How to Tell Your Client That His “Expert” is an IdiotIt’s a danger for any consultant, and for most inter-departmental internal project staff: To get the work done, you need to work with someone else who supplies expertise you lack. But when the “expert” turns out to be the wrong person… how do you tell the client (or boss) that you just can’t work with that individual? It’s possible to do so, but it does take a deft hand.
If you have been in business for any length of time, I’m sure you have encountered a situation like this. You’re brought into a project to provide a certain kind of expertise (landscaping design, theatrical costume construction, web development, whatever). The project is more than “just you,” however, and it requires you to work with another expert in a related knowledge domain (such as a tree surgeon, a stage manager, or user experience designer). Sometimes this is a one-on-one relationship; in other cases, it’s your team working with their team.
When this process works well, it’s among the best business experiences anyone can have. Few things are as rewarding as people working together on a project everyone believes in, when everyone involved contributes expertise, dedication, and innovation. I’ve been on several such projects – far more than I deserve! – and it’s a joy when each contributor adds information and knowledge that everybody can learn from.
But then there are those other projects. When the client tells you that he already chose the designer. Or when the boss informs you that your team has to work with the people from another department (perhaps for political reasons). Or the prototypical, “My niece is an expert in this, and I’m sure you’re going to love her!”
I began consulting in the 1980s, and sometimes I feel I have encountered every variation on this situation. The only thing worse than having to work with a bozo is needing to keep on your professional face when you deal with the client. We never want to tell a client directly that he made a foolish decision, after all, or his next foolish decision may be to tell you that your services are no longer needed. (The situation does happen for employees too, but the manager-worker relationship often is more open, and bosses are less reluctant to actually fire someone for what they see as a personal spat.)
Fortunately, I’ve found a few ways to deal with the situation. They aren’t perfect, but they may help you salvage a project.
Handle it early. It doesn’t get better.
We all want to get along with each other, both as human beings and as business people. Especially when the Other Expert comes highly recommended by someone we respect. (And we always respect our clients, right?)
As a result, we – or at least I – want things to work out, which sometimes encourages us to avoid criticism. “I’m sure that boo-boo wasn’t intentional,” I told myself at the beginning of the project. “We’re all new to this gig. Give it time before you complain.”
In my painful experience, it doesn’t get better on its own. If you see project warning signs early, address them immediately.
Identify the nature of the Other Expert’s failures, at least for yourself.
In all my business dealings, I work from the viewpoint that everyone wants to do a good job, and each of us wants to feel we are doing the right thing. That applies to incompetent people just as much as it does to true experts. Maybe more so, because they feel a need to prove themselves.
So, once I have recognized that the Other Expert is not pulling his weight, I do my best to identify the source of the problem. That helps me decide how to handle the relationship, which is always based on “How can I help this person be right?”
For example, is this someone who really is good at one area (which, alas, has nothing to do with this project) and is trying to expand her expertise? Is the Other Expert attracted to contribute outside his own competency because you have the fun, shiny, attractive bits? Is this someone who thinks he knows far more than he does – a legend in his own mind? And those are only a few of the possible sources of trouble.
Work hard to avoid telling the Other Expert he is wrong.
It’s frustrating and difficult to avoid telling someone he is wrong, because he is wrong. The thing is: None of us likes to be wrong. We hate being told we’re wrong even when it’s an accurate assessment. So it’s best to direct your Other Expert’s attention to fixing the situation by appealing to his enlightened self interest.
Be cheerful, courteous, kind, even when the Other Expert demonstrates absolute idiocy. It’s vital for the client to see you as calm and ready to work with the other party. The last thing you want is for the client to decide that the fault is with you and then accuse you of digging in your heels or being unwilling to work with other people.
This is where I pay attention to the motivations of the Other Expert. Let’s say your client brought in a graphic designer who’s created several brilliant book covers and product brochures – but she has never worked on a website before. As a result, the designs offered would make great brochures but fail utterly in regard to interactivity or other user interface issues. You don’t want to upset the client by telling him, “This designer is completely inexperienced!” so you have to find some way to work with her.
In this case, I treat the situation as a mentoring opportunity. I work on the (public) assumption that the designer is good at some things, just inexperienced here. And I take the time to offer suggestions that share my own hard-found wisdom. That starts with finding something to praise, no matter how hard you need to stretch to do so (“I see you put a lot of thought into this”). Then give advice, with an attitude of “Let me help you get even better at this…!” or “Here’s something I learned on a similar project.”
Sometimes, that’s all it takes to fully resolve the tension. The Other Expert may be freaking out quietly that she doesn’t know what she’s doing, and may be grateful for your help. It might even lead to more business referrals down the line.
On the other hand, if you misread the Other Expert’s intentions, she may see you as an interfering busybody who’s trying to teach grandma how to suck eggs. Even if that’s the case, however, it makes you look good in the eyes of the client. (Usually.)
Recognize that the other person may get credit for the work you do.
If nothing else, it takes a lot more time to be diplomatic with idiots than it does to work with competent colleagues. But it’s even more frustrating to know that when you do cover up for (or mentor, or fix) the work of the Other Expert, sometimes the nincompoop is treated as though the work had been done satisfactorily. You do more than 50% of the work, but get only half the money and half the glory.
It could be worse. Occasionally she may get all the credit, because her end of the project is more visible (you poured the foundation, she built the clubhouse on top of it). Perhaps the Other Expert is an extrovert who knows how to schmooze with the client, while you’re the person who prefers to keep his head down and concentrate on the project details. It can lead you to heavy drinking, I’m afraid.
Or, as in one situation I encountered, the client was considering dropping the project entirely; I did 95% of the work because it became evident that the well-meaning but incompetent-at-this-task Other Expert would drop the ball entirely. In that situation, I decided that I wanted the project to be done (less for financial reasons than other motivations) so I sucked it up and never complained publicly. Except after a lot of drinking. But I never said a word to the client.
Document the troubles.
Even when you believe you have the situation well in hand, make sure you have a paper trail; and always cc the client on all correspondence. In the best situation, this makes you look (to the client) as though you’re on top of the situation and dealing with any issues. (Why, look at how kind she is!) In the worst case, you can show everyone (including lawyers, though I hope that’s never necessary) that you had kept everyone apprised of the situation throughout the unfortunate events.
You really really want to avoid telling the client outright, “I can’t work with that idiot.” Ideally, you want to draw a picture of the situation – in front of the client – that helps the client come to the conclusion on her own that this situation isn’t working out. Then, if the Other Expert isn’t meeting deadlines, or the work has to be re-done, or that the Other Expert is delaying the schedule, the client is the one to call him on the carpet. Or at least the client will ask your advice about what to do. Then it’s your cue to say, with as much more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger as you can muster, “I just don’t think he’s the right person for this project.”
In all your e-mail messages, be as dispassionate as possible, and keep your attention on the facts (such as “You wrote on January 5th that this would be done by January 10th. It is mid-February and we are still waiting; we cannot move forward until you provide this data.”). I recognize this is difficult. You will write several e-mail messages that you must re-write before clicking on Send. You will bang your fist on your desk, and I expect you to complain bitterly to your spouse. Do not, however, let your temper get the best of you. (Not that I have personal experience from which to draw, you understand. I’m speaking for… a friend.)
Apply the lessons for next time.
Once you have encountered this sort of frustrating situation, you’ll know you don’t want to go through it again. One takeaway is likely to be, “Ensure that any contract I make with a client has a sign-off for me to choose or at least approve other experts that may contribute to the project.” You’ll still run into problems, because you’re likely to recommend someone who turns out to be an idiot too (we’re all human!). But it’s easier to tell the client you replaced a contributor than to beg him to get rid of the bozo he chose.
That’s what I’ve learned. What’s worked for you?
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