Third article in a series . . .
If you work as a business advisor, you know that engagements can be unpredictable. Whether helping the owner take advantage of a changing marketplace, or optimizing the business to prepare it for sale, these initiatives typically involve significant planning, coordination, and effort from both advisors and their clients. Despite the best of intentions, these large-scale projects don’t always proceed smoothly.
There are many things that can affect the advisor-client relationship and make it harder for clients to accomplish the tasks associated with the project. This article is the third in a series highlighting matters that should be considered by advisors and clients before they agree to work together.
“In life, change is inevitable. In business, change is vital” – Warren G. Bennis
It’s very common for clients to seek a business advisor to help them make modifications or improvements to their business. They may genuinely want things to be different, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are comfortable initiating and implementing changes to their business.
Consider the case of Sam, the 70-year-old owner of a firm that brokered construction equipment. Sam hoped to fund his retirement from the sale of the business, and he engaged an advisor to help him streamline the operation so that it would be more appealing to a buyer. Sam had an encyclopedic knowledge of nearly every piece of large machinery east of the Mississippi and he was acquainted with many of the larger buyers and sellers in the region. The advisor recommended that Sam embrace the Internet and list his inventory on his website. Sam felt his success was due to his telephone outreach to prospects and he wasn’t keen on shifting toward an online approach. He rejected the advisor’s advice and terminated the engagement.
Advisors should discuss the amount of change that will likely be required to meet the goals of the project, and they should explore the prospective client’s attitude toward change. The advisor may acknowledge that change can be difficult, but both parties should focus on the benefits that will accrue from the change(s) rather than the effort involved. Here is one way to begin the conversation:
“This project could involve making some significant changes to your business. Please tell me about a past instance when you modified your standard operating procedure. What led up to it, and what was it like for you and your employees?”
The advisor should listen to determine whether the client was proactive in making the change, or at least didn’t wait until the situation was dire. Was the client nervous about the prospect of change or did they see it as a potentially helpful step? Did the client accept guidance from experts and advisors regarding the change? Did the client take an active role in implementing the change and help staff adjust to it?
If the client appears reticent about making changes, the advisor might say the following:
“My sense is that all things being equal, you’re not necessarily inclined to make changes in your business. That’s understandable; even if it leads to a good outcome, change isn’t always easy. Let’s talk about how much and what type of changes this project might involve. That way, if there are certain things you would be uncomfortable with, we’ll know that ahead of time and can discuss options and alternatives.”
It’s possible that a client may be extremely eager to make changes and solicit (if not expect) suggestions from their advisor. This may appear to be a client strength, but keep in mind that our weaknesses are often our strengths taken to excess. Both parties will need to ensure that the client’s embrace of change doesn’t inadvertently lead to the pursuit of unnecessary modifications. If the client appears too eager to make changes or wants to make too many, too quickly, the advisor might counsel:
“I can appreciate how invested you are in making changes, but we also need to make sure we’re strategic in how we roll them out. Let’s talk about which ones should be prioritized, how we can get the most leverage out of them, and so forth.”
This is the third in a weekly article series titled “Assessing the Advisor-Client Relationship”. Each week, I will explore a new element affecting the advisor-client relationship in some detail. These articles will help you understand potential opportunities and obstacles when working on long-term strategic engagements. The next article will explore the client’s future time perspective.
Please feel free to reach out for more information or assistance proactively assessing the potential advisory relationship.