The boundary of consulting: say “no” to your client

As a MBA student of Tulane University, I have been granted many opportunities to join oversea consulting projects. In the past two years, I have provided my consulting suggestions to an Italy historic high-end wine maker, an Argentina entrepreneur devoted to culture heritage and women’s right, a Chinese large-scale apparel manufacturer, and many others. And I found saying “no” to my international client has been quite a challenge when they request something that is beyond my responsibility as a consultant: one of my client asked my team to work as sales force and marketing the product to some potential retailers; another asked whether I can work for them a customer-service representative and handle their returning order, etc.  Here is some experience I would like to share:

  1. Clearly states the responsibilities of the consultant before the project starts. At the initial stage of the consulting project when the consultants introduce themselves to the client, the team can make a clear statement regarding what is the purpose and flow path of this school project, and how the teammates, as consultants, will provide the best service possible, but the best thing can be done is to submit a report and build some connection for the client, nothing beyond.
  2. If you encounter some misunderstanding in the middle of the project, you should clearly reclaim your standpoint and justify your rejection. You may say “thanks a lot for your insights, we found it very helpful for our research. We noticed your requested something that is beyond our capacity. While we would love to help you on that, we are not authorized to do so, because…..” while you do so, remain sensitive to local culture and pick the right way to reject unreasonable request.
  3. When you complete research and diagnosis, and are ready to move forward to the step of drawing recommendations, always make sure your recommendations are practicable, always take clients’ capability and demands into consideration and always list concrete steps of plan implementation and detailed instruction chronologically. An exquisite execution plan can save you a lot of time and keep you away from client’s following dissatisfaction and discord.
  4. After the project is completed, facilitate client to learn. Client seek consultant for help majorly because they are not able to identify the problem or draw up solutions. The best solution we can provide would be help our client to study how to do it themselves. Most of time you may suggest the client to hire someone with specialty of this problematic area as a formal employee, or suggest to adapt one or some of the current employee to work on this area as a specialist.

At last, please be patient and approachable so client will provide information you need for the project as reciprocity. Do not expect that our client fully understands the nature of the project because most of the times they do not; rather, maintain amiable so the client will turn to you for help.


Jieni Li