For this homework assignment for my elective ‘Consulting Communication’ we have to write a blog post ‘How to fix a client relationship problem’.
Here is the problem I will discuss: What should I do if I work as a consultant for a client, and a lady in the clients team is interested in me and tried to flirt with me several times during the previous work days. She then asks me out for dinner to discuss some work related things.
This situation contains several problems. One aspect is the legal and ethical issue; most consulting companies have regulations which do not allow having a personal relationship with a client. Even if the consulting company would allow it or not, I strongly believe that the only way to maintain a professional long term business relationship with the client is to not engage in any personal relationship. So the main problem is what should I do in this situation, since my client frames this dinner as a business discussion. My goal in this situation is to maintain a professional business relationship which includes two things. Be respectful and try to fulfill the clients whishes but on the other hand I have to set the boundaries between business and personal lives. What options do I have to do that?
One option is to accept the ‘invitation’. But that means that I have to manage the expectation of my client and show her that this dinner is purely business. This could be achieved by telling her upfront that I won’t come alone. A potential answer to her question could be: “That’s a good idea. I’ll bring Jonathan along since he is an expert in X, and then we can discuss the full spectrum of the project.” By answering this way I accept the invitation but at the same time I also show that I clearly have a business focus. With the start that it is a good idea, I also show that I have no doubts that this is purely business related. If for whatever reason I end up at a dinner with the lady alone I still think that it should be possible to maintain a business focus. First of all I could pick the environment where this whole meeting happens. It is a big difference if there is candle light and a piano player or not. Obviously, I don’t want either of it. But to be honest I guess she would pick the location since she suggested it and also might be familiar with all the restaurants in town. The key during the dinner is to not send the wrong signals. Have an interesting discussion is okay, but it should not be flirting. The main thing to do is not to wander too much into private conversations, but rather to focus on project related things. Another thing which will help to prevent a negative outcome is to set the time limit upfront. Let her know that I have to leave after a certain time. This way I can use this as an excuse to leave the dinner before anything happen and it also prevents the awkward situation when I want to go but the lady doesn’t.
The alternative would be to decline the offer. The important part here is the way I decline to offer. Just saying that I’m not interested is not a good idea, since she proposed this dinner to discuss project related things. Declining this offer directly would show that I’m not interested in helping the client. So I have to be more subtle about this. I think a good way to decline the offer would be to say that I have to do more work for the next day. This might work pretty well, since as a consultant there is seldom a time where you don’t have more work. If she is insistent I could push it off to the next day and go on a business lunch. A lunch is less dangerous in this aspect since there won’t be any drinking involved and the environment won’t be as nice as for a dinner. Besides, I’m sure there are other polite ways to decline the offer with a good reason.
In either case if the situation gets out of hand, I would discuss this problem with my superior. And in the worst case I would ask to be removed from this project in order to maintain a professional relationship with the company. In my opinion it would be better that the consultant company still works with the client company without me, rather than in the worst case cause a scandal because of this one person at the clients company. Besides the goal of consulting is to help the client to achieve his goals and the goal for the consulting company is to do a good job which could lead to additional work in the future. In this context one person should not matter that much as long as these goals are still achieved. But removing me from the project has a negative side too. As it seems I was obviously not able to maintain a professional business relationship with the client which leads to additional coast for the consulting company. They have to send a replacement which needs to be trained and I need a new assignment. If that happens more than once I’m sure the consulting company would blame me and not the flirty client. After all I’m the consultant and should be able to deal with this problem myself. Since all the other consultants aren’t experiencing such problems.
The remaining question is: What would I do in this situation? I guess there is not a single answer which is true for every situation. It depends on how well I know the client, how long have I worked with the client and also details of the dinner like the environment and place. But I’m sure that declining such an offer would be the best way to handle such a situation when you notice that there is more than just business involved. Declining can prevent many small issues or explanation as a result of such a dinner. Besides can a client hate me for declining a dinner?
Comments or additional thoughts on that topic are encouraged!