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Five Keys to Working with Challenging Clients

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I often consult with organizations that do not use positive reinforcement primarily. While I find success in that arena, I’ve encountered other consultants who are unable to work with challenging clients. These consultants are ill-equipped to handle the negotiations and they lack the communication and human-behavior-science skills required to navigate difficult consults. Here are five tips for being more successful:

1. Keep an Open Mind

Approach each new consult with an open mind. Don’t make assumptions about what trainers know, how they feel, or how they work. Remember that the trainers in the organizations for which you are consulting have been successful with their current approach. Ask questions and assume that everything is done for a good reason. Be prepared to see things that are new or different and to encounter procedures that you don’t understand. Instead of thinking you need to change everything that is different, work hard to understand the needs and goals of the organization. When you are called in for a consult, your clients will tell you what they want your help with; focus on the issues they bring up when you offer advice.

2. Use Small Approximations

Just as you do training animals, use small, achievable approximations with your clients.

Just as you do training animals, use small, achievable approximations with your clients. If you see things that you feel need to change or be adjusted, set clear and realistic goals. Don’t expect your client to embrace everything you present all at once. As the client makes progress, be ready to reinforce that progress. Too often, we expect clients to drop every old strategy and employ new techniques immediately. That is an unrealistic approach, one that doesn’t set them up for success.

3. Learn from Clients and Create a True Partnership

The individuals who hire us are professionals in their own fields; they possess skills and unique knowledge. Appreciate what they can teach you. If clients see that you understand their perspectives and are invested in their success, they will view you as a valuable partner. My acceptance into the search-and-rescue community, the guide-dog world, and law enforcement agencies only occurred after I had invested a great deal of time working side by side with these groups and making an effort to understand how and why they work the way they do.

4. Keep Data and Track Progress

Facts are your most persuasive tool.

Most organizations are willing to accept new strategies if they can see a direct improvement in their success rates. Show data and find the right metrics to assess and quantify progress. In explosive detection, reduction in missed finds and reduction in false alerts were the metrics that mattered most. In narcotic detection, showing that new training techniques help more drug searches hold up in court was the data that made the difference. In the guide dog community, a reduction in training time, improved accuracy, and improved working temperament was enough to get many organizations to make changes. Facts are your most persuasive tool; the presentation of reliable data can be the strongest motivator for your client.

5. Develop People Skills

I encourage every consultant to spend time learning how to use positive reinforcement with people. So often, trainers who are proficient at using positive reinforcement with animals are unable to deliver reinforcement with people—especially if it involves verbal communication. Stronger people skills also improve negotiation skills, aid in setting priorities with clients, garner better team support and buy-in, and further effective communication.

They have to want to change

We cannot force an organization or an individual to change their habits and working style. We can influence them through actions, compelling data, proven techniques, and through our own good work, but they must discover the need to change on their own. It is important to move clients forward at a pace with which they are comfortable. Influencing them using the techniques described above, we can make significant progress over time.

I know the frustration of trying to convince a colleague to try a new training technique. I have been through the process many times—and have not always had success. In cases where I did achieve success, however, the time and effort were well worth it. I encourage you to consider some of the tips I have described above the next time you work with a challenging client. I promise they will be helpful!

Happy Training,


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