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How to Handle Client Resistance

Wednesday, September 2, 2015
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No one likes to face resistance from a client, but it is a valuable experience, particularly for an HR professional in the role of an organization development (OD) consultant. Client resistance can make an assignment real, challenging, and meaningful, and an OD consultant’s approach to handling resistance can open up remarkable possibilities that may not have been thought of otherwise.

As a consultant, you should be prepared to encounter resistance and handle pushback. Here are three questions to ask yourself:

  • What is the right mindset for handling client resistance?
  • How do you identify the causes behind the resistance?
  • How do you handle resistance and get your client’s buy-in?

Start With the Right Mindset 

A consultant who is ready to handle resistance must start with the right mindset and be open to these key perspectives.

The Perspective of the Group

An instance of resistance should not be viewed only as a one-to-one interaction between you and the client, but also a scenario in which a group is involved directly or indirectly. You, your client, and other stakeholders working with a common vision and objective are part of this group. William Ury, the world-renowned expert on negotiation and conflict resolution, says that in any conflict there is always a third side, and the third side is made up of both insiders and the outsiders. The best way to see this side is to look at the resistance from the larger perspective of this group.  

The Perspective of an Elder

According to Joy Jacobs, an expert on group facilitation, the role of an elder is critical for managing conflicts in a group. Some of the qualities of this role are essential when you are dealing with resistance, such as the ability to:

  • Have a positive vision for the outcome.
  • Anticipate, understand, and articulate diverse points of view and perspectives.
  • Have faith in the client and other stakeholders.
  • Value and maintain relationships with the client and other stakeholders. 

The Perspective of Content, Process, and Emotions

When the client resists an idea or a strategy, you must pay attention to the: 

  • content—what is the client saying during conversations or written communications?
  • underlying process—does the client understand the idea or strategy?
  • emotions—what’s the emotional state of the client, and what’s your emotional state?

Identify Causes Behind Resistance

Phil Grosnick, author of “Dealing With Resistance” (a chapter in The Flawless Consulting Fieldbook and Companion), says that “resistance is the indirect expression of real concerns.” There may be various reasons why clients aren’t completely open to talking about their real concerns. It is your job to uncover the real concern by analyzing the layers of resistance.

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The resistance generally falls into two categories: apparent resistance and veiled resistance.

Apparent resistance. In this type of resistance, it becomes clear from the beginning that the client is pushing back and there is a lack of buy-in. However, the immediate reason shared by the client may not be the real reason for the hesitation. You may detect this type of resistance if the client uses one or more of these statements:

  • We already have a successful strategy; why do we need to change that?
  • We don’t have the budget at this point.
  • Aren’t you trying to force-fit your solution? The situation is quite different in our case.
  • Your proposal does not take care of our key requirements.
  • Your proposal is not aligned with our organizational values, policies, or road maps.
  • Are these solutions working anywhere? Have they been tested enough? How risky would it be to adopt these approaches?
  • Your solution is very complex.
  • Your solution is too simple.
  • We tried this before and it didn’t work. What’s the point of trying and failing again?
  • Are you crazy? Where do you guys get off?
  • Why are you wasting my time? I don’t need your help!

Let’s look at the extreme example of a client yelling at you. Ask yourself, “Why is this person yelling?” The answer could be that the client is unable to accept some genuine feedback from your team. If that’s the case, ask yourself, “Why is this person unable to accept the feedback?” The answer may lie in the client’s sense of insecurity. This is how you uncover the layers of resistance.
Veiled resistance. Some resistance may not be apparent. The response may make it seem as if the client has accepted the strategy, but the actual buy-in has not really happened. Veiled resistance is often categorized by statements or behaviors like these:

  • saying something like “good idea, but this is not the right time”
  • asking a barrage of questions ostensibly to “gain a better understanding” of your proposal
  • diverting your attention to some other issue or spending an excessive amount of time and energy on a different topic or individual
  • other nonfunctional behaviors like self-confessing, competing, seeking sympathy, special pleading, horsing around, seeking recognition, or withdrawing.

Once you have a better understanding of the reasons behind the resistance, you may look at ways of overcoming such resistance and eventually gain the client’s buy-in.

Ways to Overcome Resistance and Gain Buy-In

To effectively handle resistance, start by building trust and credibility. Once these are present, it is important to make sure that there is no doubt in the client’s mind about your genuine interest and support. Establishing trust and credibility will help you employ additional tactics to gain buy-in. 

Good Faith Response

In “Dealing With Resistance,” Phil Grosnick suggests that “the first step in dealing with resistance is to respond to the clients’ behavior with goodwill, treating their reactions as totally legitimate.” But he says “offer no more than two good faith attempts.” It also helps to be forthright with the client; Grosnick says to address the resistance directly. For instance, you could say something like “you’re yelling at me,” or “you’re asking many questions—it appears that you have some fundamental concern.”

Use Established Strategies and Tactics

Robert Cialdini proposed six universal principles of influencing, namely reciprocity, consistency, scarcity, liking, consensus, and authority. (Learn more about each principle on Wikipedia.) These and other well-known strategies and tactics can be used to overcome a client’s resistance.

Leading Large-Scale Change 

To handle resistance to large-scale change, you can follow the eight steps proposed by John Kotter in his book Leading Change, which tells us to:

  • increase urgency
  • build the guiding coalition
  • get the vision right
  • communicate for buy-in
  • empower action
  • create short-term wins
  • sustain acceleration
  • institute change.

No one wants to experience client resistance; it takes a lot of effort to efficiently handle it. However, with preparation, this situation can become less burdensome. You never know when and in what form you may encounter resistance, so it’s better not to get caught off-guard.

About the Author

Pranab Chakraborty is a senior manager in the Learning & Development (HR) team of Wipro Limited (NYSE: WIT) which is a global information technology, consulting and business process services company. As a learning and development professional, his topmost priority is to help others in developing or adapting to new skills and behaviors. He is passionate about contextualization of learning using practical experiences. In his association with the Information Technology (IT) industry for the past 24+ years, Pranab has played various roles related to client engagement, program management and delivery management functions, apart from his current involvement in the behavioral and leadership development field.

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