Do your clients actually know what they want?

September 26, 2022

Obviously as an HR consultant, clients approaching you for support usually know more or less what it is they need help with, even if they aren’t certain exactly what that will involve. But sometimes there’s a distinct disconnect between what someone says they want and what they actually want, and that can be enormously challenging.

I had a client, over a decade ago, who invited me to come in and meet them with a view to providing some HR support. Normally you’d go along and meet the business owner, sometimes a second person as well. On this occasion there were about five people round the table. Not daunted, I talked about my approach to HR- down to earth, very tailored, pragmatic. All seemed to go down very well.

I asked them what they needed and they were very clear that although they needed a contract and some policies, their culture was very laid back, relaxed, and forward-thinking, and they wanted the documents to reflect that.

Not a problem, and I set to work drafting. But it soon became very clear that their proclaimed desired culture was not an accurate reflection of what they actually wanted at all.

The amendments they required were so drastic as to take the documents to the opposite end of the spectrum, with a very high level of prescriptive detail in each policy, lots of restrictions. Completely counter to what they’d said they’d wanted.

So why was that? Either they’d said all that stuff about relaxed and light-touch to impress me, thinking that’s what I’d want to hear (not common from clients) or they’d genuinely believed that’s what they really wanted. I think it was the latter- their awareness of their own culture and preferences was completely lacking.

Very interesting. I’d not been in business long so I didn’t ditch them straight away, but I did fairly soon. If they’d said they didn’t know what they wanted, I could have worked with them to help them find out, but that wasn’t the case.

It’s not just working with small business owners where this comes up. I think it happens in-house too- sometimes HR people want a certain culture or a certain approach to HR policies and practices, but it is just not the culture of the organisation they are working in. They can either try to change the culture from within, which is impossible on their own, they can accept the culture they’re in and work with it, or they can walk away and find an organisation which is a better fit.

The advantage of being an HR consultant working with several small businesses is that, when something like this happens, it’s much easier and less impactful to walk away- you’ve still got other clients, the financial loss isn’t great, and it frees you up to find more clients you like working with.

The example I gave was a very drastic example, which is why I’ve remembered it so clearly, but many of our consultants have come across similar, where a business owner is lacking in awareness about the kind of manager they are, or what they want from their business. Sometimes it resolves itself and sometimes it doesn’t!

 

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