Rommil Santiago: eCommerce, Marketing & Management

Dealing with resistance during implementation

Part 8 of 13 of my series on the profession of management consulting

This is it. You’ve made it to the implementation phase of your client engagement. All the analysis is done and the countless hours of debating over which steps to take are well behind you. It’s all smooth sailing from this point on right? Sorry pal. In fact, quite possibly, some of the hardest times are still to come. (Did I mention I was sorry?) Oh and did I mention that most of your budget will be spent during the upcoming implementation phase while executing your deliverables? To make matters worse, even if you’ve been clever enough to bring your client over to your side along the way, during this critical phase, he may yet turn against you - and worst yet - may not even realize he’s in fact resisting you.

Change is scary

A change in the business-world affects a great many people. Thus as a result, it’s natural for there to be resistance to any change. When it comes to work, many people often enjoy routine and habit. When there is a change, especially one initiated by an external party (here’s looking at you kid), there will be friction. Surprisingly, even your client may resist you as well. Why is that? Put yourself in your client’s shoes for a second and understand the situation from his perspective. He’s hired you to fix a problem he and his staff couldn’t (regardless of the reason). Having you solve the problem for him may:

  • make him vulnerable. E.g., your solution may disturb the existing political equilibrium that exists at the company and may result in your client losing some authority.

  • result in your client losing control which could make him anxious.

Because resistance from your client could mean disaster for your project (not to mention your reputation) it is in your best interest to identify the tell-tale signs of resistance and deal with it as soon as possible. Resistance is a barrier to your project’s success.

Identifying resistance

I’ll be straight up with you, this isn’t easy. This takes time to master and I’m definitely still working at consistently picking up on the cues. But to get you started, the following are a few of the more common forms of resistance that I’ve encountered over the years:

  • Silence
    The client doesn’t say anything and you feel like you’re talking to a wall. He simply says that he’ll speak up if he hears something he doesn’t agree with. What’s happening here is the client is withholding his thoughts. Think about it, he hired you and he has no opinion at all? Very doubtful.

  • Asking for a lot of detail
    Your client keeps digging for more and more detail. Incessantly asking, “What about this? and this? Have you thought about this?”, etc. If your client keeps digging more than 15 minutes start wondering whether he’s resisting you. While the client is entitled to understand the situation, too many questions may indicate he doesn’t trust you understand the problem at hand.

  • Too busy
    The client loves your work but is too busy to meet you or help you. If you keep getting stalled or stood up, suspect you’re facing resistance.

  • Aggression
    Another classic. Your client, all of a sudden, has ants in his pants and is agitated. You can’t understand why, but he’s on the offensive and you’re his target. Again, resistance at play here.

(Just a note of caution. If the client volunteers why he’s hesitant or doubts you - this is not resistance. He is being straightforward and letting you know of his concerns. Believe me, if this is the case, you’re in a much better situation than if he resists you and doesn’t say why.)

Dealing with resistance

So, you’ve identified (true) resistance. Here’s how you can deal with it, in two “simple” steps. (Aren’t they always simple?)

  • Call the client out
    In a frank and calm manner, call your client out on their resistance. Identify the form of resistance you’ve identified. E.g., “You don’t seem to be saying anything and I’m not sure what to make of it” or “You seem angry about something” or “You don’t seem to be making time for me or this project”. Whatever phrase you use, make sure it’s an open-ended statement. Always remember, the client is resisting the solution, and not you (usually).

  • Be quiet
    Don’t say a peep. Create the most uncomfortable silence possible (bonus points if the client sweats). Make it so the client has to say something to address your statement. Hopefully, your client will say something which you could use as a starting point for overcoming your client’s resistance. Tip: don’t take any of this personally - it will be hard, but try.

Though this seems like magic, it does work… usually. But know this, even if you identify the resistance and do your best to address it, the client still may not be willing to dance with you. In which case, you may need to bail, or deal. Either way, you will have an idea of what to expect from your client during the rest of the implementation and can plan accordingly. (Read: contingency plans)

How do you deal with resistance?

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