens the status of said person. It also paints you in bold Y-fanboy colors. Instead, try something less emotional such as, "I think you could benefit from revisiting that decision."

Sometimes, we just need to realize that we live in a sub-optimal world. Constantly revising decisions in order to always make the best choice will result in never getting anything finished. Sometimes you just need to run with what you're given. After all, it's not the system, it's the execution that matters. Other times, taking a step back and changing directions can make all the difference. Knowing which is which is part wisdom, part luck.

About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

8 comments
clcoronios
clcoronios

This applies to all areas of customer service - whether you're consultant or receptionist - IT or equine photographer (yeah, that'd be me). Thanks for a well-written, 'think-about-it' article.

myrtle1893
myrtle1893

good article Chip, i enjoy your posts and hope you continue for a long time. There are two sides to the picture in some instances. As a hiring director, I had to bring in my team of project consultants to discuss why they had bogged down on a project. The answer I was given was that the "local" managers at the site had decided how they wanted something done so the consultants did it that way. My reply was that if I'd wanted status quo, I'd have hired a contractor for a lot less money. I'd hired them as "consultants" and expected their expertise to be inserted into the project. You can't always give the client a "cow pie" for a result just because the client thinks that is what they want.

ih8computers.911
ih8computers.911 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

A little respect goes a long way, whether you are speaking with the janitor or owner of a company will prove that you value them as individuals and as a cohesive group. Everyone has a role(s) to play including us as consultants and I have found the biggest benefit is when I teach. I often hear phrases like ???I don???t know computers???, ???I am not any good at this stuff??? or the opposite ???Well can???t we do this instead of this because my cousin who is in IT at college?????? I respond positively ???C???mon now you can do this, let me show you??? or ???That is great that your cousin is in IT have him give me a call to discuss???. It allows a relationship to be built with which a friendship can grow into lighthearted ribbing about rival sports teams, taking you into their confidence with water cooler gossip or being able to shoot zingers back and forth. At first as consultants we will be questioned, untrusted and second guessed but as long we show a little respect, watch, learn our customer???s business and the people who make it work we will be lifelong partners.

pgit
pgit like.author.displayName 1 Like

well, I will say the most frequent situation I face is the 'everyone thinks they are an expert' phenomenon. I've handled this differently in every case, my response is always formed by the person I'm dealing with, their position in their business and the nature of my relationship with them. If I'm dealing with some low level data entry clerk I won't take time to stroke their ego, I'll just calmly do what I have to do and explain to them what their responsibilities are. If I'm dealing with the owner of a company, or her right-hand man (office manager, personal secretary etc) then I do start with listening to their reason and echoing their ideas back at them, as if considering an option. I'll try to find anything positive to say about it, which usually amounts to complementing them for simply trying to fathom the goings-on in their computers. I'll tell you this much, even if it's a huge stretch, if you can tie in the "fact" that doing it 'my way' will save time and money, they'll go with it in a heartbeat. This is actually one of the harder things to do, because most business people can't be snowed easily when it comes to cost/benefit analysis. It's doubly difficult because usually I'm hit with this in the middle of a consultation, and have to try to come up with the money saving angle "on my feet" as it were. Anyone else out there dealing with large egos that have convinced themselves they know more about IT than you do? Funny story about that... one of my clients was constantly asking any of his customers who had the slightest knowledge of IT what they thought of my work there. He'd show them the various systems I'd set up, and he was never satisfied when they all said it looked pretty solid to them. He was fishing for anything negative, what he'd do with that I couldn't imagine. One day one of his customers let on that he was high level IT at a fortune 500 company. This client of mine roped the poor fellow into going so far as logging into servers, the firewall and checking the efficiency of the network. When he was done one of the first things he told my client is that he obviously spent a ton of money on this set up, and that at his fortune 500 company they don't do anything differently, just on a larger scale. The fact is this client paid 1/10 of what the one serious local IT support company had quoted him. I know all this because after the F500 IT guy told him his system was first class, the client finally came around and just about apologized for having carried such grave doubts about me and my work. He's the type that thinks he's always being burned or ripped off, even by employees, like when he sees them hitting facebook in the middle of the day. (but he doesn't want it blocked, go figure) But as for me, I'm golden now, and I have to believe it's all about the money. If I had charged the same as the 'only show in town' company I doubt he'd be as happy with me. I can see him thinking that for 'all that money' he should be getting more out of me. This all happened pretty recently, I am working up to asking this guy to let me use his offices as an example, like a demo that I can bring prospective clients to in order to have something tangible to talk about. Seeing is believing. Talk is cheap. I don't know if that's a good or a bad idea. I do know this fellow wouldn't mind me walking someone through the place to show off the systems. I'm just not sure if there's some business etiquette or other consideration I'm missing that would make it a bad idea.

susanb
susanb

There is a communication advantage that is beneficial to all parties when you treat them with equal respect. If a "low level data entry clerk" is not given the same respect and consideration as the CEO, you are compromising yourself. Data entry is a valuable position, just like your own. Also a clerk today can advance to other positions. A clerk can also be someone's relative, friend, etc. A positive attitude towards everyone makes great PR. Best wishes

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

I once wrote on a resume that I'm good at recognizing and evaluating possible options, but also at knowing how to stop waffling about it. Hahaha, now I sound like a braggart ;) Knowing when good enough is actually good enough is very useful. I think making the most of the suboptimal is an incredibly valuable skill. Choosing the optimal - and maintaining it - is great, no doubt. Comparing to cooking : If you have skill you can make a five star meal out of high quality raw ingredients. That's nice - on a great day. But if you can make a one-star meal out of whatever happened to be in the fridge, that's great on an average day. Making something edible out of industrial cheese, canned beans and stale coffee - that can really save a bad day.

itadmin
itadmin like.author.displayName 1 Like

Obviously, topics like religion etc. are taboo. It's on IT topics that you'll have problems. Everybody is an expert on computers. The client won't understand why things don't work the way he/she thinks they work. You are just obstinate if you say something should be done in any other way, but the way the client wants. Oh, the joys of a career in IT. In one Tech Republic article I remember reading that satisfaction with IT departments was 18%. Yes, terrible people us. We can't make every whim of the client a reality. But don't tell them that their ideas are stupid. Don't even start laughing when they say something especially stupid, which will be often.

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