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Getting Naked

By Patrick Lencioni

Jossey-Bass, 220 pages, $29.95

When Kendrick and Black, a prestigious, full-service consulting company in San Francisco, bought a small niche competitor called Lighthouse Partners, it figured it would quickly eliminate an insect-like nuisance and teach it the better ways of the bigger firm.

Kendrick saw Lighthouse as having a bit of a country-club approach - the partners didn't work nights and weekends.

Yet, whenever it had gone up against Kendrick, Lighthouse had a record of winning clients. And when Kendrick sales dynamo Jack Bauer was assigned to teach Lighthouse how consulting should be done - with a future promotion hanging on how effectively he steamrollered over it - he was shocked to find the niche firm actually did have a smarter approach to consulting, which was why, despite higher prices, it usually won competitions for new clients.

That put him in a tight spot, having to tell his bosses that they should reverse some of their long-standing practices, and model themselves after the firm they considered somewhat contemptible.

The two firms and Jack Bauer are fictitious, part of management consultant and ace fable writer Patrick Lencioni's latest book, Getting Naked.

But as always, there is a lot of reality in the advice he is dispensing.

And it's close to home, since Lighthouse Partners is modelled after his own consulting firm, The Table Group, and he thinks its approach can be followed profitably by anyone who provides continuing, relationship-based advice or expertise to a customer.

"Better yet, it applies to anyone whose success is tied to building loyal and sticky relationships with the people they serve," he writes.

"Getting naked," in his terms, means becoming more vulnerable, and dealing with clients more openly and honestly. Lighthouse Partners forgoes detailed research on prospective clients and fancy sales pitches at first meetings.

Instead, it simply holds a dialogue during which it tries to help the client from the first contact by asking questions and tendering suggestions that might be helpful at that stage. Its partners are willing to look dumb, going out on a limb if it means they can give the client more ideas. Some of those ideas may end up being weak or even foolish, but others will be golden.

The result is greater client loyalty - and the magic of unsolicited referrals that brings in more business than Lighthouse Partners can handle, even if its fees are higher.

Mr. Lencioni feels three fears prevent us from building sufficient trust and loyalty with our clients. First, the fear of losing clients, business opportunities or revenue means that we protect our own interests before those of our client, if those seem to come in conflict. So we may be less than honest in offering our opinions, or not head down a path that would risk reducing our revenues.

Second, we fear being embarrassed - so we hold back on some suggestions or questions that might make us seem ignorant, and certainly never admit to not knowing the answers to questions we are asked. And, third, we fear feeling inferior, working hard to preserve our sense of importance and social standing when dealing with clients, even though serving them should require some subservience.

To shed the three fears, he recommends:

Consult, don't sell

Naked service providers transform every sales situation into a chance to show the value of what they do. So, like Lighthouse Partners, instead of explaining what you would do if hired by a prospect, just start serving them as if they were a client already. And don't worry that the prospect might take advantage of your generosity, stealing your ideas without hiring you. For every one who does that, he says, nine others will come on board because they saw themselves as clients even before they formally became one. And if you're like Mr. Lencioni and don't like to sell - or above all, don't like to talk about fees - this allows you to begin the relationship with what you like: helping others through your service.

Give away the business

As well as giving advice for free at your first meeting - even before you have signed up the client - also give away the business by erring on the side of the client when it comes to fees. Over time, you'll be paid back.

Tell the kind truth

Naked service providers will confront the client with a difficult message even when the client might not like hearing that message.

They know it's more important to serve the client's needs than to protect the service provider's own business by avoiding any risks. "They don't sugarcoat the advice or present it in an obsequious way. Naked consultants understand that they have a responsibility for being a truth teller, even if this means they will be sacrificed," he says. Enter the danger

Like improv actors, who learn to thrive by stepping into uncomfortable situations on stage, naked service providers fearlessly deal with issues everyone else is afraid to address. They win plaudits for not avoiding the elephant in the room.

Appear dumb You need to risk embarrassment by asking dumb questions or making dumb suggestions because those might lead to unexpected, creative solutions.

Celebrate your mistakes

Realizing they are going to make mistakes, naked service providers don't try to hide or play down their errors but recognize those goofs and take responsibility for them.

"Clients don't expect perfection from the service providers they hire, but they do expect honesty and transparency. There is no better way to demonstrate this than by acknowledging when a mistake has been made and humbly apologizing for it."

Take a bullet for the client

Sometimes service providers will take responsibility for something that may not have been their fault to make things easier for the client.

When a program is being rolled out and employees are in an uproar at an all-hands meeting, a good consultant will take the rap for any problems, instead of letting management receive the flak, knowing the officials who hired him or her will be grateful. In similar fashion, Mr. Lencioni suggests you need to focus everything on the client in your dealings; honour the client's work by taking an active interest in it (and using the product or service yourself); take on whatever dirty work is required even if that might make you seem inferior - Mr. Lencioni remembers running microphones around the room to help make a question-and-answer session work for a client - and admit your weaknesses and limitations.

I won't tell you specifically how this works out, but there are - as always with Mr. Lencioni's fables - some unexpected twists that make the story enjoyable, and as you might expect, a positive ending. And Mr. Lencioni makes a strong case that getting naked - being vulnerable - will also have positive results for you.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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