One of the most interesting, and difficult, situations professionals encounter is the new client who tells you, to your face, that you're a liar, a fraud, a cheat, or just some kind of hustler. It happens more than you think.
In his blog, David Maister addresses this situation in a post from Wednesday. I have actually had this happen. Most recently -- and this was a couple of years ago -- I was sitting in a conference room with a brand-new client, a lawyer, who looked me right in the eye and said something like "You know, I think all consultants are basically frauds."
There's something about professional services that seems to invite this kind of statement. Perhaps it's because what we sell is our time and our expertise which, because it's invisible, is therefore suspect. When I practiced law, I remember that there were always cartoons around the office making fun of lawyers. A lot of them were just plain insulting. I remember being amazed by them. A secretary would have a cartoon on her desk saying something really nasty about the people who paid her salary, and everyone would just sort of accept it.
Maister reviews a lot of possible responses, but to me, they basically boil down to two options: Flight or Probe.
Flight: Stand up, collect your things, and calmly walk out. The engagement is over. There is some kind of line, and in the rare situations where someone is offensive enough to cross it -- overt racism, they make a pass at you, or they say something that is really, no-kidding offensive, you simply leave.
This tactic only makes sense if you are truly willing to walk away from the business. And sometimes it can have surprising benefits. My friend Chris Burry tells a great story he heard once about a Major IT Consulting Firm that had a very big project going on at some kind of investment banking firm -- Goldman Sachs, maybe, or Lehman Brothers. The client was being a jerk, and had been a jerk for some time. Finally, he was too much of a jerk, and the consultant managing the engagement called his bluff. He told every single one of his people to pack up and leave the site, immediately.
This amounted to a couple of hundred people, and brought the entire project to a complete stop. What followed was a brief, testy meeting with the CEO and the jerk. Basically, the CEO told the jerk to shape up, significantly increased the project's budget and let it be known that he was not going to tolerate anyone harassing the consultants. Problem solved.
This kind of result is rare, of course. Usually, if you walk, you're not going to come back. In some cases, though, that's much better than continuing to tolerate abuse.
Probe: This is really just objection-handling. Respond with something like "What do you mean by that?" or "Why do you say that?" or "That's interesting. Would you like to talk a little more about that?" In each case, you are trying to calm everyone down, defuse a confrontation, and get the discussion focused on the issue rather than on you.
As Maister also points out, it is almost impossible to figure this kind of discussion out on the spot. Take fifteen minutes, and think through the most likely objections, along with your response. Plan it out in advance. Be ready. It doesn't happen often, but if it does, you do not want to be caught unprepared.