HYCS #20 – Handling the Rigid Client Request

HYCS #20 – Handling the Rigid Client Request

A client shows up with the answer and they want you to just get it done.  But what is the question?

 Word Count: 971

Reading Time: 3.6 minutes

Assignment time: mere moments

We’ve all had this happen:  A client wants you to do something that doesn’t make sense.  They are adamant, and pressuring you to get it done now.  It’s usually something that won’t survive a cost-benefit analysis:  It will take a great deal of your time and energy to produce little or no effect on the client’s business results.  There’s a name for this: Bad work.

Maybe it’s an employee health fair that doesn’t make anyone healthier, or a brochure that pushes away the need to deal with the lack of a marketing plan for another few months.  In my world, it’s often some version of what I call the “Fix My Group” game.  It often sounds like this:  “Come to our meeting and make the group think what we want them to do is their idea.”

Bad work engagements are not fun.  They are not engaging.  Sometimes they are not even possible.  Doing pointless or manipulative work is unsatisfying.  Which is why you want to change the work and the relationship into something more riveting.  And not just for you.  Riveting for your client too.

The rigid client is the stuck client.  The stuck client is the client being stuck by someone else.  You may be looking at the tail end of an entire hierarchy of stuck people.   Stuck people stick other people.   They can’t help it.

Just because they are stuck and trying to stick you doesn’t mean you have to let them.  Clients like this need a good consultant to open up their world and let in some fresh air.

They need a consultant who will set aside their solution and hunt down the question it supposed to answer.  Who will hear the cry for help in the rigid demand and respond with compassion.

When I encounter a request for bad work, I have no interest in it.  However, I am very interested in what would lead someone to say that.  I’m fascinated that someone thinks this is actually possible.  And I’m sad that anyone thinks this is the way you treat people.

I’m also a step closer to what the problem is:  I have a client who has distanced themselves from their group or from a business problem they feel overwhelmed by.   In the process, they’ve gotten attached to something that won’t help, like a child who is overtired, but wails when you try to put them to bed.  This is a client who needs my help.

Making the Initial Request less Rigid:  The 1-2 punch

You are not after controlling or manipulating your client.  You are discovering what they really want, what will make a difference.  In order to do that, you need to know what matters most to them.  That’s what you’re after, and you are focused on this the way  a dog focuses on a squirrel.  Here’s a 1-2 punch that I’ve found works well.

1. Downgrade a demand to a suggestion

This is like throwing the window open in a stuffy room, although it may feel more like you are throwing yourself fin front of a fast-moving train.  The sooner you do this, the better; within the first few minutes is best.  You goal is to take all the drama out of the conversation.

1. When they say “I want you to do a health fair (or other low-value activity),” you say, “You want to do something to increase employee health.”

2. When your client says, “I need you to make them think they came up with this,” I say, “You want your group to agree with your approach.”

3. When your client says “I need you to drop everything and do this,” you say, “You’ve got an urgent situation you need my help with.

4. When your consulting partner says: “This is a big client.  Don’t start in with your questions or ideas.  Let me do the talking,” you say, “You’re worried I’ll disrupt the relationship you’ve worked hard to build.”

These are not complete answers.  They are what is known in chess as an opening gambit, a way of declaring yourself as a player.

2. Next, reach past the demand for the problem it solves or the result it delivers

What matters most is hidden in plain sight.  It’s just behind the demand or solution your client has presented the way the Wizard of Oz is the little man behind the curtain, not the fiery display.  Your goal is to invite them to trust you with what matters most.

1. “Let’s imagine the Health Fair ended last Friday and was a success.  What’s different in your world because of that success?” (result)

2. “How opposed is your group to what you want them to do?” (problem)

3. “On a scale of 1-10, 1 being very relaxed and 10 being life-or-death, how would you rate your situation?” (problem)

4.  “What’s the worst that could happen if I speak up?” (problem)

If you are listening to understand rather than listening to respond, you’ll start to hear some fascinating information.  Your questions and curiosity will arise without effort.  You and your client will engage each other.  Talking openly to each other is our natural state.   It was only anxiety that was making it unpleasant and scary for you and your client.  Reach past it for what really matters.


Use the 1-2 punch in your next conversation.  You might want to write the steps on  a post-it and take it to your next meeting.  To make it a smaller, easier step, just do one of the 2 steps.   Either one will make your life easier.