It’s a retail adage that the customer is always right, but consultants know that customers requiring IT services may not always be right. It takes good listening skills and a lot of diplomacy to convince a customer that you have a better solution to their problems. Let’s look at what to do when the customer isn’t right.

Understanding first

Dale Carnegie said, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” The first step when you’ve determined that a customer is wrong is to make sure that you really understand what the customer is trying to say. You need to know exactly what they believe and perhaps even when they went wrong in their thinking.

Sometimes, after we hear something that’s incorrect or we believe is incorrect, we quit listening to the other person. Fighting this natural tendency takes practice and patience. When I find myself doing it, I remind myself that helping customers to understand their error (or my error) requires that I understand the other person’s point of view. In probably 50 percent of the cases, I find that my initial assessment of what they were saying was incorrect.

If you want to learn more about what someone is saying, you can ask questions like these:

  • I don’t think I understand. Can you say that again?
  • Can you give me an example?
  • Do you mean x ? (Repeat what you think you heard.)

Avoid questions that contain the word “why” — it makes people defensive. After all, you’re questioning their reasoning.

Teach not preach

What happens if you go over the details, fully understand the other person, and they’re still wrong? The answer is, of course, to try to help them understand the right answer. However, look out for two things when helping someone understand the error of his ways.

First, make sure the person is indeed wrong — or be prepared for an open discussion as to what is or isn’t right. It’s sometimes difficult to tell what the right answer is. It’s important to leave open the possibility that you’re wrong.

Second, in most cases the disagreement is about a fact, impression, or perspective that the person has. It’s not about who the person, that person’s value to the company, or a reflection of that person’s character. When speaking with the customer, purge the word “you” from your vocabulary. This isn’t an attack, and you don’t want it to be perceived as one.

The trick, if there is such a thing, is in teaching the customer. It isn’t about preaching to them about how they’re wrong. The difference between teaching and preaching is very subtle.

Teaching is helping someone to understand. Preaching is telling someone how the world is. The difference in the mind of the recipient is that preaching is you being superior, and teaching is you helping them.

When you teach someone, you make room for their exploration. You provide directed guidance to lead them down a path, but you don’t define the path so narrowly that they can’t find their own way. In most cases in business, it’s the result that’s important. It’s not necessarily important that the person reach the same point via the same road.

Teaching is about developing a relationship and a connection where the person feels safe to learn.

Let them come to their own conclusions

A “wrong answer” is typically found as a fundamental difference in perspective or as a result of some lower-level assumption that doesn’t hold true. When you were trying to understand the other person’s perspective, you may have exposed some of these lower-level assumptions.

Rather than jumping to the outcome — the discussion point where you and the customer disagree — move back to the root assumptions or perceptions that the customer has and try to shift their understanding so that they can reform their own conclusions about the discussion point.

The keys here are to lead customers to the answer without holding the lead rope so tightly that they realize they’re being led (or dragged) down a path. One way to do this is to consciously slow down your pace. Because you already know the answers that you’re going for, you’ll more than likely be operating at a faster pace than your customer. By slowing down, you’ll give them the time they need to reach their own conclusions.

Think it through, give them time to stew

You’ve learned what the customer believes to be true, including the assumptions and perspectives that led up to that. You’ve tried teaching them the pieces of the puzzle that they’re missing. You’ve even tried leading them down the path to the conclusions that you want them to have. But they still haven’t bought into what you believe to be the right answer.

The right approach may be to give them some time to mull it over. Some people need time to process the information they receive. They may be incapable of immediately accepting a new point of view on a subject. This may be particularly true if you’ve managed to change one of their basic understandings.

If you attempt to force a person who needs to mull things over into a snap decision or a new way of thinking, the results will most likely be disastrous. They will feel bullied into a decision or conclusion and may never fully accept it.

Give in

Perhaps one of the hardest parts of being a consultant is giving in. If you’ve tried everything you can think of to help a customer understand your perspective on an issue and they still don’t agree with you, it’s time to give in. Giving in doesn’t mean you must accept the customer’s answer as being right; it does mean that you have to give up the battle over what is right.

When you give in, the options are fairly simple. You can proceed as if the customer is right, doing whatever it is that their beliefs would suggest should be done, or you can walk away from the project, the customer, or both. Proceeding as if the customer is right is generally the course of action in a consulting arrangement since losing a customer is rarely the best option. However, there are cases in which the difference of opinion can make it such that you believe there isn’t a way to succeed with the client and walking away is the least painful option. Proceeding with the client and failing isn’t a desired outcome. Of course, rarely are the disagreements so large that choosing the customer’s path will lead to failure. More often, it is just a less desirable approach.

You won’t be able to agree with everyone all the time — and you shouldn’t. However, learning how to listen to your customers, teaching them the pieces of the puzzle they are missing, and letting them reach their own conclusions will go a long way toward helping your customers understand your way of thinking — or help you understand theirs.