10 ways you can help when your client is smarter than you are

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

If you are a consultant, you’re supposed to be providing a service your client can’t get on her own. The usual dynamic is “I know about my area of expertise; I can help you with that.” But what happens when your client is more of an expert than you are? Your ability to contribute to an expert client depends on a crucial skill: listening.

When I was an analyst, I was supposed to know more about my coverage areas — how technology would affect television, and later, social media — than anybody else. Now that I’m independent, I’m supposed to be an expert on structuring ideas, on writing in a corporate setting, and on books and articles that establish people as thought leaders. Most of the time, that works great — my clients have questions, and I have answers. But sometimes, they’re very, very smart, or very, very good. They know all the answers already.

Every consultant encounters this. Here’s are ten ways to deliver value when you client is smarter than you are:

  1. Validate. Many people who know their stuff aren’t sure of themselves. I’ve recently helped a brilliant podcaster to hone his book idea, and a former analyst to strike out on her own as a leading expert in her field. In both cases, their ideas were excellent and their positioning, solid. There’s some value in saying “I’ve seen hundreds of people in your situation, and you’re way ahead of nearly all of them. Keep going the way you’re going, and you’ll be successful.” This, on its own, isn’t worth paying for, but there’s no point in telling a client they’re wrong if you think they’re absolutely right.
  2. Provide a sounding board. One main problem that smart and expert people have is that they have no peers (or at least, none that are smart enough to speak intelligently with them and honest enough to tell them the truth). Such a client is often asking the unanswerable questions in her field — questions that no expert, at any skill level, could possibly answer. (These are basically the “What’s the grand unified theory of physics?” or “Will the economy go up or down?” type of questions.) What I learned as an analyst was that these clients value the high-level discussion. This was a case where “I’m not sure, but here are three ways I am looking at the question” is a good start to an answer. Such clients may also have half-thought-out (and usually slightly nutty) proposals to test — you get to poke holes in those, explain what parts are actually nutty or intriguing, and suggest where to go next with them. Smart clients values people like this, even if the consultant doesn’t provide an actual, definitive answer.
  3. Research. When I was an analyst, some clients would ask ten questions. I’d know the answer to nine. The tenth one — the one I hadn’t thought about — provided an excellent direction for future research. Such clients would be extremely grateful when I came back to them two months later and said, “Remember when you asked about X? Here’s what I found out.”
  4. Identify flaws and counterarguments. Smart people believe in what they are saying. Their usual blind spot is in seeing their idea from other points of view. If they’re ready to listen, they’ll benefit when you show the weak spots in their strategies. A smart client values the chance to identify those problems and fix them to make her idea stronger.
  5. Name things. What’s the title of your book? The subtitle? How will you name your concept? These questions usually take a collaborative brainstorm to move further. In my work with authors, I’ve helped come up with titles for about a dozen books so far. If you can help a smart client to name her concept, you’ve done her a great service — one well worth paying for.
  6. Make connections. Who you know is as important as what you know. I recently introduced an aspiring thought leader to a video expert who can help her make an impact; as a ghostwriter, I introduced a corporate client to a hybrid publisher who was eager to publish our book. These interactions have the added benefit of making both your client and the new service provider feel warmly toward you.
  7. Share a different kind of expertise. Your client may know all about one thing, but she doesn’t know all about everything you know. One of my editing clients is a great writer with a powerful set of ideas that’s perfect for a book, but he’s never written a book before; he’s happy to have me hold his his hand as he goes through that process. On the flip side, I have an editor friend who knows way more about books than I do, but not as much about how analytical thinkers structure their ideas. Whatever you know, I bet there’s something I’ve learned in the last 35 years that will be new to you.
  8. Create collaboratively. In many cases, I work with clients and their ideas and write “treatments” — a sort of marketing-style description of the idea, appropriate for a book flap. This is an intensely collaborative process — you’d be hard pressed to identify which parts of the end product are mine, and which are the client’s. But we’d both agree that the result has moved the thinking forward significantly.
  9. Identify what’s actually new. If your client has five ideas, four are probably ordinary, and only one differentiated. Identifying which one stands out is a very useful service. This came up recently as a I helped an aspiring expert — as she recited her ideas, I thought, “Yeah, heard that, heard that, heard that, . . . wait a second, haven’t heard that before.” I didn’t contribute the winning idea, but I did help her to see how she could hang her business off of it.
  10. Do the work. Smart people are short on time. Once they’ve established that you understand what they’re saying, they can count on you to do what they can’t get to: writing, building Web sites, or creating marketing plans, for example.

Take a close look at these suggestions and you’ll see they all depend on one thing: listening. You can’t validate ideas, research questions, name things, collaborate, or identify novelty unless you are intently, carefully, intelligently listening. Smart clients don’t want answers they already have. They want listeners who can help them find better ways to succeed with the knowledge and ideas they’ve figured out already.

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