Discussing The Pains of Change with Clients


Discussing The Pains of Change with Clients


This month we discuss what so many professionals miss with their prospects and that often cause surprises after the project has started. It is discussing the pains of change with clients.


The problem is that very often clients invite your to their sinking ships hoping that you get their sinking ships into smooth cruising mode again within a day or two, and often for a competitive(ly low) fee. And when this doesn’t happen (According to Dr. Edgar Schein, over 90% of consulting projects fail because of undisclosed events, non-discussable and lack of action on clients’ sides), very often consultants get blamed for failing to achieve the projected results. But who is in the driving seat? You or the client? Who is the decision maker? No, not you? Thus final outcomes cannot be in your hands. And you must communicate this to your clients.


However, making consultants responsible for the outcomes of their clients’ projects is just as futile as making parents single-handedly responsible for their kids’ accomplishments. Consultants, just like parents, are not the ultimate decision-makers.


You can’t even guarantee whether or not your clients get out of bed in the morning let alone whether they use or discard your advice. In plain English: You are NOT in charge. The client is. Regardless of what parents do for their kids, and regardless of how much they help their kids to achieve it, if the kids consciously DECIDE to get involved in crime or drugs, the is not a dickybird parents can do about it. Responsibility for achieving results and authority for making decisions come hand in hand. You can’t separate the two.


By nature people are scared of the unknown aspects of change, and, interestingly, when the change process is promoted to be a smooth ride and a neat slope with a steady gradient, some people get excited and jumps on the opportunity, but some people become extra cautious. So, how does the military handle total buy-in from new recruits? Read the next paragraph from General Patton preparing his troops for battle.


“You are not all going to die. Only two percent of you right here today would die in a major battle. Death must not be feared. Death, in time, comes to all men. Yes, every man is scared in his first battle. If he says he’s not, he’s a liar.”


The US Navy’s SEAL Unit vehemently promotes the most intense part of their training, called “Hell Week”. They tell potential recruits about all the pain and suffering they have to endure in order to become full-blown members of one of the most respected units in the American military machine.


And guess what, when people are mentally prepared for the hardship, they can better take it. And attrition rate in the military is a lot lower than project failure rate in the world of consulting. In the world of professional services there is the current situation, the desired situation and the unknown “swamp” clients have to go through to reach the “promised land.”


The key is to tell clients that it is a swamp full of alligators and mosquitoes not a rose garden with colourful butterflies, the journey to cross the swamp to the promised land will be more of a tough hike with blood, sweat and tears than a pleasure cruise with cute waitresses and celebrity hunks.


Clients know what is happening to them right now, and often can get a concept of what can wait for them in the promised land, but still, they are scared to death of crossing the swamp. And since you have crossed many swamps many times and arrived at many promised lands, you can tell your clients about what to expect on the journey and what to take with them. You can recommend them to take a rifle and a big knife, and leave their make-up sets and iPods at home.


When I defected from Hungary in 1988 with no money and no English, I knew I was in for a pretty rough ride. I knew I could end up being deported right away or being dumped into a refugee camp living like a rat until I would have a chance to find work and be released to the normal world (a.k.a. the rate race. Oh these fiendish vermin are everywhere). Just like me, many of my friends were fed up with the communist system, but unlike me, in spite of knowing the beauties and benefits of the promised land, they found the swamp too scary to cross, and decided to stay.


Many prospective clients are like that too. And the sooner they decide whether or not they are willing to cross the swamp with you, the better it is both for your piggy bank and sanity. Imagine you go through several meetings, write a proposal and then the prospect pulls back. A sort of “projectus interruptus” when a prospect withdraws before something “serious” happens. Arrrrrg!


So, during your initial discussion you’ve outlined and evaluated clients’ cost of staying where they are right now, and the value of getting to the promised land. This actually establishes your value, which is a basis of your fees.  So, now clients is excited about the opportunities waiting for them at the promised land, and mistakenly assume that you do all the necessary work and you actually carry them on your back to the new destination. This sets up false expectations, and if something unexpected happens (always does), you get blamed for everything, including the Spanish inquisition. So, let’s start and communicate this pain of change.


Ask prospects about their concern and worries regarding the change effort, and then elaborate on each item to the level of details as necessary. Then bring up whatever has been missed. If prospects express concerns about mosquitoes only, then bring up the alligators. Tell prospects that if they step off the path, the swamp can swallow them. These are not scare tactics, like “Unless you buy my fire alarm system, your kids will burn alive and you will hear them scream for the rest of your life.” This is different. Here you use fear to make a buying decision.


Your prospects have already made a buying decisions based on their values. All you do is just fill them in on the details of what may or may not happen during the journey across the swamp. Take some time together to discover all the perceived dangers. If they don’t happen that’s great, but if they do happen and your clients are not properly prepared, then they freak out like injured animals, they can become totally unpredictable and you can be in pretty deep yoghurt. That is what some clients demand their money back or threaten to take you to court. It can be pretty nasty.


So, for a moment remember your first day at university.


“People, you may feel a bit crowded right but relax. In a few months half of you will be out of here.” So, students understand that unless they are willing to work their butts off, they will soon be out with no hope in hell to retrieve the tuition they paid at the beginning of the course. And if they want to come back later, they have to pay again. The other important point is to make buyers understand that before the situation improves, it will worsen. It is the same as people shortly before dying often get seemingly better get, and then without much fuss, song and dance they irreversibly kick the bucket.


Therefore you must discuss the pains of change while making the conceptual agreement with buyers. They must know what they are about to get into. Remember, fear of failure is a huge withholding power in people’s lives.
In most organisations change takes place at five levels:


1. ASSET LEVEL: For industrial organisations assets are the buildings, computer systems, production lines, the fleet of company cars and the photocopier. For a professional service firm it is their people. This is such basic change as buying a new photocopier. However, some people may insist on keeping the old copier because they are used to it.


2. ROAD MAP LEVEL: This is plans, systems and processes that enable organisations to go from A to B and actually navigate through the jungles of commerce throughout its lifetime. The road map also includes, policies, procedures, code of conduct, scripts and every piece of information that can be codified into written documents. Change at this level seems to be easy, but at this level we don’t know whether or not people are interested in changing at all.


3. CAPABILITY LEVEL: This is the skills and competencies of the people organisations employ to produce what they produce. This includes both explicit (learnt through memorising information) and tacit (intuition, finesse, gut feeling, “trench work.” Basically cellular level knowledge) experience. Two police officers can have the same level of explicit knowledge, but the one who has personally led numerous raids on drug operations where the bullets were flying has significantly more tacit experience.


This is why it is huge mistake to hire people (employees, contractors or advisors) based on resumes (explicit knowledge). I dare to say Donald Trump’s assistant knows more about real estate than most realtors out there who are certified to the hilt and registered with every association that has something to do with real estate. The person can be explicitly amazing but tacitly amazingly incompetent. Your expertise is about 20% explicit knowledge and 80% of tacit information (intuition and gut feeling, trench work, basically cellular level knowledge).


The mistake here is that by sending people to training courses, managers expect instant performance improvement from their people as soon as they return from the course. But people do need time to turn the new information into new skills. For a doctor a fairly long time goes by between the first anatomy lesson at medical school and the first real heart surgery. I’ve never come across a doctor who can operate on people one day after graduation. A law school graduate must be invited to the bar to practise. It can only happen in the world of commerce that after graduation a freshly minted MBA demands, and often receives a senior management position with a corner office a personal secretary, some mind-numbing bonuses (on what?) and a company Mercedes.


4. INTENTION LEVEL: This is the major driving force behind and change initiative. It is fairly easy to change things, but changing people is a horse of a different colour altogether. We have discussed many times how important it is to align organisational objectives and strategies with personal goals, and this is the perfect place to see this alignment in operation. When it exists, people buy into the change relatively easily (All right, let’s factor in the general fear of change), especially if they see that everyone around them will go through the same change process.


For every desire for change there is an opposing desire of keeping things the same. At this point the best thing you can do is to find the pros and cons for both situations.


5. VISION LEVEL: This is really the essence of the change effort. Many people say “I want to start exercising”, but only a very few, who actually start, have overarching reasons, let’s call it visions, to actually get started and maintain it in the long run. I know a company that espouses on its website that they are the best IT firm in the vicinity, while the president is encouraging people to do half-repairs, so they can return and milk clients over and over again. He himself lives pretty high on the hog and works hard on how to explain to his people why there is no pay increase and, again, the company can’t afford to pay bonuses. Basically, he is a rotten lying SOB.



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