How fast can you implement the change? How to answer ...
How to ace those tricky questions for Consulting Engineers
It is not always easy to answer the client’s questions, particularly in open meetings, video calls or face-to-face communications. Some people are good at thinking fast and giving good answers, but maybe they have been asked before. They have built up a rehearsed a formula to respond that works for them.
Take note, absorb them into your memory bank and for sure you will gain confidence and be more effective in the face of tricky situations. They will help you build more trust in your client relationships.
How to answer: How fast can you make the change?
How fast can you implement the change? Something has changed but it wasn't you or the client that changed it. It's one of the other Consultants colleagues in the team who has announced that their design needs to be changed. This unexpected news makes the Project Manager and the client very anxious - they don't want any delay. The question that follows to you is then: How fast can you implement the change?
Let's just fact check this situation. All your work is ok. You didn't ask anyone to change anything. But now you need to change your work to accommodate someone else’s screw-up. You are also under pressure to do it fast. This is not fair, and the client probably knows that. The schedule is king, so they have no choice but to push you - fair or not.
How you answer does depend on how the other consultant, the one that change things, brought this matter to the meeting.
If they were responsible, and value their working relationship with you, then they should have alerted you and briefed you before the meeting about the change. We all screw up and if they have, you may want to take the benevolent view that is cruel to exploit their misfortune. Why not be reasonable and try to ease the pain.
If you are pre-warned then you can at least tell the client that you had become aware of the change, which shows that at least the design team is communicating, which should give the client some reassurance. There is nothing to be gained in this situation by adding to the drama. Throwing up your hands and announcing that “this is a disaster!” will just make you and your design team colleagues, look unhelpful and not a proper team.
If you were not pre-warned by your professional colleagues and this change is as surprising to you as it is to the client, then you do need to talk to your colleagues at some time outside of the meeting. Explain that you were disappointed to not be pre-warned. It lost them the chance for you to support them and ease their blow. Be clear that they were discourteous to you and this is not good teamwork.
The best response that you can give will follow this strategy:
Make it clear, in the most non-controversial way that you can, when and whether you are already aware of this matter: “I've only just learnt of this today…” or “…we spoke briefly yesterday and Mr X explained that this had happened.” Either way, you have not had time to analyze the possible impact.
The impact of the change may be significant to the client or to others, but perhaps it seems minor to your work. On the other hand, it could mean that you have a major piece of additional work to do.
You must avoid any knee-jerk reaction, where under pressure you assess the impact on the spot. If you could do this, with certainty, then you should not be in the meeting. You should be back at the office spinning out design at warp speed-making your company lots of money. You are professional and your client does not want you to be guessing, even though he may be pushing you too. But you do need to give some idea of the situation because you’ll have a view, and the client should expect you to share it.
You can say: “The impact may not be so significant, but I'd like to check after the meeting.” If it seems to be a complex change, then it is good to add some specifics into your stalling answer: “Will need a little time to review this and check the impact. We need to see what this does to the [for example] foundations in Section B. Right now, the client is probably feeling unhappy and uncomfortable, facing a new problem that may delay they're very precious schedule (programme). You are going to do the right thing, by taking time later to assess the impact of the change. You can make this more reasonable to the client by briefly setting out the strategy that you will follow to assess the impact: “I haven't had a chance to look at this, but we will need to review [for example] the foundation design and look at the pile loads, then see how the loading change in this Section C.”
This way you can show that you are willing to work towards a good outcome based on some rational thinking. Whoever caused the unwelcome change will have annoyed the client, so you must avoid being viewed as making it all seem bad. You can take the opportunity to be level-headed and proactive - for sure someone else in the team will throw their hands up and make a drama. better than then you.
A nice touch in this situation is to propose at the key team members meet outside the meeting (preferably without the client around) and workshop it through. You can be the hero that will pull the team together with a commitment to teamwork.
Offer a view, but don't commit to anything, you will report back fast.
Be proactive in the face of adversity - let others do the drama.
Propose a coming together of the right people outside the meeting to thrash it out.
Hold your nerve - don't comment until you have time.
It gets easier to think on your feet, the more that you are exposed to tough questions. Techniques can be learnt that help you to avoid making knee-jerk commitments. Knee-jerk answers will probably make your situation worse for you. Try to hold your nerve and give yourself time to think. Analyze and make a rational decision.
Authored by Paul Lengthorn
Chartered Engineer, MBA, BEng, member of the Institute of Asset Management (IAM) and independent practicing Consulting Engineer