When I graduated from college and became a management consultant, one of the first things I was taught was how to answer questions from clients without giving away my age or lack of business experience. "Instead of admitting that you graduated from college last spring, just say that it's been a while since you were in school," was the answer I was advised to give. The underlying message was that we needed to portray ourselves as having more knowledge and experience than we actually did.
That carried over into our work. When we went to clients, we were taught to have done plenty of research and to have formulated a recommendation, one backed up by solid data and analysis. We were expected to portray ourselves as smart (and frankly, that meant smarter than the clients) and advised to do nothing that might demonstrate a lack of confidence or authority.
As a result, many of my colleagues, including me, came to dislike our jobs. And to be fair, it didn't feel as if our clients liked us much, either. But that was the world of consulting, and unfortunately, in many places, it still is.
The Appeal of Vulnerability
When I left that job and joined a "real" company, I became a client myself, bringing in consultants to do projects for my organization. I suppose it was sometime during that period that I developed my current approach to consulting, one we've been using in my firm for the past dozen years. It's called naked consulting and, yes, it's as intriguing as it sounds.
The essence of naked consulting is that clients are more interested in candor, humility, and transparency than they are in confidence, authority, and perfection. That's not to say that competence is irrelevant; clients need to know that we have the knowledge and experience to help them. But once we've reached that level, the best way to differentiate ourselves from the competition—not to mention help a client implement our recommendations—is to be vulnerable with them.
Vulnerability is the opposite of, well, invulnerability. It's about honesty and authenticity. And it's about overcoming the understandable fears that cause us to say and do things that hurt our relationships with clients. Those include the fear of losing our clients' business, the fear of being embarrassed or looking stupid in front of clients, and the fear of putting ourselves in a position of inferiority with our clients. I say these fears are understandable because no one wants to lose business, look stupid, or feel inferior. Ironically, it is only by facing and overcoming those fears—getting comfortable being naked, if you will—that we can earn the kind of trust that creates loyalty with clients.
Not Afraid to Sound Dumb
What does being naked mean in practice? Naked consultants confront clients (kindly) with difficult information and perspectives, even if the client might not like what he or she hears. Naked consultants also admit their weaknesses and willingly acknowledge their mistakes. They ask potentially dumb questions and make potentially dumb suggestions, because if asking those questions or suggestions might help their clients, it is worth doing.
Even before landing a client, naked consultants will demonstrate vulnerability and take risks. They will give away their best ideas and start consulting to the prospective client during a sales call. In fact, they'll do no real selling at all, foregoing that activity in order to find a way to help a potential client even if the business never actually become a real, paying one.
If all this sounds a little counterintuitive, even crazy, that's because it is, at least to many consultants and service providers. It puts them in a position of potential weakness and exposure, and it increases the possibility that they'll be taken advantage of. But to clients, that weakness and exposure come across as honesty, generosity, and a demonstration of our humanity. And no matter how hard we may try to convince ourselves that clients expect us to be superhuman, in reality what they want more than anything else is for us to be, yes, simply human.
And here's where the irony comes in. To demonstrate our humanity, to do what will endear us to clients like nothing else, we have to do something that is unnatural for most of us. Here's hoping we can all find the courage to be unnaturally human.