When you, your consulting team and your client all stay on task and positive, consulting is a fun, challenging and rewarding profession. When consulting work veers off the rails, though, how should you respond?
Lines are confusing.
Let’s say you want to engage in outreach to your prospects. Rupert, SVP of Everything is next in line. So, you drop him a line. He answers and asks you to hold the line. (Didn’t you just drop it?)
Ugh, you’re on hold, but business is on the line. Two minutes of elevator music. That’s where you draw the line. Is it the end of the line for Rupert? Hard to know—it’s a fine line.
When a client crosses over the line, though, that’s not fun and it shouldn’t be overly befuddling.
Generally, consulting clients are well-meaning and their intentions are good. However, humans being fallible, sometimes a client or a team member wanders into territory that is unhelpful, inappropriate or even harmful.
There are myriad ways to characterize your consulting firm’s boundaries, and the quadrant chart below shows just two distinctions: tasks vs. behaviors (i.e., project-related requests vs. personal actions) and building up vs. tearing down.
The chart labels areas that are over-the-line, and those that aren’t over-the-line.
Knowing what’s not over-the-line helps you recognize whether what you’re facing is acceptable and benign or unacceptable.
In addition, if your client’s defense is that their actions aren’t over-the-line and are meant to be beneficial (e.g., a compliment), your labels help you acknowledge that you’ve carefully considered their beneficial interpretation.
Those two axes aren’t the only way to define your consulting firm’s boundaries, of course. In fact, here’s a template for you to draw your own:
No matter how you define your boundaries and what you consider over-the-line, the question is:
How do you deal with an unacceptable, over-the-line situation?
- Ask yourself: “Has someone else’s behaviors crossed the line? Or, is what they’re asking me to do over-the-line?”
- Be as clear as possible: Has the situation moved from okay to inappropriate or harmful?
Important note: Crossing the line then “going back,” doesn’t make crossing the line okay.
- Gather input; e.g., has anyone else noticed this behavior or request? What are others’ observations and views?
- Address the situation with your client dispassionately, if possible. That’s part of why the consulting-ish quadrant chart is there. To wrap an emotional subject in an analytical frame.
You can name a behavior and put it on the chart. People might argue with you, but they’re less likely to argue with the chart.
- If appropriate, invoke a higher authority at your client.
- If necessary, leave the relationship. If over-the-line behavior is repetitive or egregious, then drop the client. Immediately.
Have you experienced over-the-line clients (or colleagues)? How did you draw the line and how did you handle it?
Text and images are © 2023 David A. Fields, all rights reserved.