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My junior colleague and I attend a meeting every week. Last week I was giving a presentation about the proposed work to be done and my colleague questioned my methodologies in front of the client. At the time I was clueless what to do.

I am still not sure how to handle this kind of situation. What should I do in a situation like this? What should I tell the client/my colleague?

Has anyone had an issue like this?

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Did you do any preparatory work with the colleague to be ready for the meeting? Were the questions legitimate concerns of where you may have been exaggerating for the client? –  JB King Jul 29 at 21:19
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What was the client's reaction? It is probably just as important to retain the client's confidence/support as it is to make sure that the junior colleague is in line. –  Michael Lai Jul 29 at 23:54
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*comments removed*: Please avoid using comments for extended discussion. Instead, please use The Workplace Chat. On Workplace SE, comments are intended to help improve a post. Please see What "comments" are not... for more details. –  jmort253 Aug 5 at 3:06

10 Answers 10

up vote 10 down vote accepted

What should I do in a situation like this? What should I tell my client?

Without knowing the detail of the situation e.g. what part of the methodology was being presented and what the questioning was it's hard to give a 100% answer.

If it's a simple case whereby you are confident in the product/design/method etc. and can clearly and concisely explain why the approach you're presenting is the correct one then you can smoothly overcome this without presenting a negative perception to the client and without compromising your integrity too much with a response along the lines of 'we had considered (objection) this approach previously, however for (this/that/the other) reason(s) we established that this (your approach) was the best approach based on (hopefully some evidentiary based output)' You could ‘soften’ the answer somewhat by preceding it with something along the lines of ‘prior to you joining us (colleague name)’ and closing it with (I’d be happy to cover any other questions outside of the meeting’) this ought to discourage your colleague from interjecting further and hopefully present the client with a view of a joined-up team delivering a quality product. It may even have the unintended benefit of further demonstrating the robustness and appropriate design of your product.

Alternatively, if you feel the question may have some worth to exploring or simply can’t provide the justification in a concise manner (allowing you to get back on track swiftly) then my recommendation would be to suggest to the client (irrespective of your belief as to whether the questioning is valid) that the point(s) raised merit review. Involve the client in agreeing there and then when this will happen and how it will be communicated to them e.g. a follow-up meeting to deal with this specific item, add as an agenda item in a subsequent planned meeting, an options appraisal paper etc. Be sure to ask the client how involved they would like to be in this process and make it clear that all options will be considered and the best to fulfill their requirements will be proposed as a preferred option. This should provide the client with reassurance as to your integrity as a provider and that you are not 'hiding' anything.

From this point you should be able to continue the presentation and meeting from this point, however, if the part of the method questioned is a deal-breaker or the rest of your methodology is hinged upon it then bear in mind that the credibility of your presentation of methodology may be damaged by the question that’s still to be resolved.

What should I tell my colleague?

Outside of the meeting (I wouldn't advocate the suggestion that you haul someone out of there mid-meeting for a verbal smack-down), take the time to explain to your colleague that regardless or not of whether the point raised has merit or not, a client facing meeting is not the appropriate place to raise concerns/objections.

As they are a junior employee it’s entirely possible that there are a number of factors at play; ignorance of the protocol for client facing meetings, a desire to ‘make an impression’ in terms of technical/specialist knowledge, a lack of knowledge regarding the product you’re pitching etc. All of these can and ought to be addressed as soon as possible, and critically, before the next meeting with the client.

Whilst there’s no doubting that the junior made a rookie error it’s worth keeping in mind that they are a rookie. There are perhaps some lessons for yourself to be taken from this experience such as;

  • Was the junior suitably knowledgeable to attend the meeting? If the questioning was about the design of the product then it suggests that they weren't conversant enough with it. God only knows I've developed some solutions that, from a technical design perspective, to a fresh faced and newly minted graduate, must look insane. Yet based on a host of other factors e.g. business rules, technology limitations on the client end etc. are actually best suited. Before I bought anyone into a meeting about a particular product within our portfolio I’d ensure they were suitably knowledgeable enough on the design, methodology and the rationale behind it to be able to participate.

  • Was there any meeting preparation? I know people who loathe the ‘pre-meeting-meeting’. However, ensuring that everyone is suitably prepared to attend a client-facing meeting, that all are in agreement on what will be discussed and are confident in the ‘pitch’ is simply good common sense and will avoid any such incidents in the future.

I would personally suggest that, provided there was no malice intended (you’ll have to be the judge of that I’m afraid), simply alerting the junior to the mistake and explaining what your and the company’s expectations are in future ought to be sufficient. Believe me, no dressing-down that you can give them will beat the degree of self-flagellation that they’re likely to subject themselves to, particularly if they’re new to the role (I’m speaking from some personal experience here). They’ll likely feel mortified and somewhat crushed by what they perceive to be an utter disaster (which it may well be), but those lessons will likely stick with them for the rest of their career and they’ll be better for it in the long-term.

Support the junior by ensuring that any knowledge gaps are filled, educating them on the protocol and expectations for client meetings and assure them that raising questions is not a bad thing provided it’s in the right time and the right place. You never know, their question may have merit…

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"I'm glad you asked that,"

Other answers follow my feeling: disagreements in front of customers aren't going to sell your product to them, either by mindshare or, um, walletshare.

But one way to handle it might be to be the Sherlock to your junior colleague's Watson. Act as though the line is scripted and has been delivered just so that you can explain the rationale to the customer. Who knows, the demonstration that your product has been considered that deeply might even help.

If it's appropriate to the situation, of course.

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*comments removed*: Please avoid using comments for extended discussion. Instead, please use The Workplace Chat. On Workplace SE, comments are intended to help improve a post. Please see What "comments" are not... for more details. –  jmort253 Aug 5 at 3:07

The last time I saw this happen, the response was to stop the meeting temporarily, take the person out to some place private and explain to them that they had better not do that again and if they did not agree (as the person who did this didn't) then they would not be returning to the meeting or, depending on the level of insubordination in the private meeting, their job. As it turned out that person was immediately transferred to another team and never allowed to be involved in anything to do with that project again.

Since you didn't do it at the time, you (and/or you boss) need to have a private sit-down meeting with the person and explain how you need to present a united front to the client no matter how much you disagree in private or their job will be at risk because things like this can cost you the client. This is a firing offense but someone junior may not have realized that so give him the benefit of the doubt this once. Make sure you clearly and unambiguously explain what will happen if he does it again though. Check with your boss and HR if necessary before the meeting to explain the process when a person has a performance problem (which this is and a very serious one at that.) There is no coding skill in the world that can make up for this lack of judgement around a client. The junior dev needs to understand that this is not acceptable in any way shape or form.

Make sure you also go over the presentation with the team beforehand, so any objections to what is being presented can be raised at that time. Do not take a person who raises an objection and will not agree with the end decision to any client meeting concerning that topic.

Make sure your whole team understands that actions have consequences and that in front of the client is not the time or place for disagreement. However, when they have objections beforehand, listen to them seriously and make changes if need be. Or if you cannot for other reasons, explain why. Often the junior people are not aware of the political considerations that might make a technically less than optimal choice the right one for the situation. Juniors need to be taught to think in terms of more than the technical when deciding. The only way they can learn that is if you explain the other considerations.

There seems to be some feeling that this is harsh. It is not. I am not suggesting firing the guy this time. I am suggesting that he needs to clearly understand that actions have consequences and one of the potential consequences of this type if action is getting fired. It is being kind to the guy, helping him realize the inappropriateness of his actions before he gets himself in a situation he can't extricate himself from.

Some bosses will be far less forgiving of this sort of thing than others and no one likes to be made to look bad in front of the client. Nor do businesses like the client to hear their dirty laundry. Professional disagreements have their time and place, the sooner this guy learns that the better for him personally.

This is actually mentoring the junior not being harsh. In reality, the world can be a harsh place. There are things that are not tolerated in business that would have been OK in school. Many young people don't realize this at first and I have seen several get fired for things far more minor than this because the person who should have taken him aside and explained this to him did not.

As senior people it is partly our job to make sure that juniors are clear on what is and is not acceptable behavior in that particualr workplace. Yes the OP erred in not making it clear beforehand, but that is an error that can't be corrected for this guy, only for the next one. In the meantime, the junior person needs to know why this is unacceptable and what the consequences of continuing to do things like this are.

The consequences may vary from company to company, the OP should talk to his boss or HR about their process. Some places give several chances, some go right to formal HR documentation of a performance problem and some may not particularly care (probably few given that this happened in front of the client). But by all means the Junior person needs to be talked to about why this is a problem and what the possible consequences of continuing to do this are.

In closing, even a person with less than a week's experience should know you never bring up a difference of opinion in a client meeting. That is workplace 101, day one stuff. I agree the senior should have done a better job of prepping him, but some people are so convinced they are right, they don't get that there is a time and a place.

Lastly, before counseling someone on an issue of performance, it is always a good idea to have a talk with HR about what types of things can and cannot be done or said. Anyone in a leadership role should have this conversation long before they have a particular problem employee to deal with.

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Please avoid using comments for extended discussion. Instead, please use The Workplace Chat. On Workplace SE, comments are intended to help improve a post. Please see What "comments" are not... for more details. –  jmort253 Jul 31 at 0:57
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this answer, however thorough, seems to have quite a serious "gap" in that it indiscriminately assumes authority of the senior partner. However junior, other partner likely possesses some skill / knowledge missing by others, otherwise there would be no need for them to be in. Per my experience in similar client negotiations, it was critically important to account for that (why wouldn't it, as partner who doesn't know may accidentally lead negotiation into "dangerous waters" and sink the whole project if there's no way for other partner to signal that). Consider editing to "fill the gap" –  gnat Jul 31 at 7:13
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+1 but one should at least put the same effort into avoiding such situation. "go over the presentation with the team beforehand" is important. Tell them explicitly that this is the time for discussions and that afterwards they have to defend the solution even if they would prefer another one themselves. –  Chris Jul 31 at 7:48
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Distilling this down, the junior colleague's salary should (partially) offset the risks of loss in revenue resulting from misconduct. It's a CLM/CTM in almost any consulting organization. –  Art Taylor Jul 31 at 21:03
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@ArtTaylor What do CLM and CTM mean? –  Anthony Grist Aug 1 at 14:08

This is very straightforward. If the junior was raising objections with actual meat on them, it behooves you to act professionally, say you don't know, and put it on the agenda for the next meeting.

The reasoning here is as follows:

  1. If anybody brings up a serious objection, the client is going to want to see resolution.

  2. If you are not able to offer resolution immediately, you have two basic options:

    • Try to bluff your way through, or otherwise discount the issue. This will not look good to a client. They want resolution. You have effectively ended negotiations by refusing to provide resolution.

    • Shelve the issue. This offers the promise of resolution, even if it isn't currently forthcoming. This offers you the opportunity to continue the meeting, discussing the rest of the business you met to deal with. This is a productive use of time for everybody involved. It is also assumptive. You're communicating "We'll tell you next time." This is effectively a compromise. "We can't give you resolution now, but we can give it soon." They may take it or leave it. That is still better than the alternative. It is also a promise. Making and keeping promises is the way to earn trust.

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@nomen: FYI, you're going to get a lot of downvotes from people who believe the professional thing to do is to fake confidence you don't possess. I guess this is one of those case where non-anonymous downvotes would be useful, since it's genuinely worth knowing for future reference who's (a) scrupulously honest, (b) willing omit inconvenient information, (c) committed to explicit lying as a business practice. Any of those things could be an inherent part of the word "professional" to different people. So bravo for posting this as a barometer of opinion. –  Steve Jessop Jul 30 at 9:28
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Hey nomen, while this might be straightforward to you, assuming it's straightforward to everyone isn't the best approach. To meet our back it up guidelines, consider an edit to explain why this is the correct answer. Hope this helps –  jmort253 Jul 31 at 0:28
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@jmort253: thanks for the suggestion. –  nomen Jul 31 at 6:14

In a situation like that you can tell them that you'll discuss this with your colleague after the presentation and you'll be sure to confront it to your client if it's a deal-breaker.

That's the easy way out, since it's obviously making you uncomfortable.

You should, however, as a professional, be able to explain and backup every decision you make, it's a part of your job. However, your colleague should probably not be doing it in front of a client if it can cause your client in loosing faith in your service.

Talk to your colleague and ask him to talk with you privately if he doubts your methodologies in the future, or even better, assume that your decisions will be questioned before the presentation and prepare for them.

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In front of the client is not the place for disagreement. Plans should be discussed, justifiable & able to withstand critical evaluation -- but junior should not be in client meetings/ or in the job if they do not understand these issues are to be hashed out behind the scenes, not in front of/ and scaring the client. –  Thomas W Jul 30 at 4:22
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@ThomasW: That certainly depends on the client, but if there is never any disagreement at all, it can seem quite suspicious, as if you're deliberately hiding the more controversial or discussion-worthy details. Certainly, once disagreement has occurred, explicitly postponing that discussion until after the client has left would seem even more suspicious. –  O. R. Mapper Jul 30 at 7:52
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This is where I would want to go with this- there should be nothing about your methodology and approach that you can't absolutely justify to anybody querying it. That way when Jr is asking questions about it, you get an opportunity to demonstrate that you have considered the alternatives and to show why the approach you have chosen is the correct one. With a well prepared meeting, one might even suggest that Jr put forward some questions that the client may be thinking but reluctant to ask. –  glenatron Jul 31 at 14:22

I've been there and understand your position. There are three lines of action for you here at this point in time.

1) How to regain client confidence

2) How to handle this in the future in real-time

3) How to manage the junior colleague to help prepare for future engagements

Here's my approach. It seems to work well.

1) How to regain client confidence

Have a follow-up meeting with the client to discuss this interaction to assure them that they are still dealing with a professional set of people. You are fortunate in that you have a weekly meeting. In some cases, this happens during a sales pitch that has taken months to secure, and that you may never have another opportunity to salvage.

Let the client know that your team is open to feedback and challenge from colleagues at all levels, which is one of the reasons the colleague spoke up when he/she did. This is of course assuming this is true (not true in some places, ha).

This is a chance to let the client know that your team is taking their feedback as well as that of internal project members into consideration. Ask if they have any ideas or concerns about the two approaches and if they have a preference. Use this as an opportunity to continue to sell your team. But don't dwell on the interaction between you and the colleague; this is more of an opportunity to sell the idea that you aren't freaking out about this.

Assure the client that normally these discussions take place internally and that this was a rare occurence - but don't give the impression that this was a punishable offense. That will scare off clients faster than you'd think. Harsh, rash actions for constructive feedback is never seen in a good light.

2) How to handle this in the future in real-time

I'd use the approach above - and practice it mentally - so when one is challenged in 'public' then response is natural and not scripted. Also you won't be caught looking like a deer in the headlights.

I'd address the colleague like, "I like your feedback in this meeting. Let's take this offline so we can go through this in better detail."

Then to the client, "[$Client], do you have any objections if we move forward with our agenda and follow up with details on this later on? I don't want to lose the momentum of this meeting but this may be something worth exploring."

3) How to manage the junior colleague to help prepare for future engagements

This is hard to answer (as others have noted) without more detail about the relationship between everyone involved.

But the key thing is to not deal harshly, especially if this is the first time this has happened with this person.

Folks have long memories when it comes to professional scolding, and aside from the fact that you could lose a valuable resource, there's the possibility that someday this 'junior' person may be in a position to add weight to a decision related to your employment at a future gig. This is especially true if one is a contractor on a team that changes regularly - or who wants to become one someday.

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@yochannah How dare you fix my tpyos in public, in front of everyone? Heh heh heh joking of course. Cheers for the assist –  John LeDuc Jul 30 at 20:05

I realize you are likely quite upset as to this colleagues behaviour over this and it may have significantly hurt the meeting, however it is far more likely to be due to this person's ignorance rather than any wrongdoing or malice, particularly as they are junior staff as you mention.

In the immediate term the best you can likely do is to note the objection and schedule it for discussion with the client later which is inconvenient but should not damage your relationship with the client as long as you handle the following meeting properly.

However in the long run you have to teach this colleague the mistake they made, first I am going to assume this is the first time they have done this as if it is a repeat and they have already been told this is simple a disciplinary offence and should be treated as such.

I feel @HLGEM is somewhat correct but unnecessarily harsh here, presumably this junior team member was brought onto the project for some reason to add value and should not be thrown away again for making a single social mistake. Instead please take the long term option and help teach this team member how they should behave in front of a client.

I personally started with little idea of how to act in front of clients and largely reacted by remaining silent during meetings but with time and encouragement leaned to contribute more, I cannot imagine harshly snubbing or even firing this person will help anyone.

Simply talk to them in private, explaining that a client can lose confidence very easily and that if they have disagreements they should bring them to you or a manager outside of a customer meeting context to express them, that a meeting is simply the wrong place for this kind of argument. However also emphasize that this is not simply stating you do not care for their opinion but that you can only properly consider it if it is given in the appropriate way.

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Others have already discussed how to handle your colleague, so I won't add to that part of it.

I would say you should look in the mirror a bit though. If you're the senior colleague, you should have discussed the methodology and how you intended to present the methodology to the client with anyone participating in the meeting (including your junior colleague). That way, you can get any objections (merited or not) out of the way before the meeting.

Also, since you are the more senior colleague and (it seems from the question) the one who ran the meeting, you should have made it very clear what the purpose of the meeting was and what you were trying to get out of it. I have been part of inter-company meetings where it was clear that something was a brainstorming session, and in that setting it can be natural for people to contradict each other. On the other hand, if this was more of a presentation or sales pitch, you both should have been very clear about who was going to say what, what role each of you would play, etc.

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I'm certainly no expert but I do have experience in workplaces where "teamwork" is emphasized but all things flow from one source. Your title is "Junior colleague is questioning my methodology in front of client". It's not "your" methodology it should be the "team's" methodology. It's one thing to say you're a team, it's another to actually be one.

If you're not a team, that's fine, but you should be honest and upfront with your employees or subordinates or whatever you'd like to call them.

Teams instill a sense of shared sacrifice where all parties contribute. If it's "your" methodology that is ruling then you shouldn't claim to be a team. You are only creating confusion when colleagues are ignored.

It is my opinion, that if your team has a disagreement on a certain facet of your work then it should be resolved BEFORE attending a meeting where that facet will be discussed. Majority rules.

Remembers teams are flat. If your office place is structured hierarchically then you should reconsider using the word "team". It will only confuse your employees and create more friction in the workplace.

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while military style hierarchy doesn't seem necessary indeed, I think that 100% flat teams that have no notion of seniority at all likely ignore reality, see eg this fantastic answer: How can I overcome “years of experience” requirements when applying to positions? –  gnat Jul 30 at 19:19
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@gnat I just like people to call me what I am -- an employee. I don't really care what the management style is. –  Colton Allen Jul 30 at 19:34
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It is rare for teams to be flat. Sports teams, SEAL teams, effective engineering teams - not flat. A team can be flat, but that is not part of the definition of team, nor is that common in business or technical work. –  Spike0xff Jul 30 at 20:43
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@HLGEM I suppose the same weird world where some courtesy is expected in polite conversation. Its true, I don't value hierarchical management styles but that doesn't mean I can't incorporate myself into them. Just tell me like it is. I'm tired of the BS to be frank. "We're a team!" is just a feel good phrase managers use to try to keep people productive. I find it belittling. Especially when "We're a team" is exclusively used to deflect blame off the manager and onto their subordinates. If you adopt a my-way-or-the-highway approach then you should take responsibility for your failures. –  Colton Allen Jul 30 at 23:13
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@Spike0xff When I played sports in my high school years, we always "nominated" a leader. Not by any formal process but there would always be one individual who would stand out. In flat structures, good leaders rise based on their leadership qualities. The definition of team, as far as webster is concerned, is incompatible with business or the military anyway. Just because everyone uses it wrong doesn't suddenly make its use right. Hope this clears things up. –  Colton Allen Jul 30 at 23:19

At one level, your junior colleague should not be "correcting" you in front of clients. (At most, s/he should be having a word with you in private.) But by your own admission, you were "clueless." Which allowed the other person to step into the power vacuum.

The first thing you need to do is to get up to speed on the material. Without doing that, you're basically helpless.

Once you're in control of the situation, you'll be in a better position to rein in your colleague. Or ask for help from higher up, if necessary.

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I think you may be misreading the question, the OP wasn't clueless about the subject matter of the meeting, but about what to do about the junior's insubordination. –  Dan C Aug 1 at 18:29

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