'Own goals' when consulting to HR

This post takes a light-hearted look at the common gripes in-house HR professionals have with consultants. The author is known to HR Daily and works in the HR space, but has chosen to remain anonymous. If you're an HR consultant and would like to provide a counter view, please get in touch



If you work in an organisation, especially in HR, chances are you've engaged the services of an external consultant – someone with expertise you don't have in-house. There are plenty of straightforward, competent consultants out there who are great to work with. Sadly though, there are some who have the people skills of a rather backward teenager.

The initial meeting is a critical one, where a lot is decided. Chatting with some of my HR colleagues, I realised all of them have experienced similar issues with consultants, time after time. If you are a consultant conducting your first meeting with the client, these are the acts of self-sabotage that will virtually ensure your failure.

1. Forgetting to build rapport

A touch of small talk usually doesn't go astray. Of course some clients are all business and no chit-chat. But at least hold off on grilling us and getting into the nitty gritty until you're through the front door and we're all into a private room.

2. Unashamedly fishing for other contacts within the organisation

This was a common gripe from my HR colleagues. One HR manager was asked four questions in a row about the chain of command above her, straight after shaking her hand. She was practically asked to draw an organisational chart, no doubt so she could later be bypassed. Why not just say, "Take me to your leader"? Not to mention, HR staff are likely to be shot on sight by senior staff if they've contributed to another consultant contacting them.

3. Bringing along two colleagues that weren't expected

It's a bit intimidating to be sitting by oneself in a room with three people who are all trying to sell ... I mean, 'understand' one's needs. Especially when it's without warning. Unless you think you can beat a contract signature out of HR staff through pure intimidation, then it's probably counterproductive. 

4. Flattering so bluntly it makes your eyes water

It's not quite, "You're the best!" but sometimes it's not far off! "I like your dress, where did you get it?" is just a bit too blatant. You might get away with, "I'm sure someone of your experience already understands all that", but it's almost as transparent. 

5. Wanting to know too much, too soon about the company

The budget available, other consultants being considered, internal politics, executive support for the project. Even the strength of HR's relationship with other departments! It's understandable that you would want to know some of these things, but hey, it's not your organisation! Some things are private, sensitive, or just plain illegal to disclose. Know where the line is.

6. Slamming the competition

Not a good look. Nearly anything said about competitors will be disregarded – ever heard of an unbiased opinion? More appealing is giving your competitors praise - faint praise if you must.

7. Downright rudeness

Most consultants are smarter than this. But all of us HR professionals have occasionally had a meeting with a consultant whose contempt was so poorly concealed if was almost comical. Almost. Forget snide comments too – they don't go unnoticed. I mean, really? You think we're going to work with you for several months and pay you lots of money?

8. Talking too much

Of course you need to spruik your wares and convey your expertise. But don't talk for such long expanses of time that your potential client can't get involved in the conversation. You are speaking too much if a. Others can only get a word in by continually interrupting you mid-sentence, b. everyone is looking at the floor, or worse, out the window. Pause for breath.

9. Trying tricky tactics to influence (i.e. manipulate)

Scarcity, appeal to authority, obligation through reciprocity, subtle flattery, mirroring our body language, and even a bit of cold reading and fake sympathy. It's all in a day's work for some salespeople.

Will some of these tactics slip under the radar and work? Probably! But that will be offset by the ones that don't work, landing as clumsily as a gymnast with a sprained ankle, and being greeted with a silence just as awkward. Sometimes sales are made despite the clever ploys, because many HR professionals forgive embarrassing attempts to manipulate if the consultant actually has the verified expertise.

People in glass houses...

A lot of consultants could dramatically improve their success at the first meeting if they just avoided making some of these major first-meeting faux pas. So think again the next time you're about to compliment someone's tie or murmur a cliché like, "long-term strategic partnership".

That's our grumblings from a client perspective. But any realistic HR person would also have to admit that we, as potential clients, can sometimes be just as inept, incompetent and yep, rude.

What's probably even more shocking than the mistakes that consultants make? The ones that consultants see potential clients make. Now that's a list I'd love to see!

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