Tell Business Truth Even When It’s Hard and Painful

No joke: sometimes it’s really hard to just tell the truth. I’ve been there many times before.

imageFor example, you’re a professional, whether that’s accountant, attorney, or management consultant, and your client wants the wrong thing. Customers might always be right, but clients aren’t. And when clients are wrong, you have a tough problem, because it’s no fun to contradict a client, but if you don’t respect your professional expertise then you’re essentially worthless. Few people actually pay for bad advice on purpose.

Or, as another example, you’re on a job as a functional expert, and your boss wants to do something related to your area against your better judgment. Do you say so? Yes, you almost have to, because otherwise, just like the professional expert, you’re long-term useless.

There’s no doubt that these can be hard moments. And you know it happens sometimes. Maybe more than we’d like to admit. I had the experience often as a consultant. I know the feeling of the lump in your throat, thinking it through, you want the consulting job.

Behind the scenes, it’s really an intelligence test for the boss and the client. Do they have the sense to listen to somebody else’s expertise? I don’t know about you, but the people I’ve dealt with who knew everything actually just didn’t know what they didn’t know, and they were worse off for it. And so were their businesses.

So point one: tell the truth. It might be hard on the short term, but it’s way better on the long term.  Just remind yourself, the truth is better for your client, better for your boss, and better for the organization.

And point two: do it right. Do it respectfully, and privately, and with a mind open for discovering why in fact the client or boss has considered some other angle you haven’t thought of. Never say no to a chance to learn something new.

(Photo credit: Stephen Aaron Rees/Shutterstock)



  • Andrew McFarland says:

    Great post. I had a friend (career Army) who used to say “bad news doesn’t get better with time”. Get in early, be honest, and if possible provide a solution. More ideas on recovering from tight spots:

  • Apolinaras "Apollo" Sinkevicius | says:

    #1 expectation I always set with everyone I work with is that I choose to not spend precious professional time BSing and sugar-coating. As a business operations professional, what I do has deep impact on companies and if you have the data and experience to prove some decision will hurt the organization, it is unprofessional to not express the concerns in order to just “keep the peace”.
    Maybe that is why I don’t waste my time with middle managers. I always make sure I have the ear of the senior executives or I simply either don’t join the company or not take them on as a client.
    I think my employers and consulting clients very much value this attitude.
    I like the way you phrased it:”if you don’t respect your professional expertise then you’re essentially worthless”. It is about long term impact of your advice and actions! And yes, if you don’t respect your profession and expertise, than don’t expect others to do it either.

    Great article!

  • Beverly Koehn says:

    Good advice and logic. I might add that truth begins with self. If you continue to be truthful to yourself, it’s a lot easier to be truthful with your clients and customers. I always try to remember one thing: they come to me because they need help. One of the things I’m responsible for helping them with is to see the picture/situation clearly.
    I also appreciate #2. Excellent advice.

  • Kendall says:

    Tim, just this morning, I received an email from a potential client who wants me to help him with a business plan. I know he’s a startup, and though he can likely pay my rate, I think there is a better use of funds. I told him to do three things: buy The Art of the Start by Guy Kawasaki; buy Business Sense by Dan Thomas, and buy Business Plan Pro from After he has his plan in order, call me and use me as a sounding board.

    It would have been easier to accept his money but I think the results will be much better if he gets into himself. Good post on telling the truth!

    • Tim Berry says:

      Thanks Kendall, and I appreciate the recommendation. I still think the ideal engagement, from both client’s and consultant’s point of view, is when the client does the bulk of the business plan with a consultant to help with the hard parts, act as a sounding board, and be available as needed. Best of both worlds.


  • Jason says:

    Great post Tim. I’ve always taken pride in my sense of honesty but I do struggle with point #2. I try, but my blunt personality sometimes gets in the way.

  • Daria Steigman says:

    Hi Tim,

    I’ve always said that, as a consultant, my job is to tell clients what they need to hear, not necessarily what they want to hear. The alternative is getting (or doing) work that you know won’t succeed. And that’s never a place I want my business to be. Besides, most people appreciate the honesty.

    As you said, this approach sometimes leads to short-term pain (unhappy clients and/or lost opportunities), but the long-term reputational gains far outweigh the short-term hit.


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