Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Friday, November 09, 2007

On saying no to clients

In my recent post Professional Services - the importance of the diagnostic I talked about some of the reasons why consulting assignments failed. There is a linked issue, when to say no to clients.

Several years ago I was walking back from a meeting with a colleague. I took a call on the mobile from a client wanting me to bid on a job. I was polite, but indicated that I might not be able to do it.

After I finished the call, my colleague expressed surprise that I appeared not to want the work. I explained that I had had problems with this particular client before, that in my judgement the assignment was unlikely to be worth the effort involved.

As it happened, the client was insistent and, against my better judgement, I put in an expression of interest. I should not have. The job did not proceed, and I wasted a fair bit of time.

Knowing when to say no and indeed how to say it, is an area that I have wrestled with across the full spectrum from marketing through award to completion. The problem is especially acute in those areas of professional services dominated by project based work, most acute for the smaller independent professional. It is very hard to say no when you really need the work.

Again, there is no magic bullet. Perhaps the most important thing that I have learned is that the process of getting the assignment is not just a marketing exercise, not just persuading the client to give us the work, but also an interview process during which the client has to be assessed.

This assessment should take place at two levels.

At the first level, do you actually want to do this task or even to work with the client full stop? If your antennae are picking up danger signs, then it may be best to exit gracefully.

At the second level, you have to decide how best to work with the client. Here you have to be prepared if necessary to lay down your own ground rules, not just accept those put forward by the client.


Evil Pixie said...

As a consultant, I have experienced what you have described more times than I can count. When I first started, I would do the graceful exit but as my reputation grew and my confidence strengthened, I started to set the individual down and explain to them why I was tentative. I wasn't doing the individual any favors by doing the graceful exit routine, and I really had nothing to lose. I've been somewhat successful with the clients who I have had these conversations with, and we've managed to work out the kinks to a mutual satisfaction. Others, well... they simply reinforced my tentativeness and didn't call again. Apparently they couldn't handle the truth.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, EP. I agree with you that if one does not explore issues with clients then problems arise. The difficulty is a graceful exit strategy with clients who will not listen!

Looking at your blogs, feel free to to take stuff that i have written to reinforce your points.