Some of the frustration we feel in our jobs (when there is frustration) is our inability to get clients to understand the value we can offer. We may be having trouble articulating the benefits of our ideas, or we may be faced with clients that have preconceived notions of what they want and what we might do for them. It can seem like L&D is a disrespected profession, out of sync somehow with the rest of the organization.
I recently came across a research study that puts those feelings in perspective by showing that we are clearly not alone in our disappointments about how we are perceived. The study looked at “what clients don’t get about my profession,” and while the folks in the study were professionals in architecture, nursing, accounting, and the law – the results mirror our experiences in L&D consulting.
In a series of interviews, 85 professionals were asked about how their work was perceived. The researchers found that professionals felt that clients didn’t get the scope and complexity of their work, that clients didn’t value their professional expertise, and that clients had inaccurate or unreasonable expectations of what could be accomplished. When these kinds of problems existed in the professional-client relationship, there were productivity costs (impaired collaboration, contesting of fees, bypassing or working around the professional) and emotional costs (frustration, annoyance).
Does this sound vaguely familiar to you?
Those perceptions also sound a wee bit whiney – like a teenager complaining that no one understands her feelings. Nonetheless, these perceptions do get in the way of us doing our best work, so it’s important that we understand that expectations may be out of sync with what we can deliver – either by underestimating how our work can contribute to organizational success, or by expecting far more than is reasonable. It’s much easier to quell these kinds of discrepancies early in the relationship than to backtrack to fix a client relationship that is off track.
There are several ways that professionals in the study worked to counteract these perceptions and mitigate these costs – and you could probably name them based on your own experiences. They educate clients, explaining their role and processes more thoroughly, they demonstrate what they do, letting clients see a little more about how they do the work, and they strive to strengthen relationships, working on establishing trust and building rapport. The researchers discussed the deep importance of building trust and establishing roles and expectations early on in the relationship, and that is always good advice. Misalignment starts a downward spiral where unmet expectations trigger mistrust and further devaluing of what the profession has to offer.
Employing these tactics might also work for us. If you’re not already doing so, perhaps we should think about these things:
Educating clients. How well do we communicate our role, our services, and our value proposition to our clients? Do we set ourselves up for success from the beginning? Better still, do our results with other clients speak for themselves in terms of the outcomes we have accomplished? I’m not sure that handing out a brochure or laying out service agreements is productive – much better to talk to clients about how what we do can ensure their success. This isn’t about bringing clients up to speed on our jargon and constructs (in fact, they can be a bit off-putting). We need to speak about our contributions in language that our clients already understand.
Demonstrating our work. Can we let clients in on more of our data gathering and analysis – letting them see the thought process that goes into making recommendations and crafting solutions? Of course, we don’t want to take up too much of our clients’ time, but there are many ways that inviting their contributions alongside ours will make for a much better outcome. Creativity and innovation is enhanced when there are many perspectives in the room, and I know that I have gained insights from client contributions as well as from peers in the field.
Building relationships. How well are we listening in order to deeply understand our client’s expectations and concerns so that we can ensure that we are aligning well to achieve project goals? If we focus too heavily on flexing our expertise, we may miss other opportunities to contribute to crafting a successful strategy and achieving defined goals. Clients will trust and listen to us if they can see that we have really taken the time to understand their business and their perspective.
I find it oddly comforting that other professionals sometimes experience image problems. At the same time, I don’t want to get caught up in any kind of negativity about clients (despite the title of the post). It’s our responsibility if clients just don’t understand, but helping them understand begins by seeking to understand their perspectives as well.
To read the full research study, see What Clients Don’t Get About My Profession: A model of perceived role-based image discrepancies, by Heather C. Vough, M. Teresa Cardador, Jeffrey S. Bednar, Erik Dane, and Michael G. Pratt, in the Academy of Management Journal 56(4), August 2013.