Managing Conflict -- Getting to a Mutually Agreeable Understanding
Conflict is a part of the consulting relationship. Sometimes the conflict is obvious -- as when a client questions a particular expense or bill -- and sometimes the conflict isn’t so obvious -- as when a single board member thinks your services aren’t needed. Yet it is rare to have a client relationship where there is no conflict at all.
How you manage that conflict will help determine your long-term success. The first step in addressing the conflict is to recognize that you are looking for long-term success -- not a short-term victory. So many times people are so focused on "winning" a conflict that they forget the long-term value of crafting a solution acceptable to both sides. This isn’t about ego gratification -- it’s about building long-term relationships.
Diplomacy was once described as the art of telling someone to go to hell -- and making them happy to be on their way. Managing conflict is much the same process, just with a different end result.
I think most consulting client conflicts revolve around two different issues: money and task orientation. It’s often ironic to me that some otherwise not-too-creative clients can even find a way to complain about both of these issues at the same time, usually with the complaint "we are paying you sooooo much money, but we are doing all the work."
Personally, I think money conflicts are the easiest to resolve. If you’ve set your fees high enough to cover the uncertainty of this business, you can almost always "compromise" with a client by giving a little and still making a good living. In the long-run, you’ll make more money with positive client relationships. In ten years of doing this, the worst decisions I’ve made are ones where I focused on immediate cash needs, and not long-term relationships.
Many new consultants believe that the "contract" is the be-all and end-all of the money discussion. The reality is that the contract only lays out the legal parameters, but does nothing in determining the long-term relationship. Consultants who whine "but my contract says..." are sure to find that positive long-term relationships are hard to come by. Sometimes, even when we are contractually right, we just have to recognize that the contract doesn’t have all the answers.
Recognize, early and often, you are NOT going to sue a client. It isn’t worth the hassle. And the time and money you’ll spend doing it will not make it worthwhile. And you won’t win. Even if you win the case, you’ll also win a reputation as someone who sues clients. You might want to re-think THAT marketing strategy.
The most obvious conflict about money is that the client wants to pay less, and get more. Heck, I want the same thing whether I’m talking to my accountant or to the clerk at Walmart. The key is how it is handled. One of the reasons I like project fees (as opposed to hourly fees) is that it removes much of the conflict because the client knows what the bill is each month. There are no surprises, and we don’t have to account for our time, only our activities. I can only imagine how a client might react if a consultant spent tens of hours on a project and billed the full time at an hourly rate. It would seem to me that inconsistent monthly payments would be a source of conflict.
I read somewhere when we started our firm that "it’s not really a problem if you can write a check to pay for it". The point being that sometimes the easiest thing for a consultant to "give up" in managing conflict is time or money. You might be surprised just how grateful a client is if the consultant "gives up" something in the process of managing a conflict, even if what is given up is not all that significant.
This doesn’t mean you have to take it in the shorts every time a client has to write a check. Usually there is a compromise -- spread out payments, adjust the payment schedule or make some other accommodation within the consultant’s power. Rarely do you get a totally unreasonable client who just refuses to pay and won’t find a solution. No one likes conflict -- make conflict resolution easy for a client and they’ll always remember that.
Task Orientation -- Or "What Am I Paying YOU For?"
Getting clients to do what they have to do is the other great source of conflict for a consultant. Every compromise by the consultant affects the success of the client -- and not enough success will definitely create a long-term client relationship problem.
Usually the conflict arises over whether the consultant or the client should do a particular task. Since we work on a project fee basis, I think it is a little easier for us to "give" on this issue than those who work on an hourly basis. Most of this conflict seems to revolve around "administrative" time (stuff like: who’s going to merge those letters, stuff and seal them, etc.) Almost invariably, if the client doesn’t want to do it, or can’t do it, we’ll do it. It’s not worth the conflict and, most importantly, the client is grateful.
The big issues, like calling major donors, etc., is where we really dig our feet in and refuse to compromise. When the client not doing something affects the campaign, we simply refuse to compromise. We will cajole, bribe, beg, and plead, but we won’t do it for them. The reality is that some things are big things -- and clients need to understand that. Yet if the consultant makes everything a big thing, the truly big things get lost.
I guess it’s pretty obvious, but I’ve found if I compromise -- even frequently compromise -- on relatively minor things, the client is much more likely to recognize that I have their best intentions at heart when I tell them I WON’T compromise. It’s all a part of picking your battles carefully.
Listen carefully to what the conflicted client is telling you. I think you’ll find that a lot of the time it just isn’t about you, but about the entire situation the person or organization is facing