How Equal Experts values helped our team when the customer rejected our recommendations

This is the story of how Equal Experts (EE) values were tested during a recent engagement. When the main stakeholder objected to our findings, we lost confidence and began to question ourselves – but ultimately decided to fight for what we thought was right for the customer.

In this post, we’ll explain how our values helped guide our response, as well as share some valuable lessons learned.

First contact with a new customer is a bit like being an expedition team setting out into unknown territory.  From our research, we knew the customer’s ask, namely: “Can we get to where we want to be, from where we are now, with what we have today?” With this question in mind, we embarked on a journey of information ingestion, examining everything from company history to architecture. As our work progressed, we discovered evidence that the cost required to evolve the platform into what the customer wanted would be prohibitive. We knew we had to tell them the truth now, but what’s the best way to break the news?

The “rip it off quick” method was our best option. The team created a deck explaining the reasons why the platform could not evolve into the desired future state. We provided the evidence to support our findings and the message was clean and clear.  The work was complete, but no one felt terribly enthusiastic about what we had discovered. The customer didn’t like what they were hearing and accepted our findings merely as a version of the truth. This is when things got weird. Suddenly, the questions changed and a second engagement was started. Doubtful that we would discover the truth they wanted to hear, we advised the customer accordingly, but they were adamant. So we began to plan another engagement.

In the beginning is the end. Our new approach involved a three-week extension, spent gathering broader perspectives on the problem from colleagues in product, sales, marketing and beyond. The customer agreed after altering the ask to include specific questions beyond the scope of the initial investigation. 

The wisdom of the crowd requires quiet. Rather than bringing together all the different stakeholders into a room and running a workshop, we decided to interview everyone separately, asking the same open-ended questions. This was to avoid certain senior stakeholders exerting undue influence over the conversation. We wanted interviewees to be candid with us, which meant they needed to feel safe – and individual interviews were the best methodology for that.

We began to feel like Punxsutawney Phil. In total, we ran the same interview 22 times, creating over 25,000 words of notes. We interviewed a broad range of people, ranging from those who worked closely with their customers on a daily basis, through to the CEO as well as one of the co-founders of the company. Everyone added value – even when contradicting something someone else had said.

This kind of work is like archaeology. Slowly, we uncovered the truth. Not only was it impossible for the current platform to evolve to match their desires, but it was also inadvisable – the proposed ideal state would harm their value proposition to the market. In other words, achieving their technological aims would create significant commercial turbulence. And this wasn’t doom-mongering either – by piecing together various clues, we’d learned that two of the customer’s biggest clients had already left. If they followed their plan to its logical conclusion, they’d likely lose many more clients and put their business at risk. During a check-in with the main stakeholder, we gently broached the subject and received a strong reaction. Our method was criticised, and our recommendations described as wanting. We were told, in no uncertain terms, to ignore the wider business considerations and only focus on the technological aspects of the ask.  

But nothing happens in isolation. We were faced with a difficult choice – we could bend to the will of the stakeholders, or we could try and complete the engagement as fully as possible. This was a difficult conversation for the team. Some of us felt dejected, disempowered and unmotivated.  But we made a choice when we started and we stuck to that choice. To truly understand a problem we must explore every related issue, in order to “do the right thing by the customer by uncovering all the truth, because nothing happens in isolation.” 

Nearing the end, we were feeling tired and paranoid. By this time the team was showing the strain. We’d gathered vast amounts of information, distilled experiences, evidence and insights into a cohesive narrative. We agreed that our final findings would include non-technical considerations because that was the right thing to do. But the ghost of misalignment still lingered over us like a heavy shadow. Were we doing the right thing? Could we still deliver a clear and consistent message without it being rejected?  Had we completely missed the goal of the engagement?

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple”Oscar Wilde

It’s a precarious dance at best when one tells the truth in a simple manner. We decided that the best way to pitch our argument would be to present four options across a spectrum. The relative strengths and weaknesses of each one were laid out, according to the evidence we’d gathered, and our collective experience of other, similar projects. In this way we put the idea that the current platform could be ‘evolved’ into the desired future state into the proper context – it was essentially impossible, and contained substantial business risk.

The more clear the truth, the more hostile the room. After a lively Q&A, the customer offered feedback. “The team’s findings only told them what they already knew.” Crushed, the team asked each other: Did we do enough? Had we followed the right path? Could we have done more? We knew that regardless of the customer’s reaction, our findings had provided them with a valuable perspective on their issues in a way they could never have achieved on their own. The truth was painful for them to hear, but our recommendations came from a good and honest place – they may not have been what they wanted to hear, but they were what they needed to hear.

Digestion takes time, realisation more so. Later, we learned that the customer’s leadership team had spent the entire day engaging with our findings. Instead of shelving away our work as an uncomfortable truth, they were actively considering the options. Indeed, they not only agreed with our assessment but also with our recommended path forward. For consultants, this is what’s important – not a warm fuzzy feeling of being praised, but the satisfaction of knowing that we did the right thing by the customer for the right reasons, whilst staying true to our values.

Four weeks after delivering the truth. A surprise invitation from the client to join them in reviewing their action plan landed in our inboxes. We knew they had read our summary and recommendations but weren’t aware of the chain reaction it had sparked within their business. The client had run a series of deep-dive workshops to explore the recommendations, and based on that work had designed a plan to help them realise their desired future state. This plan not only encompassed their technology estate but also their ways of working and their approach to software delivery. We were surprised, humbled and proud to see that our work had driven so much of their thinking and planning.  We were thanked by their senior leadership team for our honesty and our diligent investigation. We were happy to offer help reviewing their plan and provide our insights.  At last, we were a healthy, positive team, all pointing in the right direction for the right reasons.

Here are the main lessons learned:

Lesson One: When you feel unsure, talk about how you’re feeling

If you’re feeling anxious as a result of challenging customer feedback, the best thing you can do – as long as you feel comfortable doing so – is to share how you’re feeling with others. In this instance, the team spoke to one another throughout the engagement about how they were feeling, and in that way, they were able to support one another, decide which elements of the customer’s feedback they would address, and on which issues they would hold their ground.

Lesson Two: When delivering value, all the pieces matter (EE value: We narrow our focus, but widen our context)

Organisations are complex. Solving problems, even if on the surface they appear to be relatively straightforward, are rarely if ever that simple. To paraphrase Dr Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park, just because we could do something with technology doesn’t mean we should. If a customer pushes back and tries to limit the scope of your work, you should share with them how and why a broader perspective will deliver better results in the long run.

Lesson Three: Remember that change is painful (EE value: We leave our ego at the door)

It’s important to remember to have empathy for those hearing hard truths. Great companies are built by people who care deeply about their work, and no one comes to work to do a bad job. If a stakeholder’s first reaction is to reject a painful truth, don’t breeze past it, or judge them for responding emotionally. It is a natural and completely understandable reaction – and often the first step to accepting the idea and taking it forward.

Lesson Four: Let the evidence be your guide (EE value: We fight for what we think is right)

If your recommendations to a customer are robust they run the risk of being met with hostility and resistance, if not outright rejection. You may start to doubt yourself. In these circumstances, the key question is: “Can I back up my recommendations with evidence?” As long as your research was performed well, then you will be able to meet any objections from stakeholders by tracing your conclusions back to the extensive evidence base you’ve gathered.

Lesson Five: The customer should always decide on what’s best for them (EE value: We respect our customers’ context)

No matter how long an engagement lasts – be it ten years or ten days – we will never understand our customers’ contexts as well as they do. Many customers engage EE because they’re at a crossroads, and need help to make a decision – this way or that? The greatest value we can add in these situations is to provide a robust perspective that enables them to better understand the absolute and relative value of their different options. From the first, we knew we were going to provide a range of options, along with our recommendation on what we believed was the best way forward. But at all times we made sure that the customer’s right to choose their preferred path was preserved.

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This article was written in collaboration with Werner Smit (Delivery Lead)  from Equal Experts South Africa