Why Clients Resist Consultants – and What to Do About It

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

Why Clients Resist Consultants – and What to Do About It

Lawyers, used car salespeople and consultants should form the NTU club – Nobody Trusts Us. This article explains why people don’t trust consultants and what we can do about it.


by Rick Maurer

Did you ever lose a contract or finish an engagement where the results were less than stunning – and not know why things went wrong? Me too. Often the problem stems from resistance. Understanding resistance gives us a much better chance of avoiding it before it occurs or dealing with it effectively when faced with it.

Reasons for Resistance

The way I see it, there are three levels of resistance.

Level 1 is of the “I don’t get it” variety. People don’t go along because they don’t understand. Consultants love models and concepts. I’ve seen consultants get so enamored with their own model that they miss the fact that no one is listening.

Level 2 resistance stems from people saying, “I don’t like it.” This is an emotional reaction to what we are presenting. Often projects like reengineering, mergers, ERPs, and restructuring threaten people. They are afraid they might lose their jobs, their careers might be stalled, they will lose control, or their own pet projects could be killed.

In meetings, you are not likely to hear any of these emotional concerns. In fact, the questions you are likely to get will all be Level 1: questions about time lines, budgets, analysis, and so forth. These Level 1 questions may be important, but they mask the real resistance you will face.

Level 3 is the deepest and hardest to deal with – “I don’t like you.” They may understand the idea and may even like it, but they aren’t going to go along because you are the one presenting it. Our profession is a magnet for Level 3 animosity. When you or I walk into a room, its not just us they see, they see every consultant they’ve ever known or heard about. And, unfortunately, those memories often aren’t pretty.

What to Do About it

It is important to understand what levels might be at play or could come into play as you begin working with a client. Once you know the levels that are alive, then you can create strategies to try to turn opposition into support.

Level 1 is the easiest to deal with. It simply requires that we learn to communicate in ways that increase the chances that we will be understood. We need to use their language. At level 1, our primary goal is to be understood.

Level 2 demands conversation, not presentation. Put aside the PowerPoint for now. Find out what the potential blocks are – and engage people in conversation about these issues. Imagine people were concerned that giving attention to a new software project would take away from their ability to get work done today. You might ask, How can we move ahead with the ERP in ways that support you getting the day-to-day work done.

Level 3 can kill otherwise fine projects. We must demonstrate that we are different than the other consultants. And we must demonstrate this repeatedly. The first time I presented my models of change and resistance to an organization headquartered in Europe, I knew that they were likely to be thinking, “Great! Here comes another American consultant thinking he’s got all the answers.” I had to do something to begin to show that I didn’t fit their preconceived notions. I said, “I’ve used these models extensively in North America, but I have not used this approach in Europe. I think my ideas are sound and will work here, but you’ve got to be the judge.” For the next couple of days, I would present and then we would talk about what was relevant and what didn’t cross the Atlantic.

The good news is that the other side of resistance is support. We can work toward people saying, “I get it,” “I like it,” and “I have confidence in you (even though you are a consultant).”

© 2009 Rick Maurer – Rick uses his Change without Migraines™ to advise organizations on how to lead change effectively. He is author of many books including Beyond the Wall of Resistance. Recently, he created the Change Management Open Source Project, a free resource for people interested in change in organizations. www.beyondresistance.com