Thursday, March 27, 2008

Client Service and Idi Amin

You may be asking yourself, "Where is he going with this one?" In the post from a few days ago titled Followership, we covered the issue of speaking truth to power. But is it enough just to speak it, or do you have to actually be successful at it? How far can and should you push your point of view?

In the movie The Last King of Scotland, Forest Whitaker portrayed Ugandan President Idi Amin in a story about a young Dr. Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), who was bored with the family practice at home so he travels to Uganda, and as fate would have it, meets Amin. Impressed by the young doctor, Amin asks him to be his personal physician. Nicholas welcomes his new position.

As the confidant/client relationship grew over time, Amin would consult with Nicholas on a broad range of matters. (Here's where it gets interesting). There is a terrific portion of the film when Nicholas is consulted about whether to expel the Asians from Uganda, and he strongly urges against it. Amin dismisses his advice, moves forward despite Nicholas' counsel, and the results are as disastrous as Nicholas had predicted.

Following the debacle, Amin was enraged at Nicholas, blaming him for the failure. A stunned Nicholas replied, "I told you NOT to do it." To which Amin responded, "Yes, but you failed to convince me." It was a scene that left Nicholas and the audience in stunned silence.

This may sound a bit twisted, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Amin had a point. There's a lesson here. Could Nicholas have really stopped Amin from doing what he wanted to do? In that situation, probably not. In Nicholas' defense I thought he made a pretty strong case. However, under many circumstances one CAN effect change in high stakes situations if they truly care enough to do so.

It's not enough to speak truth to power in a "check off the box," CYA sort of way. If you're going to bother to speak the truth; if you're going to truly put yourself on the line for the good of your client, then know what will move your audience and make your case in a manner that is compelling and convincing. Act with the same level of conviction as if the fate of your own company hangs in the balance.

I should confess that The Last King of Scotland metaphor may not be the best example. It doesn't actually work out too well for Amin or Nicholas. I'm banking on the fact that your client is no Idi Amin, and you will bring better judgment to the table than young Dr. Garrigan.


  1. Great story. Certainly gets one thinking. But wouldn't most of us pause when challenging a client or boss, if the challenge is really likely to put one's job at risk (what with the mortgage and all)?

    I wonder, is there a way to 'put it on the line' without making it a life threatening experience?

    I think the answer may lie in the WAY you put it on the line, i.e., using a fact-based approach, rather than one that's more emotionally based.

    I'm reading a great book on exactly that point. It's called Competing On Analytics - The New Science of Winning, by Thomas Davenport and Jeanne Harris.

    It shows how one can create a fact-based argument for nearly anything, and that fact-based arguments are not only usually correct, but also very likely to be persuasive.

  2. I think you nailed it in terms of the "way you put it on the line." This takes two forms. As I mentioned in the post, you have to know your audience. It's not only about the kind of argument you make whether it's emotional, factual etc., but in what forum or context you make it. Like all effective communication, we have to exercise great skill and judgment to achieve success. If we feel strongly enough, we should care enough not only to voice our point, but to truly persuade.

  3. The Last King of Scotland being a fictional account of the horrific reign of Idi Amin, we can be assured that Idi would have eaten any dissenters instead of asking to be convinced by them.

    We need not fear that our clients are cannibals, but we should always be conscious of tendancies to blame the messenger (whether that's for bearing bad news or cousel that runs counter to their own insticts). In Marshall Goldsmith's book What Got You Here Won't Get You There, blaming the messenger is one of the 20 grevious things that a leader can do.

    This fear of receiving blame, whether for something that turned out wrong that we could control, or something that was beyond our control, is central to the agency-client dynamic.

    As it turns out, most clients want to be told about bad news by their agencies first, before they read negative press shared with them by colleagues and are blindsided. They actually appreciate the diligence of an agency in showing this news to them. And, if they're good clients, they won't blame the agency for something outside of their control.

    The same goes for providing them with counsel. They will be more likely to becoome upset because the agency didn't bring a consideration to the table, rather than condemn them for stating their opinions. This has proven to be true time and time again.

    However, if the agency can't convince them strongly enough, then they risk being eaten alive. Knowing how hard to push is an art, but not pushing at all is a missed opportunity to add value.

  4. I agree, great add by Techno. Trouble is, we've all had 'not so great' clients... or even clearly horrible ones.

    Here's a question to the group: You manage one such horrible client. They also happen to be extremely profitable. You're under tremendous pressure to raise agency revenue and profits. The top brass is unlikely to agree that this is the time for you to die on your sword. Do you tread a bit more lightly on a key client issue? Attempt to bend them, but not break? Or do you go forth, and fight the ethics battle with your boss later?
    We all know what the books say. I'm asking you what you'd do in a real-life situation...

  5. Great conversation! I think we have three distinct issues at work here. First, is about making a real stand with your client versus taking a ceremonial CYA position - saying just enough to make the point, but without any earnest attempt to persuade. (The false choice here is that one feels they risk the relationship by challenging the client). While it may depend on the client, one likely places the relationship at equal risk for being a yes man/yes woman). Second, is bringing your client bad news. I agree with TechnoTwists that a client would rather hear bad news from you than find out about it elsewhere - you should want it that way too. That said, if you're going to break the news about problems it helps to bring solutions as well. Third, and to Martin's point, one has to use good judgment when it comes to how hard and how long to push. There's no need to jeopardize the relationship; exchanges such as these should help you strengthen it. (See distinct issue one). Personally, I always try to make a persuasive argument, but I don't always prevail, and that's OK. People given the same set of facts can reach different conclusions, and one choice is not always totally right or wrong. What's more, you should trust your client. Your client typically knows what information you are using to draw your conclusions, but you should allow for the possibility that you are not always aware of everything your client knows, and often times they cannot always share everything they know with you. If the decision doesn't go your way, but you made an earnest effort, then it's time to move forward and get behind the determined course of action. You'll never go wrong being a professional.

  6. Interesting!

    This is something I'll have to think about ...



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