When your client thinks the grass is greener elsewhere

Don't be adversarial if a client decides to hire another consultant or go with a solution other than the one you present. Chip Camden offers advice on how to handle this situation.

TechRepublic member Imnogoldfish requested our help:

New company in town markets to my long-term customer and does the razzle-dazzle marketing, while criticizing every teeny thing that isn't perfect in the client's systems (whether I had anything to do about it or not). Customer hires new company. It takes months and sometimes years before the customer realizes that things are worse and deteriorating.

They call me back, tell me the story, and hire me to come in and clean up the mess. Meanwhile, I've been questioning myself, thinking about day-labor and drinking.

This arc seems to repeat over and over.

Oh Sage, I need an article about that.

Don't allow these situations to make you doubt yourself. While it's always good to evaluate your own work with a critical eye, if you feel driven to alcohol and career change, then perhaps you're not being objective about it.

You're not alone. I've seen this kind of thing happen over and over again; I call it GOOSE marketing, for Grass On Other Side Emerald. It's all about pointing out all the weeds in the current approach, while painting a picture of promised perfection with which to contrast it. No non-trivial solution is ever free from all flaws, but when a client tires of dealing with even a small number of regular frustrations, they can be willing to believe that "this one will be different." They flee the flaws they know to embrace the ones they don't. Unless the new solution really is better, the transition only disrupts their operations -- if it succeeds at all.

How should consultants deal with this situation? Here are some options:

  • Let 'em go. When a client tells me they've found a better solution, sometimes I've said that I'm happy for them and wish them well. On occasion, I've even added, "Let me know when you need me again" (when, not if). Be careful not to add a barb, though. You don't want to communicate any resentment or ill will towards their decision. Remember, your job is (was) to help them succeed, not to hold onto them at any cost. Most clients will come back apologetically after their little fling turns sour.
  • Question their decision. Ask about the analysis that they've performed. Have they obtained any third-party input, or does everything they know about the solution come from its prospective provider? Perhaps you have some experience with the approach that would enlighten them. Be careful not to get adversarial though. Always stay focused on finding the best solution for the client.
  • Unmask the impostor. Sometimes the grass is greener because it's over the septic tank. Your competitor keeps the less pleasant aspects of their seduction carefully covered with buzzwords and glossy prints. See what you can find out -- get your client to let you help review the proposal. Once, I had the opportunity to sit in on a competitor's flashy demo. The screen was full of cool graphical widgets, and with every click the UI responded immediately. Then I asked, "what happens when you click that button?" The presenter briefly explained its function, but I insisted, "I'd like to see that. Show us." He turned a little red as he admitted that the entire demo was a carefully constructed PowerPoint presentation. Further pressing revealed that the real product was not yet ready to demo, and a long way from release.
  • Seek third alternatives. If you didn't see this coming, then you didn't have a good read on your client. Find out why the client thinks they need to change. What bothers them about your solution? Could you do things a bit differently to make them happy? Furthermore, even if they adopt a new approach, that doesn't necessarily spell the end of your involvement. See if you can still play a role.

Sometimes, people in your client's organization (especially C-levels) believe in magic bullets. Other times, they propose these kinds of sweeping changes to try to shake things up and see how you'll react. They want to find out how much you value your position with them, and how hard you'll fight to keep it. I don't play those games. It's not about me, I keep reminding myself; it's about what the client needs. Frame every response in those terms, and your client will learn something about you that they may not have known they were seeking: your dedication to your customer.