Consultants Can Say 'No' but Keep the Door Open

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Even in a tough economy, HR consultants can’t take on every opportunity that comes their way. Sometimes the timing is off. Sometimes the expertise required is beyond the scope of their services. Sometimes, they just might not be interested.
But, saying “no” can be risky. A pipeline full of projects can go dry. Priorities and desired areas of focus might change. While it might seem that the best instinctive response to a request that can’t be filled right now would be “no,” that is not always the right answer, say HR consultants who have faced this situation and learned how to keep the door open to a continued relationship and the potential for future work and referrals.
The bottom line in all cases, suggests Ann Latham, president of Uncommon Clarify, Inc., a Massachusetts-based consulting firm, is “always responding in the client’s best interests.” Being focused on helping clients meet their needs, even when not able to help them personally, can boost HR consultants’ reputation and credibility, she states.
“If you can’t serve them well, regardless of the reason, try to connect them with someone who can,” she advises. “If you can’t make an appropriate referral with confidence, give advice that will help them find a good resource such as criteria to consider, places to look or people to ask.”
Referrals to other consultants are a good option and a service not only to the client but also to business colleagues. In addition, says Bettina Seidman, an HR consultant and executive coach with SEIDBET Associates in New York City, referrals might result in lucrative fees.
“I recommend saying either ‘I can recommend somebody who is a better fit for this particular project’ or ‘I’m swamped right now but I can recommend somebody who can definitely fill in for me,’ ” says Seidman. But, she advises, be clear with the client and your colleague that the client is still your client. 
Tony Deblauwe of HR4Change in the San Francisco area agrees and has taken the same approach. “In my experience, I never say ‘no’ to an opportunity, in the sense that I want clients to believe I am a resource and value to them even if I do not take the assignment,” he says. “Typically when I sense the scope is beyond my expertise or I don’t have the time, I prioritize the essential needs the client is after,” he says. “I do this to give the client focus in helping scope and bid the work, but I also do it as a way to help get the client referrals from my network. In most cases I am able to pair someone with the client quickly.” Deblauwe says this approach has allowed him to be called on more assignments because clients appreciate his willingness to help them find solutions.
There’s an art to saying “no” effectively, says Marlene Caroselli, an author, keynote speaker and corporate trainer based in Rochester, N.Y. “I’ve had to say ‘no’ on occasion yet help the client think ‘yes’ for the future,” she says. In the process, she says, she lets the requesting client know “diplomatically” that she is in demand.
Many of Caroselli’s requests are related to speaking engagements, so her first step is trying to learn if the requesting client’s dates are fixed or if another time frame might be acceptable. If she’s unable to meet a client’s needs, she says, she will try to have a presence at the event. “I might, for example, suggest a replacement—one of my part-time people, for instance. Or, I might offer related materials at no charge. Even a one-page list of tips related to the topic of their conference is appreciated,” she says. And, importantly, she notes: “I suggest, diplomatically, that they book me for their next conference, speaking engagement or training program to ensure my availability.”
Rick Dacri, an organizational development and HR consultant with Dacri & Associates in Kennebunkport, Maine, says, “There are few times when an HR consultant should ever need to say ‘no’ to a project unless they simply do not want to work with the client. Consultants must always learn to say ‘of course’ when asked if they can help.” Dacri says consultants should:
  • Put in place good management skills, prioritizing multiple initiatives so they can do it all. “If you can only do one or two projects at a time, you’re building way too much labor into your projects.”
  • Work to reduce the amount of labor that goes into a project. “You’re paid for value and results, not for reports and face time.”
  • Use other consultants with needed skills and expertise when necessary.
  • Remember that clients often employ a “hurry-up-and-wait approach,” making scheduling easier for you. “In over 20 years as an HR consultant, having managed multiple projects in different states hitting at the same time, I have never had to turn away business and have always met the client’s needs and schedule.”
But sometimes saying “yes” can be riskier than saying “no,” notes Rick Maurer with Maurer & Associates, a consultancy that works with clients on change management strategies and is based in Arlington, Va.
“As I look back over my career, the only times I regret are those when I said ‘yes’ to something that just wasn’t a good fit. I think those instances actually worked against building a reputation that I was the person to call.”
HR consultants build success based on their reputations, which, it is hoped, lead to referrals. Maurer, who notes that most of his business comes through referrals, says that these referrals are “never as a result of some assignment where I felt the work was kind of so-so.”
Saying “no” can be an option, and an important one, for HR consultants. The key is saying “no” while offering useful client alternatives and leaving the door open to opportunities.
Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues. Click here to read the original article.