Being Consultative Without Actually Saying “No”

There’s a balance to maintain when being a good performance consultant and doing what’s right for your client.

Whether you work at a large company or a small one, there seems to be a pervasive myth that if there’s a performance problem to solve, having people attend training will fix it. How do you tell clients “no” when they request a training solution, especially when you know training won’t fix the problem? Often “no” is not an option.

It’s an art to be consultative. I work with a diverse group of clients who have to answer to their internal customers, too. At times, my clients are given an order to create training. You want to give your client what she/he wants, but without being an “order taker.” This can be a difficult position, right?

What do you do? Do you scramble to meet the training request? Or do you attempt to validate that training is indeed the issue? Sometimes, a training request is on target, with your client coming to this conclusion by sound analysis. On the other hand, what if that analysis is lacking, incomplete, or biased?

When I’m faced with a training request that may not be the right thing do to, I try to be consultative by:

  • Acknowledging that I heard the request. “We can absolutely help you. Tell me more about what is going on…”
  • Asking the requester to clarify his/her reasoning. “What’s not happening now that you need to happen?
  • Verifying the need for training or suggesting that training might not be the right solution.
  • “OK, that makes sense. It sounds like you’ve done some thorough analysis of the situation. I’d love to take a look at what you’ve done so far.” Or,
  • “OK, I have some more questions. I think we might be more efficient with your budget if we do a quick analysis to determine what might be going on and think through the best solution.”
  • Making the business case for being consultative.
  • “If our analysis indicates that training is the right solution, we’ll be able to build exactly what’s needed. But if our analysis suggests training isn’t the answer, we’ll figure out the solution that will give you the impact you want and develop it to meet your timing.”

Taking these actions and probing for more information has definitely helped when in these situations. Case in point: Recently, I helped a client at a global business services firm with her performance analysis. My client had just had the “hard conversation” with her internal customers — they wanted her to create training to fix a performance problem they were having. She couldn’t tell her customers “no” right off the bat, so she contacted ILG to get a third-party perspective on her situation.

Once ILG was brought in, I followed a rigorous process to survey the target performers, their managers (i.e., often the true target performers), and the organization’s stakeholders. Together, the client and I confirmed that some training was indeed needed, but it wasn’t the only intervention required. We also recommended non-training solutions, such as providing consistent tools and templates, clarifying roles and responsibilities, and refining processes and work streams throughout the department.

I’m happy to report that with a lot of hard work, my client was able to get her stakeholders on board with our recommendations. She’s now working to implement not only the training but the other recommended solutions.

In this project, I found a balance that worked for me…and more important, for my client. What has been your experience consulting with your clients, whether internally or externally, when they ask for something you think may not provide the best return on their investment?

Striking a balance and demonstrating consultative value can be the difference between helping your clients meet a request and earning them a seat at the table.

One Response

  1. Kristine Ranger

    Good perspective. I would add one important skill to this process: being vulnerable, or “Naked” as Patrick Lencioni says in his helpful book. I know too many “trainers” who don’t explore and identify the root causes or are unskilled at conducting research and analysis before offering a solution. The combined skills of consulting, counseling and coaching are all needed to help a client make the best decision.

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