A lot of times when you want advice on how to handle hard questions from clients, you would usually talk to someone that you think knows what they are doing. And they will tell you to do x, y and z. And you may think, “Ok, right, I will do x, y and z. I am going to run with it.”

And here is the problem, and I am going to explain this in a lot more detail below. Depending on your philosophy of how you show value, how you view yourself, how you build confidence, the advice that you have been recommended to follow may be worthless. It may not even be useful, given your philosophy.

This sounds like such a cryptic comment. What did I mean by that?

Your philosophy has the single greatest impact on your ability to handle a client’s hard questions

Well, think about it this way. Imagine you believe that as a consultant, as someone who is supposed to know everything, you should never ever be challenged publicly. You believe it will simply destroy your worth.

If that is your philosophy in life, then when you are openly challenged, when a client asks you a complex question for which you don’t have immediate answers, you will struggle to respond effectively. In fact, you most likely will promptly shut it down.

Hard Questions_infographic

So before you even take advice on how to deal with hard questions from a client, you have to understand what is your philosophy in terms of how you bring value to the client and what makes someone a great management consultant.

Let me give you an example of this.

If you believe, “Hey, the only way I can do this workshop is if I have a stunning resume, the client knows my stunning resume, and the client never challenges me because of my stunning resume.” If this is your philosophy, when you are challenged by a client, when a client asks you hard questions for which you may not have immediate answers, it’s a very disconcerting experience.

It hurts you because it challenges your central philosophy. Most advice teaches you how to handle this problem without changing your underlying philosophy of your self-worth.

And even if someone gave you advice in terms of how to handle hard questions it’s not going to work for you because you will give signals to the client not to ask you hard questions, you will give signals that you just can’t handle it. In other words, taking advice to answer complex questions does not work when you see the act of being challenged as a weakness on your part.

On the other hand if you are someone who believes, “You know what, I love talking to clients. I love answering their hard questions. I don’t think it is bad for my profile if clients raise difficult questions which I cannot immediately answer. I want them to raise hard questions so I can address these questions.” If that is your philosophy then you are going to be quite fine at taking advice that helps you handle situation when these hard questions are put forward.

So before you think, “Oh, this is a great article. It’s going to help me with how to deal with hard questions from clients”, I want you to think about how you define your self-worth as a consultant.

Is it someone who is an expert who should never be challenged or is it someone who is going to work with a client, take their hard questions at its sincere face value and help them figure it out?

There are quite a lot of people who would tell themselves, “If a client challenges me obviously I did something wrong and I don’t deserve to be here.” There are a lot of people who are trained to think this way.

This is wrong. Being challenged is not a weakness. You should expect this at times.

And if this is your philosophy, then no matter how well we guide you in terms of how to approach answering hard questions, the fact that you were asked hard questions in the first place makes you think something went wrong and your worth as a consultant has diminished or disappeared.

Focus on demonstrated competency

At Firmsconsulting I absolutely insist that consultants need to stay away from trying to signal that they are overconfident. I don’t like when consultants come in and are pompous, using big words, being arrogant or talking down to the client.

And plenty of McKinsey and BCG consultants do this. You may think you are not doing this, but it happens.

Speaking very confidently, being a bit arrogant and acting like you know everything is also a signal that you are sending to a client. You are sending a signal, “I know what I am talking about. Don’t ask me hard questions.

Now, if you think about it, all of those signals we send to clients are done so that they don’t question us and, consequently, make us look bad. We try to have great resumes. We try to push out our chest, speak eloquently and create the impression that we know what is happening. Yet, this is the wrong approach if your goal is to be a great management consultant.

Simply because the most important role of a consultant is not to have the answer. It is not even to find the answer. It is to find the right question to solve. And clients need to push back at times. It is part of the process.

In fact, if a client does not push back your ideas are probably not uniquely brilliant. If your ideas are easily accepted, are they truly unique?

If you actually know what is happening, if you know how to analyze any problem even if you are not a subject matter expert on the issue, if you can clearly communicate your thinking then you don’t have to worry so much about avoiding hard questions.

You should focus on demonstrated competency. Obviously, be polished, be polite, but don’t brush off a client’s tough question and don’t be afraid of hard questions. Hard questions are an opportunity to engage the client and to strengthen your and your firm’s credibility in the eyes of the client.

Two courses of action when hard questions are raised

Now that we established the importance of your philosophy, we can look at how you can address hard questions.

When a client raises a question during a workshop or a presentation, you have to address it.

You can do one of two things. You can choose to answer the question during the meeting or you can choose not to address it immediately and, instead, take it offline.

And there may be valid reasons for doing both.

For example, sometimes client will raise something completely irrelevant and its going to delay the entire workshop.

You can say, “Look, I am definitely going to take time to answer this question because I think it is an important question to address. And may I suggest that we discuss it offline to ensure we use the workshop time effectively? I think we can make a preliminary decision here today. We can then have a discussion offline and if you still will feel the change needs to happen, because it is a preliminary decision we can always incorporate your input at a later stage. Are you comfortable with that?

If you do it like that almost no one will think you are rude. Most clients are going to be quite happy with that because you handled it very politely. You have explained to them you are not brushing it aside, you are not pushing them away so that they can’t influence it. You are telling the client the decision will be preliminary. Their input can be included later.

When someone asks you hard questions, don’t dismiss them. Don’t say, “Well, our research shows this” or “This is what best practice is”. As soon as you have to revert to saying this is the answer because this is the answer, which is basically what you are saying when you say this is what best practice shows or this is what the research shows, you come across as defensive.

And what that signals to me and to the client is that you are someone who believes his self-worth is driven by the fact that he should not be questioned. I don’t like those people as consultants. They should not be consultants. Clients don’t like those people as consultants. They are very abrasive. They are usually not very insightful. And they usually do not take the necessary time to understand what they are doing.

On the other hand you may choose to address the question during the workshop, in which case you can say something along the following lines, “Look, that is a great question. And what I am going to do is I am going to step out of the workshop agenda right now for 5 minutes and show you, if we went down the path I believe you are thinking about, what could happen and then I want to let us decide if that is the path we want to follow.

So when clients question you and you believe that this is an important question, you should run with it.

And, again, you should not care about how it may impact your self-worth, because if you address the question your self-worth goes up. You should take the question, build it into the workshop, and that takes the skill. It takes a lot of skill in being able to explain things, communicate things, being able to work with a tense situation.

You have to know your material, you have to be able to speak very succinctly and you have to be able to adjust and adopt and move things forward.

Communication, brainstorming and hypotheses development are some of the tools you need to answer hard questions

I think I have pretty good communication skills, as evidenced by the fact that not a single video nor podcast in this site is pre-planned with a script. I speak as I think. I have trained myself to do that. People who do fit interviews with me are generally surprised by how much I restructure what they are saying to me, making it much more eloquent, focused and pinpointed on the question.

hard questions_quoteAnd I do this with everyone including very senior clients. Senior clients at the COO and CEO level.

The reason I do that is because I am always thinking, “What question are we trying to answer?“ That skill, that ability to structure words, adjust it, change it while keeping track of the big picture is a very important skill.

So the point I am trying to make here is this, when you are dealing with hard questions from the audience you are never going to be able to handle it well if you are one of those people who believes you are a successful consultant only if you always have an answer for hard questions or if you feel that your worth is diminished when a client challenges you.

If that is your philosophy you just can’t handle hard questions, which means you have to change your philosophy.

Your philosophy has to be one, “Look, if a client asks me difficult questions it’s an opportunity for me to engage the client.

Now lets assume that is your philosophy. The next step is to say, “Should I answer the question in the workshop or should I take it offline?

If you choose not to answer the question right away there has to be a reason. And you have to present it to a client in such a way that you don’t alienate them, like the example I offered earlier.

hard questions_condecending 2If you choose to answer the question in the workshop you have to make sure that you are not seen as condescending, you are not answering the question by brushing off the client, or you are not saying something like, “Well, our research shows”, because that is the same as saying nothing. You have to take the question, weave it into the workshop and work with it.

You have to show the client what could happen if the team takes the client’s line of reasoning forward.

And sometimes you may not have the answer and that is ok. There is a lot of times clients ask me things and I say, “Look, I don’t have the answer but I am going to hypothesize what I think could happen.

And just about every time I have done that I am able to figure out what will be the answer for the client and they never go to me and say, “Oh, go find the answer.” Instead they usually say, “Well, that makes a lot of sense. No, I don’t think we need to worry about doing additional research. That makes perfect sense to me.

This ability to think on your feet, develop hypotheses, work with the English language, work with brainstorming, use estimations and so on, is a very important skill-set when dealing with clients.

If you can only answer hard questions after excessive preparation, failure is inevitable

For a lot of you, when you think about how to build confidence in speaking, what you do is you memorize the subject matter.

Here is the problem. What happens if you don’t have time to memorize the subject matter?

hard questionsWhat this is telling me is that you can only be successful if you have time to memorize the subject matter. It means every opportunity where you have to present on short notice you can never take it.

You just can’t take it.

If your boss comes up and says, “The board wants to hear from you in two hours”, you can’t really do anything because you did not have time to prepare your response and memorize it.

So an important lesson here is that you can’t memorize everything. If you could it is still a bad strategy because you need time to prepare and if opportunity is time dependent you can never respond.

Building foundational skills to be able to handle hard questions

So how do you handle hard questions when you had no time to prepare your answers? Well, it’s the ability to think, think, think and be able to work with things when you don’t have a deep subject matter knowledge, which is why we teach skills like brainstorming, hypotheses development so much.

The conversation with the client is basically a kind of a weird case where you have some background knowledge but you usually don’t know everything about particular issue and have to use analytical tools we teach to discern the answer.

This is why The Consulting Offer is a prerequisite to make the most of the Executive Program for most clients.

All of the skills we teach in The Consulting Offer and in the Executive Program are needed by executives. I always tell people who subscribe to the Executive Program, “Its good that you are working through the Executive Program but some of foundational skills that you take for granted, that you should have learned when you were 21 years old we teach in The Consulting Offer and that is where you want to get it from.

All these skills that I am using with you now are the skills that are used to solve the cases in The Consulting Offer. And you probably have seen me do cases in real time. You have seen people give me something that I know nothing about and you have seen how eloquently I am being able to explain it. Why? Because I use these skills.

In summary

So to wrap up, decide if you are someone whose worth is defined by the fact that clients never challenge you. If you are that person you might as well go into a cave because you are not going to go very far.

If you are someone who can put up with being challenged, be ready to decide which issues you are going to deal with in the workshop or presentation and which issues you will take offline.

And remember, don’t be someone who can only answer hard questions if they are a subject matter expert because you can never ever be a subject matter expert in everything that may be raised by the client. It is not possible.

Instead, you need to develop strong analytical skills (brainstorming, hypotheses development, etc) to be able to handle hard questions, especially if those questions are in areas where you are not a subject matter expert.

And, as always, remember if you have any questions or comments I will be more than happy to answer them.

Michael Boricki is a partner and director, based in Firmsconsulting’s Las Vegas office.

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Image from studio tdes under cc, cropped.
Image from studio tdes under cc, cropped.


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2 responses to How to Answer a Client’s Hard Questions

  1. Thanks Anna. Great story and lessons.

    I am sure your hair still looks great.


  2. Awesome post! Thanks for the golden nuggets.

    This is really helpful and made me remember a project I was on a few years ago. It was an operations engagement in an area I knew almost nothing about and it was very technical assignment. The client was openly rude to consultants. She was especially discourteous to me. Perhaps, it had something to do with me being the only woman on the project.

    This post covers almost all the difficulties I had on that project. I remember my mindset was I had to know everything and be able to answer every question from her, or my reputation would be gone. I spent every free moment reading up on the industry and subject matter. I learned and learned and learned and still could not follow some of the things she would chat about in meetings, especially if she talked about particular legacy systems her company was using.

    I remember how anxious I felt when I would present a deliverable. I was scared she would ask me hard questions, which I would not be able to answer.

    Today I appreciate how unwise this was. It is not my job to know everything about the subject matter. My mindset was entirely wrong. I had to focus on skills I had and she did not have, analytical skills. I did not have to know everything. All I had to do is to use analytic tools to discern answers.

    Great piece for young consultants, and even people in the industry, so they can dodge an agony that often comes when you on a project with a hostile client where subject matter is technical, difficult and unfamiliar and where your mindset is that you have to know everything and be able to answer any question on the spot.

    Glory for hair coloring so I can cover the few grays I got from that project. Pity that those grays would be avoidable if I came across the thinking outlined in this piece earlier in my career.

    thanks for the share.


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