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Diplospeak in Client Management: When and How?

In Professional Services we are normally on one of two sides, either “the client is always right”, or “there comes a time to tell the client they are just plain wrong.” How do you make both true? What to do with a client who is often easily frustrated when spoken to in a candid and direct manner.

I grew up spending a lot of time watching people both sell large projects and advocate to politicians. When you’re trying to get a commitment on building something as large as a hydroelectric dam, you end up having to deal with every possible personality type, from the hyper focused profit driven business man, to the politician, who, while is altruistic about the environment and serving his constituents, is still “a politician”. In such a complex environment of personalities, there is always at least one person that has an oppositional personality, and in those cases, no matter how polite you may be in your candidness, they take offense.

There were times I found myself amazed at how that team would deal with a difficult situation in a way that at first it almost seemed like they were speaking in circles and not directly addressing what was just said by the people standing in front of them. They would have seemingly impossible levels of patience while the people across the table from them were demanding, adversarial, and sometimes even irrational in the communication of their points of view. The project managers’ way of, not just staying level-headed, but actually finding a way to address the issue while skirting the confrontation almost seemed like verbal dancing. I was fascinated.

It was years later, I heard the term “diplospeak” which is shorthand for a diplomat’s way of conveying very difficult messages without ever being confrontational. They must remain truthful and excessively polite in the face of high tension political environments. In their line of work, simply using the wrong words could quite literally start a war.

Today I am lucky enough to work with talented people who are great at serving clients through being polite, honest, and direct. That combination solves 90% of the hard conversations in client services. However that still leaves the other 10% wanting for a solution.

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What do you do when a client comes to you that already has the answers? They have already completely thought out and researched the solution to their problems, and have come to you solely for execution. We’ve all had this scenario, and we’ve used the ‘you’re paying me as a professional, so listen to my professional opinion’ method to show them what they have missed. But those of you who have been doing this long enough, can admit coming across at least a few client personalities who were easily frustrated and may have even take offense at a direct posture.

I know a lot of you are going to say, “well that’s why we choose our clients carefully and always reserve the option to ask them to find another professional services agency.” I can think of at least two different experiences, where that would not have played out well. In one instance we had a client that was not purposely sensitive, and we were compassionate about helping them to both our gains. And in another case, where it was strategically important for our agency’s goals to continue working with a difficult client.

Here are some tools that I have worked on honing for years for just this scenario.

Take a deep breath and never take it personally

This is business not personal; remember that and embrace it, while at the same time remaining passionate about solving the problem. It is human nature to react. We are not machines, and we cannot keep all our reaction internally 100% of the time, but the key is to not let that stop you from moving forward. If you can actively listen to your client, remember that they are just as human as you are. A client might be elevated, but that doesn’t mean everything they're saying is rooted in some real problem. There will be useful bits of information in what they’re saying, it’s just not coming in a very pretty package, so filter out the wrapping paper. If you can do that, you’ve achieved being a true professional consultant – or as we call it in Italian, a consigliere.

Ask questions & ask leading questions

When the person across the table from you starts making demands, or throwing out general or obscure statements, instead of responding, ask a practical question. Ask about what they mean by this word or that word. Ask what timeline they need their request in. Ask what their expectations are. Ask what would look like success for their request. We all like to make statements. We especially like doing so when we’re worked up or defensive. Making counter-statements will come across as adversarial during a moment of opposition.

Consider instead how your point of view can be communicated in the form of a leading question. Instead of stating that the added functionality is out of scope or asking a direct version like, ‘how do we cover the cost for the added time?’ ask them, “without adding time or budget, how do you see us fitting in this new feature?” Often just turning the question around will get the client to reconsider their stance and help nail them down to reality. It gives them the opportunity to see the request they just made as possibly unreasonable, while providing a way for the two of you to find a practical solution together.

Having compassion for the other point of view

As paid professional consultants we can get stuck in our own problem solving patterns. We have a tendency to get so entrenched in the problem staring us in the face, that we forget that there are people with their own feelings and emotions on the client side. Part of solving a problem is often persuading others to help you remove the issue, and gaging for those feelings and emotions is an important part of persuasion.

Making someone understand your point of view actually requires you to understand theirs first, not guessing at it, not “saying” you understand how they feel, not yessing them to get to the point where you can talk again. Truly understanding someone else’s point of view requires us each to get out of our own skin and step into their shoes. Our Chief Creative Officer James Archer likes to use the word empathy, and he’s not wrong. Getting out from our point of view helps us to win a partner in advocating for their best solution. If you solve someone else’s problem, it’ll oftentimes solve yours. Advocate for the client instead of yourself, and you’ll naturally come to a solution together.

When improvising, use “yes and…”

In Jiu Jitsu, the key principle is to take in your opponents energy, and continue it to use their force against them, rather than directly opposing it. You take it and do something with it. Go with the inertia. Saying “yes, and” is the conversational version of Jiu Jitsu.

In negotiations, people will say all kinds of things, especially if anyone in the room is in an elevated state. There’s no need and no sense in disagreeing or correcting someone suck in that mode. Take what they say and then push it along into the direction it needs to go. Let it flow through you rather than fighting it.

If a client comes to you with a request to cut the delivery time of the ongoing project in half, innocently unaware that the request might be completely unreasonable, “yes and” might look like saying quite literally yes, and then asking them to look at the details of the other parts of the project that might be affected by the new change.:  “Sure. Let’s flesh out the details of what are the most important pieces for that launch. With the complexity in pieces (a) and (b) of our project that were demanding most of the hours we had reserved in the two weeks we had ahead of us, it’s possible we might have to defer a few features to a second phase or, if we find that it would be feasible, consider adding resources/cost if the tasks can be done in tandem.

Pulleys and levers

This principle is based on the concept of cause and effect. In negotiating, for every request, there is an effect on another point. Think of conversation like a spider web, if you pull on a string, it will be longer in one direction, but shorter in another and then affect the strings attached to it too. Negotiation of services is much the same. Something needing to be done overnight requires people pulling longer shifts, which means employees work overtime, which means the business’ cost goes up, which means the client’s cost goes up. It’s the way of gravity, the way of physics, and the way of life. This is where you apply the “yes, and,” principle. ‘Of course we can do that for you. Let’s flush out the details and see how it’s going to affect our timeline [because it will] and/or budget [because it will].’
When these 5 tools are used together, it has been my experience that the most precarious of client interactions have a much better chance of going smoothly for a successful conclusion to the best interest of all involved parties.

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