In consulting, as with life, we rarely stumble across the “perfect” answer. Instead, we face many choices with varying degrees of desirability. Yet one of the most common mistakes we make is to present our clients with only one option. In turn, they find themselves forced into a position from which they must react rather than make logical decisions. I made this mistake myself dozens of times before someone finally took me aside to point out the error of my ways.

The fateful event occurred early in my career as an engineer. I worked as a field engineer, building servers and answering service calls on one of my company’s larger standing projects. One day, after a particularly trying set of calls, I arrived for what I hoped would be my final task. Unfortunately, it blew up in my face. When dawn finally came, I found myself surrounded by heaps of powered-on but functionally useless hardware.

The client’s technical lead came in around 6 A.M. He looked around, then shook his head. “So,” he said, “what can we do about this?” I looked up from the scattered guts of several servers. “I’d say we will have to replace three of these.” I held up a burnt-out motherboard. “Oh, and you need a new air-conditioner. It was over 100 degrees in here when I walked in.” He went white, nodded, and walked away.

After I restored nominal services, I went home. Later that day my supervisor called. After I woke up enough to understand the words spewing out of the telephone, it seemed that the client “did not like my attitude.” They also felt that “they were not given enough information to make a decision.” What decision was that exactly? Not to replace the faulty equipment? The client wanted us to send out a senior network engineer at our cost to assess the situation.

A few weeks later, the client agreed to a fairly large server room upgrade and hardware replacement project. They even threw in a WAN upgrade project just for the fun of it. When I read though the proposal it contained exactly what I told them they needed to do, along with a few technically sound but not as exciting options. I pointed this out to the senior. He laughed and said: “It’s about choices. People mostly know what they need to do, but they don’t like feeling like they have to do it.”

The truth behind an old practice
Over the years I encountered this concept again and again in successful sales presentations. It is so axiomatic that people even have a term for it: the A, B, and C columns of the proposal. You put the solution that you want to sell (or buy, depending on your role) in column A where it will be read first. Then you put two other options, usually one high cost and one lower cost but significantly inferior, in the other two. The goal is to provide an apparent choice to the decision maker while still getting your own way.

I also started to notice that my mangers responded far better to my suggestions when I coached them in a similar format. Client managers that I worked with generally agreed with me when I presented them with options, even when only one option was practically feasible. Something about the format allowed people to get past their emotional reactions and let them think. What was it?

The technique of presenting choices rather than a single solution addresses a number of important factors in corporate decision making:

  • Most people realize that there must be more than one solution. In the “real world” of business (not to mention our personal lives), most things are not black and white. When we only see or present one solution, we demonstrate to the person that we did not think things all the way though. Even if we spent hours or days working out the right solution, not “showing our work” gives people the impression that we just threw something together.
  • Many executives and managers jealously guard their right to make decisions. After all, it is the sole direct work they have. Especially in the United States, many people who do not do direct, productive work feel a nagging sense of guilt about not “being involved.” Presenting multiple options simultaneously guards their decision-making privilege and allows them to participate. These intertwined results create customer buy-in. After all, it is now their decision, so they have to defend it.
  • Presenting choices allows the client to become intellectually engaged in the decision. This may not always be a good thing; sometimes clients who become engaged go down some truly odd paths. But by presenting the opportunity, we at least have a chance of breaking through the barriers created by routine and inertia. By talking though the choices we might even be able to engage in meaningful dialogue with the client, as my senior did in my example, eventually leading to even more work.

We can use this technique in meetings, presentations, or when just sitting around shooting the breeze with our clients. I usually go through a few notepads when I am chatting, diagramming options and listing pros and cons. Sometimes I know the answer. Sometimes I do not, In either case the process of presenting options creates a great deal more buy-in than just showing off my intelligence by giving the “correct solution.”

The illusion behind the truth
Although it seems simple enough in theory, in practice this technique often suffers terrible abuse. The most common mistakes I’ve seen include, but are not limited to: not presenting real solutions in the B and C columns, presenting the same solution in all three columns with the “serial numbers filed off,” and not presenting an upper and lower range. All three stem from the same primary mistake: wanting to present only the illusion of choice rather than an actual choice.

There are very few situations where our clients have no choice at all. Even in the case I presented above, where the air-conditioning unit failed and destroyed servers, the client had options. He did not have to replace the unit. A bit of investigation on my part would have revealed that in the basement they had a lovely temperature controlled room they no longer used. Alternately, we could have decentralized the server room into four other climate-controlled studio rooms in the building. Either option would have solved the specific problem, although they both had downsides.

We should always try to present real options, showing we considered all sides of the equation. Lay out the pros and cons for each. We need to explain why we feel that each one presents a viable alternative. If we do not feel it is a viable alternative, then we need to search for solutions we can support. Illusions have a nasty way of crashing down on us when we least expect it.

When we give our clients only one option, even if we know what the right decision is, we strip them of their decision-making authority. In the end, they pay us for our work, not the other way around. In business, that means the final decision rests with them. We can advise and assist, but they must feel that they make the decisions.