Consultant, Coach Or Confessor?

Do you find that there are blurred lines appearing in your role as a business consultant, particularly when working with smaller clients? As a trusted advisor, you are in a privileged position with clients and it is quite common for them to seek your help across the entire spectrum of consultant, coach and confessor. But is this wise? And should you allow the client to move you from business advisor to personal advisor during an engagement? The answer is – it depends.

This crossing of boundaries tends not to happen as often with larger clients or indeed in technical project assignments where you are not looking at the entire business, and how it is being managed. However, this smudging of boundaries is quite common where you are working closely with the CEO of a smaller business, wherein personal issues and management styles have a direct impact on the project you were recruited to work on.

The first place to start is in understanding your own core competencies and recognizing the skills you have, and want to deliver to clients. If you are qualified as a counselor or life coach, you may feel comfortable moving beyond a business setting and offering an empathetic ear and sound personal advice. In this case, you need to make the client aware of the full spectrum of what you have to offer and let them choose if they want to avail of your personal coaching services as part of your deliverables.

If you are not particularly comfortable with moving into personal areas, you need to set up boundaries at the outset and flag your discomfort, if you find that the client is drifting into areas outside of your expertise or comfort zone. However, do exercise care in how you handle this, as you do not want to create barriers that can negatively impact the assignment and the results you hope to achieve for the client.

You also need to recognize that some personal knowledge of the project sponsor and how he/she is motivated can be really helpful in deciding the right approach to your assignment, and in how you can achieve the best results for your client. Personal insights can also lead to breakthroughs that might not otherwise be possible.

When engaged in long-term assignments, wherein you may be on a retainer with a client, it is common for you to get to know each other extremely well. Once a bond of trust is built, you may find that your role becomes one of offering a sounding board to the client, whenever something new comes up in the business that challenges them. This is an invaluable service that you can offer to clients, and your unique perspective, based on knowing your client extremely well, can make a real difference to a client’s business and to them personally.

Try not to make the mistake of turning your client into a personal friend, as this can cloud your judgment. It is okay to have an open and friendly relationship, including the occasional dinner or game of golf, if this suits both of you. However, you must retain your professional relationship and be able to be completely objective in your assessments and recommendations. Becoming friends creates issues beyond your professional advice, and it can create awkwardness around the topic of money and what you are being paid for by the client. It also can create tension around where the assignment ends and the friendship begins.

Occasionally, it may happen that disclosures are made to you, which are not related to your assignment and the business you are trying to support, and this can become both awkward and tricky to deal with. For instance, one client sought my advice on how to end his marriage in the course of one of our meetings, as he felt comfortable discussing almost anything with me. As I have no experience as a marriage counselor, I quickly suggested that he needed to speak with someone in the marriage counseling business or to a divorce lawyer, and moved back to the business issues at hand.

In summary, if your business is predominantly in the business coaching or business consulting/advisory space, it makes sense to restrict your services to business services, unless you are qualified to venture into the personal or life coaching space. Do try to avoid becoming a confessor, unless you have the unique qualifications to serve your client in this specialist area.

Niall Strickland