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3 Ways to Disagree With Your Clients That They’ll Appreciate You For

By Michael Zipursky

We’d all like to be right 100% of the time and yet we know that happens about as often as it snows in Hawaii.

So what should you do when your client is wrong? How do you break the news to them?

Realize that most leaders aren’t surrounded by staff that ‘tell it like it is’. Instead they are often afraid to break any bad news with senior management.

Focus on the positive, not on the negative. Look at the challenge as an opportunity to fix and improve.

In an organization this often results in the leader believing things are okay when they really aren’t. This makes spotting the real problem even harder when the information the leader is receiving isn’t the whole truth.

If no problems exist and the business is humming along smoothly they wouldn’t need a consultant, would they?

You step in and have to break the bad news that things aren’t as rosy as the client believes…

Here are 3 ideas to consider:

1. Establish how you work – at your first meeting tell the client that you’re going to be very honest with them. That much of what you uncover will be positive, however, if they’re company is like others you’ve worked with before, you’ll also find room for improvement.

Because the client will now be expecting you to share both the good and the bad, it’s easier for you to share it with them when you find it – and they’ll be ready for it.

2. Believe what you see – Have you ever seen the program Undercover Boss? CEO’s from various companies dress themselves up and go ‘undercover’ to work in their own organization. Their employees don’t recognize them and they get to see up close and with their own eyes where things are going well and where things can be improved.

Consider taking the same approach in your own work. You’ll hear all kinds of things from employees, management and the CEO. Don’t draw conclusions from that information. Dig deeper so that you can see and experience it yourself. Then share that experience and encourage your client to experience it themselves. It’s hard to disagree when you’ve faced an issue first-hand.

3. Tell them clearly – I recently had a discussion with one of my coaching clients. Based in South America this consulting firm owner had a weight on his shoulders. The challenges with his employees and the market kept coming up and what he had or hadn’t done right in the past. I told him not to worry about the past anymore, look at this as an opportunity to focus on the future and get things right going forward.

You can do the same thing with your clients. Focus on the positive, not on the negative. Look at the challenge as an opportunity to fix and improve. The last thing you want is to spend time playing the blame game and talking about ‘what if…’. What’s done is done, help your client to see what’s ahead and take the steps to capitalize on it.

Is this information helpful? Let me know in the comments below. What approach have you found effective to tell your clients they’re wrong?

20 thoughts on “3 Ways to Disagree With Your Clients That They’ll Appreciate You For

  1. ckobill says:

    Transparency is a fundamental part of engagement. It also helps to have a cooperative client who wants to be engaged..even if they are not the ones who placed you on contract in the first place.

      • Omar says:

        Being honest saves both the client and the service-provider. You have NOT to consider and worry about the feeling of the client toward breaking the bad news. Some cases we handle include, as an example, a client who approches seeking your support and may ask you “to do the check-up and not to mention MALARIA in the lab results”. He or she has already given to you an instruction on how the results would look like. Yet you need to foreget about their desires and be honest with them.

        • Omar – yes, and setting those expectations early on really does help with this.

  2. Ray Bigger says:

    Probably because so few people will tell the CEO what he needs to hear, opting to tell him what he wants to hear, you will finds that said CEO welcomes the openness and honesty. At least you can look yourself in the mirror and say “I told him what he needed to hear” and if you have to walk away you can do it with your head held high

    • Ray – exactly. I’ve always found over the years that CEO’s and other leaders appreciate honesty – even if it goes against what they want to hear ‘initially’ – it positions you as a real trusted advisor.

  3. Often difficult (we’re socially conditioned from an early age to be ‘nice’, and not point out faults and flaws) but if we’re going to be valuable to our clients we need to be straight shooters and tell it like it is. As you’ve said, if you’ve prepared the ground properly by making sure the client knows and expects that you may be the bearer of bad news, and established a positive, collaborative relationship right from the start, this is far easier. Our value to clients comes from asking questions that no one else dares ask, and pointing out things that no one else dares bring up. Like the kid in the fable, sometimes the best thing is to tell the king that he’s got no clothes.

    • Love the example Jeff and your continued success is a testament to how you’ve applied this and the actions you’ve taken to build your business.

  4. Steven Secon says:

    However you differ still needs to be stated diplomatically and with regard to the fact you may be wrong.

  5. garethkane says:

    Great article. I once told a CXO straight up that his strategy was flawed and it was my last interaction with that client. Not everybody is prepared to take honesty in the way some commentators here have experienced. I now realise I should have told him he was missing some opportunities in his strategy…

    • Gareth – thanks for sharing that personal story. Helpful for everyone to learn. Having that conversation up front to set the expectations will help. I’ve always found it effective to use the approach of explaining that they are ‘missing opportunities or there are areas for improvement’ rather than telling a buyer/client flat out they are ‘wrong’. May seem like a subtle difference, one is more confrontational the other acknowledges a negative and puts a positive spin and focus on it.

  6. Bill Alpert says:

    Nope. People don’t want to see that they are wrong or incompetent. This will only get you fired.

    • Bill – most buyers hire consultants because they are looking for an expert to solve a specific problem. They know there is a problem, even if they aren’t sure exactly what it is. As I wrote in response to Gareth’s comment, choice of language is important. Telling a buyer they are ‘wrong’ or ‘incompetent’ isn’t the best choice of words.Your language should communicate respect and sincerity. BUT also be honest and transparent – without holding back.

      • Bill Alpert says:

        Well of course, each situation has its uniqueness. Though it’s my feeling that a lot of consultants get hired to confirm that an existing approach to a problem is sound. So the consultant simply asks a lot of questions and reflects the answers back as a “solution.” Which is nothing more than the status quo restated in fresh language.
        IMHO, It is better not to “disagree” with a client. Instead, change the conversation entirely, and let the client re-discover the solution you propose as if it’s his/her own.

  7. Brent Seddelmeyer says:

    FWIW, it snows every year in Hawaii (

    More importantly I think it is better to think of what you are doing as providing more information to your client to potentially change their thinking. I believe that they are more open to that approach than to flat out disagree.

    • Brent – doesn’t snow that often though, right 😉 The idea isn’t to disagree, it’s to set the expectation that you’ll be very honest with the client and won’t hold back what you find – to share both the challenges and the opportunities so you can work with them to solve the problem and deliver results and value.

  8. Jim Spriggs says:

    Clarity is key. Don’t accept things at face value – when a client says “we do this” or “we have a …”, respond with “show me”, see the evidence. You’ll be amazed at how often what someone thinks to be the case turns out not to be. When you have the evidence, show the client, saying where it came (but not necessarily who from) from and why its a problem (if it isn’t obvious). Also, use “vox pop” in presenting evidence, quotes from what people say

    • Agreed Jim – diagnose the situation, don’t simply prescribe without first listening and gathering the truth of the situation.

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