Telling Them What They Want to Hear

Sep 03, 2001

I just read two articles written by management consulting firms that serve the design industry. Each of them staked out ridiculous positions. The first dealt with firm valuation and talked in circles about the difference between a firm that sucks all the money out each year and one that invests in itself, attempting to build a case that either approach was OK. The second talked about growth and why a firm could stay small, citing one benefit as a greater ability to attract talent. Bizarre! But rather than attack either of these authors and bring notoriety to them and their firms, I realize what they are doing. They are simply attempting to tell their audience what they think that audience wants to hear. There’s a big market for that, at least in the A/E/P and environmental industries. The fact is, 95% of firms aren’t really ready for the message that we have been pushing (i.e., that you have to invest in your firm and commit to growth, or your firm has already started to die). The owners of the typical firm would rather hear that it’s OK for them to suck all the money out of the firm every year, that it’s OK for them to be the sole owners, that it’s OK for them not to share any financial information, or that it’s OK for them to minimize marketing costs because marketing is just overhead. And this is a big group! But to me, that approach is just a cop-out. Why sell your soul to the devil for a measly paycheck? Life is too short to make those kinds of compromises. I would rather tell it like it is, make a few enemies, but also make a few good friends I can trust along the way. I also recently read an article in The Boston Globe about Christian Menn, the bridge engineer for the Leonard P. Zakim bridge project here in Boston who is making them tear the bridge apart because of safety concerns involving voids around rebar that was too closely spaced. It occurred to me that this is a huge problem with design and environmental consulting firms, too. Many of you are not really telling your clients what they need to hear, but instead telling them only what they want to hear. This is a very slippery slope. Besides the liability ramifications (and they can be significant), there is the potential damage to your reputation. That’s even bigger. You can screw up and get called on it and still survive to do it again, but if your reputation goes down the toilet, you’ll never have another chance. We see these kinds of situations all the time. Consultants are afraid to tell the truth. Instead, they go along with a client who is either ignorant, dishonest, or a poor listener, espousing the logic that “the client is always right.” A problem crops up. The consultant takes blame. The consultant’s reputation is tarnished. The consultant is fired and replaced with another consultant. The cycle repeats. Why does this happen? These consultants lack confidence. They don’t have more work to do than they can handle. They have a poor self-image. They think that this is the way they’re supposed to react. And they are weak communicators, unable to get across to a client why the client’s idea may not be a good one without alienating that client in the process. So rather than lose the client, these consultants bite their tongues and go along. The question is this: How are your people faring right now on this issue? Are they telling your clients what they need to hear or what they want to hear? If it’s the latter, what are you going to do about it? Originally published 9/3/2001.

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