Clarify the reasoning behind clients' decisions

Your client insists that they have to follow a certain path, but the reasons they give don't hold water. Here are a few tips on how to handle the situation.

 "We're going with technology W because our prototyping has clearly demonstrated that it's the most robust solution available. Besides, it's backed by Y Corporation."

This client statement leaves you wondering why they decided to hire a consultant, since they seem to have already made up their minds. Based on your experience, you can think of three or four alternatives that would be better than technology W, and you have to wonder whether the client's prototype sampling was biased in favor of W all along. Did they even try anything else?

The mention of Y Corporation leads you to consider a genetic fallacy (i.e., a fallacy of irrelevance where a conclusion is suggested based solely on something or someone's origin rather than its current meaning or context) as the source of the client's conclusion; they obviously trust Y Corporation inherently, but what real evidence do they have that Y knows anything more about this than they do? Perhaps there's a bit of Bandwagon mentality going on here, too. The reason to trust Y Corporation is not because it's demonstrably more trustworthy, but rather because everybody else does -- so it must be right, or at least, safe.

The Bandwagon fallacy (which alleges, "If many believe so, it is so.") is particularly difficult to argue against, because often the real motivation behind it is not clearly recognized by its victim. It's not really about finding the best or even the safest solution; rather, it's about belonging to an accepted group. The old saying, "Nobody was ever fired for choosing IBM" suggests that potential rejection for a decision weighs more heavily than selecting the best option. Even if their job isn't on the line, the client may dread having to answer for why they didn't choose the "industry standard." They don't want to be an outsider. They don't want to get left behind. Stay with the herd.

It's your duty to clarify the reasoning behind your client's decisions. Even if the client still ends up choosing the same solution, you want them to choose it for the right reasons, or at least to know what their real reasons are. There's only one problem: Most people don't want to know what their real reasons are. That's because most human decisions are based on emotions, and the rationalizations come later. So you have to tread carefully.

It's wise to begin by asking stupid questions. Even this may seem threatening, so apologize for backtracking and ask them to bear with you, because you need clarification. Never come across as a condescending know-it-all. Don't give a hint that you suspect they're misguided at this point. For instance, you could say, "I'm intrigued by your analysis of technology W. I've been led to believe that technology X would be more appropriate in this situation, so I'd like to examine your comparison of the two in more detail." When they admit that they never even considered technology X, then you can suggest that such a comparison ought to be conducted, perhaps with your help.

Be careful not to fall into the same fallacy yourself. If you find yourself thinking (or, perish the thought, saying out loud) that they should employ technology X because everybody else is these days (technology W is so last decade) and they're going to get left behind if they don't, then you're merely suggesting that they trade in the Bandwagon for a newer model. All of your analysis should be based on fitness for the job, not hanging with the cool kids.

On the other hand, perhaps fitness for the job isn't your client's first priority. If their employment really is on the line and their upper managers are enamored with Y Corporation, that might be a good enough reason to choose technology W. But make sure you identify that factor, and help your client to weigh its real impact against other reasons. Don't let it be the Nameless Cause that silently controls everything.

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