Advising Clients Ethically

All of you are advisors. (Even though it means the same thing, if I’d said “consultants,” instead, you would have barfed.)

Yes, you “do” a lot of things downstream, but you “think” a lot of things, first, so that you know what will be effective in the execution or translation or implementation. I’ve talked a lot about this in The Business of Expertise, and there’s a short summary that crystalizes this concept in short article about the Two-Room model.

What I most admire about you as an advisor is that you have nothing tactile to hand over to the client—it’s just you, standing naked in front of the room, carefully assessing, solving, and then speaking into that confusion. At its core, creativity is simplifying things, first, seeing the patterns, and then making the simple but courageous recommendation. And then applying the principles of change management to bring it to life with as little disruption as possible.

But what are the ethical principles that should govern your advisory work? There are so many options, and so I don’t want to pretend that this is a comprehensive list, but I would like to suggest a few things as they apply to the marketing field, especially:

  • Don’t over-promise. Truth be told, you’ve built your firm with layer upon layer of over-promising and then pulling it out right before the deadline. There’s always a proper role for over-promising, but the better your firm is at what you do, the less you need to do it. Real experts will actually slap down over-enthusiasm by the new client.
  • Listen (and sort) very carefully. This may be the most important skill to develop, just honestly. If you aren’t listening, then you’re about to apply a cookie cutter solution. It’s not as if everything the client says or everything captured in the data they give you is important. No, you aren’t listening in order to absorb, but rather you’re listening so that you can sort through the data and throw most of it out because it’s not relevant. What’s left is what’s relevant (and already simplified), but sorting is at the heart of listening. Just like when you go to the doctor and rattle off all your symptoms, she’ll ignore most of them and lock onto the ones that actually point to something.*
  • Resist the urge to arrive at a solution too quickly. This is a corollary to the previous point. Don’t just listen, but listen for a long time. Sometimes we quit listening because we have a budget or a deadline to hit, and it’s time to get cracking. But sometimes we quit listening because we like resolution. “Okay, here’s what’s going on. Next?” You’ve seen this when you go to the doctor, too, right? It feels like the goal is to check a box and stay under the allotted 12 minutes in the exam room. The other thing that happens when you try to solve something too quickly is that you lose credibility when you have to backtrack, later. You should feel the urge to solve something and be tamping that down in your soul for quite a while before you blurt it out. Hold it, hold it, hold it until you can’t hold it anymore. And then when you can’t hold it anymore, see if you can guide the client to that conclusion on their own rather than just making a statement of apparent fact.
  • Acknowledge what you don’t know. One factor that makes you effective is that you are an external, more objective advisor, unburdened by the political or social pressures or even the complicated history that has led to this point. But the fact that you are external means that, by definition, you will get some things wrong. Just accept it, though, without letting the fear of being wrong hold you back from developing and articulating a point of view. A core principle of good advising is accepting that you will be wrong and knowing how to manage that.
  • This is not a contest: aim for the truth, even if you lose. If you see yourself getting defensive when a client disagrees with you, something is wrong. I mean, it could be that you’d kind of tired of their constant foot-dragging, and I get that, but don’t try to convince people of what you firmly believe based on your experience. View every time that you have to bring someone along to a conclusion as yet one more time to be tested…and to learn more. It’s an opportunity to be able to explain things in simple terms and to integrate their situation into your model or framework. It’s so tempting to have rote answers for everything because it’s more efficient, but it’s also lazy. You are going to learn something new in every engagement, so be looking for those revelations whenever you hear an objection. It’s not a time to win, but rather a time to confirm or adjust.
  • Recognize the client’s valuable role. It’s counter-productive to sweep in and have all the answers. It’s also not possible. So what’s the appropriate role for the two of you, advisor and client, working together? Never promise to know more about their situation than they do, but certainly aim to know more about their situation than any other external advisor. And to some degree, you need to see each other as experts: you’re the expert at assessing and prescribing their situation based on three things: your external objectivity, your work with similar clients to see those patterns, and your courage to speak truthfully. But it works best if you view the client as the expert on their situation and their industry. You each bring something to the table, and relationships get all out of whack otherwise. When the client views himself as the only expert, you become an order taker. When you view yourself as the only expert, you’re going to get fired.
  • Be empathetic about the courage they are struggling to muster. You do this all the time with dozens of clients a year. It seems easy and kind of automatic to you, but this is new for them and there’s a lot at stake. If they had the answers and/or the courage, they wouldn’t have hired you. There’s a role for you to play, and it’s a delicate one. You have to be honest with the client, but not in a way that yanks the hope right out of them. Any client who fully believes that you understand the implications of a decision for them will feel more supported by your patience and kindness. I always try to remember that nuance is one of the most beautiful words in the English language.

Your clients deserve an ethical approach. If you find yourself unable to do that with any specific client, stop and find out what’s going on inside you, first, and try to account for that in your work.

*You’re never smarter than when you’re on a call with a prospect or client, so be sure to capture those core thoughts that you can turn into an insightful POV later.

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