Consulting Rule #3

I often state a truism that I stole from someone I can’t remember – In consulting, as in medicine, prescription before diagnosis is malpractice. (If you are this person, I apologize, I owe you a beer.)

In a recent conversation while on a walk with my wife, Christine, we concluded that there is a corollary to this rule – You can’t prescribe if the patient/customer will not let you diagnose.

I hear about this problem more than a couple of times a week from Sage partners with whom I am speaking. It usually manifests itself like this, “Ed, I was trying to get an understanding of why the customer thought a request they had made was important, and they told me that they don’t reveal that information to outsider consultants. What can I do?”

My initial response is a half-kidding, “Run away!”

After explaining that I am kidding, sort of, I state, “Perhaps you should suggest to them that they reconsider and explain that while you understand their concern, it is not in their best interest to withhold this information. Consider this – if you go to a cardiac surgeon and just ask for a triple bypass operation, any ethical doctor will first insist on a few tests before performing the surgery. Certainly, they would want to take your blood pressure and heart rate. Would it make any sense to say, ‘Hmm, I don’t know, I don’t think I want to reveal that information to you.’? Clearly, it would not. I am in the same situation as the doctor, without a full understanding of the problem, it would be unethical for me to proceed. So, I ask you to reconsider and answer my questions. If not, I really don’t think I can help you.”

Is this hardball? Maybe, but your only alternative is to violate your ethics and prescribe before diagnosing.


  1. Matthew Tol says:


    Taking your point a bit further – not only is it unethical to prescribe without appropriate diagnosis, it’s negligent.

    Unfortunately, a lot of our colleagues out there will take on a client merely because “they smell like a chequebook” and not properly assess whether they’re the right fit (either way).

    If you haven’t got a relationship whereby you have trust and respect, then you don’t have the basis on which professional advice can be given (and taken).

    With many issues like this, it is incumbent on the advisor to ensure they can perform the role required by their customer. If they’re just guessing at what’s required, then it’s a recipe for disaster.

    I would rather spend twelve hours working out a customer’s needs and determining whether I can work with them than get five weeks in to a job for them and discover that the relationship is terminal. Having built the relationship and understanding before engagement, we’ll both know what’s what and how it will work.

    Result? Everyone is happy, no fee complaints and a great outcome.

    Flow on? Referrals to other customers. Just. Like. Them.

  2. Thanks, Matthew, I appreciate your furthering my point.

  3. It’s so obvious that it shouldn’t need saying, but of course it does.

    How can any professional start proposing solutions in a way that benefits both parties without knowing the client has a thorough understanding of the problem?

    We keep trying, this side of the pond.

  4. Thanks, David.

Speak Your Mind


Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.