Last week I was trying to help a client solve a problem that I thought they wanted to solve. I say thought because I kept running into resistance every time I would try to get more information. In this article I want to deal with resistance from clients, what it means and how to overcome it.
Last week my conversation with the resistant client went something like this.
Me: "What is your average sales cycle (the amount of time to convert a prospect to a paying customer)?"
Client: "It's all over the map. Sometimes it's one day. Sometimes it's a year."
Me: "Well, what's the average? What is typical?"
Client: "It depends."
Me: "OK, what does the process look like. What is step 1 after you meet a prospect?"
Client: "Again, it depends. Some of them go straight to being a client. And others take a while."
At this point I really wanted to say "Well, no !@#$." I restrained myself. I kept digging and eventually we uncovered some information that was helpful. But the whole process was unnecessarily painful.
There are two things you can do in this situation. The first is tactical. It will help you get the information you need, but it does not address what is really going on. The second approach is strategic. It is less about getting the information, but it gets to the heart of why you are experiencing resistance in the first place.
The Tactical Approach: Explain the bell curve
If you just want to get to the answers and avoid the 800 pound gorilla in the room named Resistance just say something like this:
"I know the specific examples are all over the map. But what I'm looking for is the middle of the bell curve. If we plot all the information on a graph, statistics tells us that about 70% of the time we're going to get an answer in the middle of the bell curve.
There are always going to be outliers. The customers that sign up in one hour are outliers. The customers that take a year are outliers. Forget about them and let's talk about the middle of the bell curve."
Usually this jars the client loose and they start sharing good information you can use. At the very least it establishes a common language so that in the future you can say, "That's an outlier. We are going to ignore it."
But when it doesn't work, when it doesn't overcome the resistance you are going to be forced to punch that 800 pound gorilla in the nose.
The Strategic Approach: Address the Resistance
The bigger issue is why your client keeps pushing back in the first place. Presumably you are there to help and you can't do it without good information. They know what the good information is. They just don't want to share it. If the roles were reversed and someone gave them back their same answers they'd be furious. Kids pull this kind of stuff all the time.
Dad: "I thought I told you to wash the car."
Kid: "Oh, I didn't hear you. Sorry."
Your client might be pushing back for a couple of reasons.
Their ego might be getting in the way. This is essentially the idea that "I've tried solving this problem for the last year and I couldn't do it. I'm smarter than you, have more experience than you, am more qualified than you, so therefor it is a waste of time to regurgitate the facts so you can try in vain to solve it."
The ego problem is usually subconscious. Your client doesn't even recognize what is happening. Explaining the bell curve may help them realize "OK, this person is pretty bright. I am giving garbage answers. If I give good information we might actually make some headway."
Unfortunately, because it is subconscious you will run into the ego problem again and again. This usually happens with members of the leadership team, not the business owner. Some of our client's team members are like this and we just bake it into the way we relate to them. Eventually, they come to respect what we bring to the table and the resistance, subconscious or not, stops.
If resistance isn't coming from the ego another possibility is that you're not talking about the real problem. The real problem is something they don't want to talk about so instead your client is just trying to run out the clock on this decoy.
If you are getting the run around because the client doesn't want to talk about the real problem there's no easy way out. You can address it or you can let them waste everyone's time.
When you decide to punch the gorilla in the nose just try something like this:
"I get the sense that this problem is just a distraction to keep from talking about what is really going on. If this were the real problem we wouldn't be fighting so hard to get good information. You're pretty smart so there must be another problem we are avoiding."
When you are preparing tax returns and financial statements the client will readily defer to your technical expertise. But when you enter the more nuanced world of helping them with strategy and overcoming obstacles you will encounter resistance. They may or may not realize what they are doing. It's your job to help them overcome the resistance and move things forward. It's a big part of what they are paying you to do.
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