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How Consultants Provide Difficult Feedback

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Every consultant has had to provide difficult feedback to a client in his or her career. The thought of doing this can be incredibly nerve-wracking, especially to a new consultant. Some tips of the trade can smooth out this process and transition into the beginning of a  valuable client partnership.

As a necessary part of the life of a consultant, being comfortable giving all types of client feedback is crucial. But how can you gain comfort in this area if you haven’t already?

Leave your anxiety at the door. The responsibility of a consultant is to provide the best possible advice to his clients. Consultants should always have the client’s best interests in mind. Anxiety behaviors can impair judgement or cause consultants to sugarcoat important feedback and uncomfortable issues. As a consultant, it’s important to remember your role as an advisor to the client.

In a Harvard Business Review article titled, “A Consultant’s Guide to Difficult Client Feedback,” Ron Ashkenas, a managing partner from Schaffer Consulting, offers his advice to consultants for doling out difficult client feedback. Ashkenas writes: “To prevent anxiety from causing poor decisions, consultants need to remove themselves emotionally from the feedback they’re giving. Remember that it’s not about you; your feedback is to help the client become a more effective manager. And while this seems like an obvious point, it’s one that often gets overlooked in the moment.”   

Timing is everything. It’s important to gauge the client’s readiness to hear your message or act on it. Ashkenas writes about a situation where the solution to a revenue slump at a healthcare company that he worked with was for the head of the division to be more demanding and hold people accountable for deliverables. However, the division head had just started at her job and was reluctant to come across as “tough.” Ashkenas walked her through the data and suggested “different ways for her to start being tougher.” Once she realized that her employees wanted her to hold them accountable, she eventually came to her own conclusion on what “tougher” meant for her.

While there are certainly several different ways for consultants to present difficult feedback, Ashkenas advises that it is “a difficult dance that requires thought, preparation, and learning over time…if you’re too brutal, your message may be rejected or dismissed; if you’re too soft or nice, the client may not take it seriously. If you get this wrong, it could end your consulting relationship. If you get it right, however, it could be the beginning of a valuable partnership.”