Rude clients, thank you for the learning opportunity.

Why am I writing this? I want to show anyone who thinks consulting is a glamorous gig, that in some instances, in spite of our best efforts as helpers and process consultants, we are simply not always  in partnership on initiatives with clients. Sometimes it just isn’t the glorious experience some make it out to be. There is another factor at play and it’s not always rosy so we need to come to grips with this infrequent but very real possibility. And, unfortunately, the client needs to own this. After all, the issues facing organizations and communities belong to them, not the consultant. To suck that one up would be to fall into Senge’s “Shifting the Burden to the Intervener” pattern and become responsible in a sense, for the client’s issue. To be clear, this is not about me, my personality, my sense of victimization or righteousness. it is about what happens when clients don’t live up to our expectations of decency.

Last Friday I was in a call with a new client rather unexpectedly. I ended up on the phone with the Executive Director of a national professional association trying to sort out the minutia of accessing a facility for a site visit in advance of a national conference where I will be a speaker and facilitator. For the type of session I will be running (Barry Oshry’s Organization Workshop) I never deliver the session sight unseen. It’s just bad news for everyone. So, I was attempting to schedule a visit to the facility while traveling through Vancouver. My emails bounce, bounce, bounced from person to person as a result of asking “can someone please arrange for a set of dates and times between Feb 13th and Feb 28th where I might see the rooms and make a few notes so that I can advise on setup and logistics?” I was surprised when I received an email from the Exec Director several provinces away at the centre of the universe that began with a perfunctory “can we have a conversation?” Innocuous? Right – not so much.

The trouble with open registration and a late cutoff date for these types of sessions is that I can’t advise on space requirements until I have a sense of the number of participants. For those of you who have participated in this type of session I deliver, you know what I am talking about. For me it is standard practice after almost 20 years of this type of work to make sure I know what I am getting into. The ED on the other end of the phone was very terse in response to my need, bordering on disrespectful, claiming my request unreasonable, stating no one ever does this, and on the rant went with complete conjecture, supposition and everything that comes with client entitlement. I felt like an object and not a person about two minutes into the “conversation.” In spite of mentioning periods where I would not be able to travel through Vancouver, the shiny new client requested that I make myself available for the visit during those periods. Naturally, I declined, begged out of the continuing socially awkward exchange I was being exposed to and offered that I would handle the matter personally and arrange the visit directly with the facility rather than through their conference organizers. No amount of social or relational acumen was working with this person in the moment. The systemic pattern and conditions of Oshry’s “righteously done-to client and the misunderstood service provider” were there waiting for me to walk in.

After the call I reflected on some of the really unfortunate client relationships I have had the terrific opportunity to learn from over the years. There is a set of characteristics I seem to have noticed in these problematic relationships:

  • Plain and simple inattention to process or an intentional downgrading of relationship building;
  • A distrust of internal and external resources now evident in group culture;
  • A propensity toward controlling behaviours;
  • A belief in a righteous sense of entitlement and personality of certainty and being “right;” and
  • A bullying disposition. 

Unfortunately, this pattern of disrespect is all too familiar to me as a consultant. I’m not whining. These are examples of great learning opportunities for me that I have actually experienced:

  • I have been yelled/screamed at, had books and other objects thrown at me or others;
  • I have arrived after traveling into the wee hours of the morning to find rooms appropriated and my belongings in the hallway as clients decide they like my room better;
  • I have been harassed at 02:00 in the morning by drunk clients at an off site retreat insisting I do their PhD data analysis (no – I didn’t actually do it!);
  • We have had six figure operating capital held for 6 months while the client transitioned and abdicated;
  • I have readied to take my team to a location to find the client (intoxicated) has appropriated the transportation because a MacDonalds run was important to the outcome of the multi-million dollar project;
  • I have experienced highly rude, unprofessional, childish classroom and meeting comments by the client while facilitating; and
  • I have been at the receiving end of sexual harassment and assault (client accosts me in the conference room in front of participants), threatens me and more. Good times, good times. 

In none of these instances did I lose sight of the project, my role in it, nor did I lose my desire to work through it and do great work. I did, however, feel indignant, disrespected and to confront that, I often took control of my own reality and addressed the issue one way or another as best I could, none of which was without consequence. In one instance it had a financial impact that would make your head spin. But in the end, it’s the client’s problem and no amount of money will buy my integrity and autonomy as a human being being human.

Thankfully, there are also fantastic people out there who are an absolute joy to work with. I’ll write more about them in the future. They are the vast majority. Unfortunately, however, I must say, that some still think bipedal locomotion is a fad and brachiation is the way to go. So here is my resolve going forward should I meet this type of person early in such an engagement:

  • I promise to learn from you, make notes about my experience with you and what you are asking me to do, how you ask me to do it, and how you treat me. You will serve as a great learning opportunity for other people. 
  • I will be stronger and more resilient because I have met you. Actually, I have met you before. I know what I need to do a great job and if I can’t get the conditions for success in place by our mutual commitment and collaboration, you’re on your own. Don’t get me wrong, I will work very hard for you, but if you are a barrier to me or my company doing what you hired me to do, sayonara.

By the way, this is MY work environment, too, and it is a necessary but insufficient condition to be treated respectfully.