How choosing to challenge a client can change the nature of your relationship – for the better.

The reality of working as an independent or small business practitioner can bring to the fore issues of self-worth and value when it comes to pricing for and contracting work. For many, the default position is to undervalue and offer a discounted price in the hope for future work rather than focusing on the value of the difference you will make. This is unfortunately a common behaviour amongst small business owners, and I’m not immune to it either. At times it is invaluable to have that external voice to challenge the limiting beliefs that can keep you stuck, playing small and prevent you from asserting your value when you’re working with a client.

What I’d like to share in this article is a coaching conversation I had with a peer, who’s based in the States whilst I am in UK, and whom I’ve known for many years. What I share below are those ’20-30 minutes’ in our Skype conversation of how the conversation came about, and how I in that moment found the courage to challenge.

The situation

Joycelin (not her real name) is a successful coach who was asked to facilitate a strategy review for a potential client. The purpose of the review was to create a purpose and mission statement. This group, a small business consulting organisation, having existed for many years felt that they needed to improve and attract a different type of clientele. They believed that creating a ‘revised’ purpose statement would do the trick.

The retreat would take about five hours to facilitate. At the end they would have a clear statement to represent their vision for the future and motivate the team.  What follows is the discussion we had and raises the issue of how and when do you challenge a client and is it safe to do so?

The first thing Joycelin said after mentioning the opportunity was “I am going to discount this, as it will be huge opportunity for me and will open the door for others to get an insight into my background and skills.

I must admit that to hear her first instinct was to offer a discount without any consideration made me feel really uncomfortable. As I listened to her adamance that it was necessary to go in cheap to ‘get her foot in the door,’ and for them to get a chance to recognize her expertise, I was convinced of two things: that despite her years of expertise she did not know her own value; and most of all that I had to say something and question this belief – but how?

This was scary and increasingly uncomfortable – which I could feel throughout my entire body – that the cost of asking one more question could spiral quickly into a fully blown argument. This scenario is not uncommon in personal and business relationships, where you may innocently ask a question or challenge a client, superior, colleague or friend. The result of which is that the next time, for the sake of your relationship, continued harmony, business or friendship you keep quiet. This was the dilemma I faced. Should I or shouldn’t I?  Deep down I knew I had to.

And the more I listened to her limiting beliefs (in effect stories) to protect herself and to play safe, the more I was convinced that Joycelin did not fully appreciate what she brought to the table and that not only was she doing herself a huge dis-service, but also to her client.

Joycelin has over 25+ years experience. She worked initially as a financial planner and later as a coach with hundreds of business owners, professionals, and executives, helping them to connect with their value.  She is very good.

So, with some trepidation I pushed the boat out and gently asked why are you going to offer a discount at such a low fee? Every step of the way, her response was defensive, passionate and determined and her responses were not uncommon:

This will be a good opportunity for me.”

I am happy charging that very low fee.”

I have seen their books, it does not feel right charging
them a lot of money, as I am fully abreast of their situation

Why do we do this? These limiting beliefs keep us rooted in the ‘undercharger’ box. It challenges our sense of self-worth. Depending on how we view our value these limiting beliefs can be destructive and put our focus in the wrong place – that of being beholden to the opportunity, the tasks we are going to do, and not how the client would benefit at the end.

The conversation

This was my personal challenge (and a common professional dilemma I’m sure we’ve all faced with our clients): should I or shouldn’t I challenge her. Her resistance and tone in response to my gentle questioning put me in a place where I feared for the relationship. If I pushed any harder, I didn’t know where we would end up but something in me snapped. I thought and felt that I had to be honest, because if I chose to say nothing, I knew that deep down I would later regret it.

And so I mustered all of my courage and decided that I had to say something resolving in my mind that as a minimum I was honest, but at the end of the day it was her decision. Mind you, this isn’t something that’s taught in any coach training sessions either as this would be seen as being directive.

So I said to her, “Joycelin, because of our relationship, I am going to be really candid and say that I really disagree with this approach of offering a discount. Every time I ask you about why you are taking this approach you get very defensive and as far as I can see you are blatantly underselling yourself.  It seems as though no matter what I say you only want to ask for the fee you are comfortable asking for, but your fees are too low, you are not doing yourself any favours, and ultimately the client will see you differently.”

To her credit, she listened and said, “Mort, you have a point. I know I was being defensive because as you challenged me all of my fears just rose to the front. I am afraid that I could lose this opportunity and I really want it.

Does this sound familiar?

I continued, “Joycelin, you don’t need to prove yourself anymore; they have already made a decision that they want you. You were recommended by a very credible source.  The issue here is not your fee, but how much you can engage and excite them about their future. If you go in really cheap, you will not be creating the platform for them to see you as the expert.”

She listened.

She quietly added that as well as offering a discount she wanted to do some additional background work that would be outside the project objectives to ensure that the session was perceived to be valuable. What I had said was slowly sinking in and so I gently reminded her.

If you want to go in at this low fee, be really clear what it entails, what you are going to do and what you are expecting them to do, but don’t give away the store.

Aligning and asserting value – personally, professionally and financially

The conversation started to lighten up. I had now created a space for us to begin talking openly about the value and the opportunity of this project.

And so, she began to share how she was planning to handle their first meeting and that at the meeting she would ask how they would like the day to go. I knew instinctively, and from experience, that you must appear to have some semblance of clarity and confidence about how the facilitation needed to go.  You are the expert and must at least appear to be so.

In order to offer her another perspective, I began outlying what I thought the clients would be expecting to receive from the meeting. From there we began exploring what her purpose is as the professional consultant and how they were expecting her to manage the meeting. My experience from having these initial meetings is that it is important to take charge and be the professional they are expecting even if you don’t believe or feel it yet. And so, the last thing her clients would expect to do, particularly in that engagement meeting, is to advise her about the process for that day before they even know what they’re going to get.

I felt safe to share an approach (three questions) I had been considering. I was confident it would be suitable for her. These questions from the outset establishes value that helps them to focus on the outcome, not the process; it gets them excited and helps to deepen the relationship. And so we worked through them:

  1. What’s the objective for the day?

Thinking out aloud, I said to her, during the meeting, I would like to suggest that you say to them: imagine it’s the end of the day, what would you like to have achieved? Try to get as concrete an answer as possible. Joycelin said that for her it was that they (her clients) came away with a clear purpose statement.

How will the objectives be measured?

I would asked questions like: What would they like to see happen on the day? How will they measure that the retreat has been a great use of their time?

We covered some of things that might be said. For example: “We will measure it by how everyone is engaged and excited during and after the session.” “Everyone who has attended the session is feeling that we have finally cracked this thing.” “This has been a bug bear for so long but we just did not know how to deal with this.” As I gently guided her through the process, she realised that through how they measured the objectives on the day a process would emerge. This is what you are bringing to the table Joycelin, the chance for them to get clear and think these thoughts through. “Create the space for them to answer these questions themselves, ask the question and listen to how they would measure a successful day.

3. How will this be of value?

Again we explored what we thought this might be worth to her client’s organization to have this done. What difference will having this statement make, whilst bearing in mind, this is not about a statement, as the strategic retreat is much more than that. For example, some of their responses might be, “My god, finally we are on track; we have a statement that we have been putting together for the past year, and now it is finally done.” “The value is in the feeling of a renewed sense of hope.

How did she feel after going through this? She listened intently and said, “I get it. I was nervous and felt that if I went in and asked them to guide me, that would have been a better way to get my client’s buy-in, but I can see the value in this approach.

I continued – do not feel pressured to quote a fee until you are clear about these things. Taking the time to ask these three questions will add value and make you stand out.

What happened next?

How did this all end? Was it happily ever after or was she forever disappointed at my guidance? Joycelin doubled her fee and charged them substantially more than her discounted fee. She asked for 50% upfront and the balance before the session was started. There was no resistance. In my view, even that was a safe figure because when she quoted it they asked her, “Are you sure?” It sounded as if she had left a considerable sum on the table. But she said do you know what, I am happy with this. As I listened to her, I realised that at the end of the day all that matters is that you are happy with the fee you are charging.

Sometime after, we reflected on our conversation and I expressed that I was really uncomfortable about challenging her and she said, “I am so thankful that you did. I am rarely challenged in this way.  Please call me out as I do not have an opportunity to have these conversations, where I have to look at my thinking. I really needed that. There is nowhere else for me to go to have these conversations.

Imagine that. Despite my fears that was how she was feeling.

What I’ve learnt

There can be times when a problem is presented and you have a solution in mind. You know that your clients’ approach does not make sense but the travesty is that you choose not to say anything. For a myriad of reasons, we acquiesce and do not say anything primarily because of fear.

Instead we nod in agreement or stay silent. In any event, we are not taking a position which represent why we are there in the first place. Which is that they need the objective view that does not pander to their ego. If it does, what value are you really providing?

We have a duty to challenge – professionally and firmly – and contrary to some of the perceived rules from the coaching market to see if what they are thinking and doing stacks up. That is why they have engaged us in the first place. Clients invest in their future now, not the present, by how much better off they will be by having engaged you. Have the courage to ask the difficult questions and see where it goes.

First published on the good coach #sharingthevoicesofcoaching