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  • Wendy Lynch and Clydette de Groot

Your client just made an unexpected request. Now what?


You get an unexpected request from your client, something out-of-the-blue. Besides being surprised, you wonder if it makes sense or can even be accomplished. Perhaps something like (real examples):

“Our company needs a mobile app, can you look into it?”

“We want to put all our transactions in the cloud.”

“We need to do a randomized, controlled study of our services.”

Now what?

When we play the role of advisor, it’s natural to want to respond immediately to their request. We might pepper them with detailed questions—why do you want to do that? Where did that idea come from? Or, give an opinion about the idea—I don’t think that’s a good idea right now, that’s really hard to do. Or, jump right on it, suggest a vendor and plan next steps.

While being responsive can be useful in many circumstances, in the case of a brand-new request it may be useful to give them some space to gain clarity about their idea. Here’s three reasons why.

1. New ideas are rarely fully-formed.

The first thing a person says is rarely what matters, so it’s helpful to let them talk a little. You can prompt them with “oh, tell me more about that,” or paraphrase “so, you’re thinking we need a mobile app….”. Given room to consider it more, they will discover more detail about their own thinking.

2. Something matters here. When we hear a new, unexpected issue it is an indication that something important is on their mind. If we jump in too soon, or push back on their first statement, we miss the chance to learn what that is. By showing authentic interest in their idea, we encourage them to unpack more.

For example, when the client above wanted to put their data “in the cloud” (which at the time seemed unnecessarily complex given their size and available technology), more discussion revealed that he was actually concerned about data security. He had read an article about cloud technology being more secure than hardware. A paraphrase confirmed: so, you are interested in the cloud because it could make your data more secure. Client: Yes. By reviewing the measures that were already in place, he was reassured that they had sufficient protection and redundancy without adding cloud-based backups at that time.

3. A higher-level motivation is driving the request. Specific actions—being requested—represent the tangible manifestation of a larger motivation. After exploring the idea, if you suspect something meaningful is behind the request, consider posing the question: How would that be valuable to you?

As an example, when a client declared that we needed to conduct a randomized, controlled trial, we were able to better understand it by asking “If you were successful conducting a randomized, controlled trial, how would that be valuable to the organization?” The answer was: we would have publishable, scientific evidence. And in further discussion we asked, “if you had published, scientific evidence how would that be valuable?” Answer: we would have credibility in the marketplace to drive sales.

What really mattered to the client was higher sales, which he believed would follow from the credibility gained by a randomized study.This important realization led to a fruitful discussion and eventual efforts to explore different approaches to branding and product positioning—none of which required an investment in expensive, time-consuming research.While there was nothing wrong with doing this type of research, by itself it would not have accomplished the underlying goal.

Unexpected, confusing or seemingly-disconnected requests signal to us that something matters. The request itself will likely be less important than the conversation you have to discover the motivation behind the request. Before you jump in with detailed questions or objections, get curious about what might be driving the request and give them room to figure it out.

Enjoy the exploration and you both might learn something!


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