At times, being a consultant feels more like being a therapist than a business person. We see clients at their best and at their worst and try to help them figure out how to replicate the good times and how to avoid repeating the bad times. Some days, I really feel for the vendors trying to work with these clients.
In recent engagements, we seem to be increasingly leaned on to try to mediate between vendors and clients or at least mitigate situations that are starting to turn bad. These situations tend to illustrate a variety of organizational pathologies, whether it’s the client and vendor not being able to work well together or the client (or vendor) having internal dysfunction.
Case in point: one of my clients hired their EHR vendor to build some content for custom clinical workflows in a specialty that the EHR vendor doesn’t support. There were plenty of meetings to define the scope of the project, outline the proposed build, obtain stakeholder signoff, etc. The vendor’s team performed the build and delivered it to the client environment for testing. While the build was occurring, the client re-prioritized its projects and failed to provide any client-side resources to perform user acceptance testing on the delivered work product.
There were a lot of back-and-forth communications that were fairly ineffective and some loud chatter at the client about whether the work was authorized or whether they were going to pay for it. The vendor was at the mercy of the dysfunctional client, with time spent creating templates and the vendor now wondering if they were going to be paid.
I worked with some of the client core team to explain that their counterparts on another team had authorized the build and had generated a work order to the vendor, based on leadership requests to enable documentation tools for that specialty so they could retire their paper charts. The core team members didn’t seem to understand that the initiative was even going on, and once they were pulled in to be a part of it, they took their anger at their peers out on the vendor. It didn’t seem like the different teams at the client site were able to realize that there might be more to the story, and my team had to step in to get them talking.
The ensuing conversations revealed that probably the not all the stakeholders were included in the project and that the templates might not meet the practice’s needs. Word on the street was that there was a good likelihood that the vendor was going to have to go back to square one.
What was really disturbing about this situation was the client’s assertion that it was the vendor’s fault and that the vendor should perform the re-work for free. The vendor’s customization team provided all kinds of documentation, meeting minutes, build specification signoff, etc. that showed client approval of the project as it moved through various process tollgates. But the people signing off weren’t the “right” people and the client failed to see that the problem was its own fault and not the vendor’s mistake.
The vendor tried to meet the client in the middle and offered a 50 percent discount on the services needed to restart the project and ensure the newly-identified “right” resources were involved, as a gesture of their partnership, but the client dug its heels in and refused to participate until the vendor agreed to perform the as-yet-undefined future services for free.
I can’t fault the vendor here. What the client did is tantamount to ordering something at a restaurant, eating the whole thing, and then deciding it wasn’t what you wanted or that it wasn’t any good. Even worse, instead of asking for a different entrée, you ask for the restaurant to agree to give you however many items you might want off the menu to make up for your decision, without boundaries.
From a business perspective, it doesn’t make sense, but the client continued to push it despite the vendor’s willingness to meet them halfway. The client continued to behave badly, trotting out the threat that maybe they should consider a different vendor since their current one didn’t offer the specialty in question. The vendor reacted as expected, explaining that they’ve never claimed to support that particular specialt, and had worked diligently to meet the client’s needs. The client wasn’t having any part of it, though, and continued to assert that everything was the vendor’s fault.
Since my team was hired to implement the new specialty, I had a vested interest in getting the client to get on board with what the vendor had proposed as a remediation strategy. There were several 1:1 conversations with various client leaders and managers to try to get them to understand what had happened to date in a neutral conversation without the finger-pointing and blame-laying that we might see in a group discussion. Then I tried to bring them to the table to discuss it as a team and to figure out how to move forward.
Meanwhile, the implementation timeline continued to slip as did the practice’s confidence in the ability of anyone to get them onto the system with the rest of their colleagues. The group meeting was a lesson in coaching angry people how to have a productive conversation to move an initiative forward, regardless of how they felt about it or whose fault they thought it was. I was having flashbacks to the behavioral therapy components of my residency training. We would agree to baby steps to move the project forward and then someone would say something that inflamed someone on the other side of the table and we would take two giant leaps backwards.
Eventually we agreed to have the physicians in question take a look at the workflows that had been created and identify how far off they were from the mark. Since at least one of the physicians was involved in signing off on the build, I hoped they were at least partially usable. It turned out they just needed a few tweaks and the creation of one additional workflow for a clinical scenario that wasn’t represented in the original set, and due to the small amount of work needed, the vendor offered to do it for free just to get things back on track. Still, it was a tense four weeks as we tried to work this out, and previously decent relationships were damaged without good reason.
As painful as situations like this are, as a consultant, they are our bread and butter, not only because we can help resolve the situation, but because they identify future work that needs to be done. In this case, there clearly needs to be a review of how they want to onboard new specialties and how stakeholders will be identified when custom content is requested. There also needs to be discussion about how these projects will be socialized by the leadership team to the management team and whether certain criteria need to be met for them to move forward.
We’ll see if they want to engage with a formal project in this area, but due to the budget constraints many organizations face, there’s usually not a lot of money for process initiatives because they’re sometimes considered “soft skills.” I guarantee that what they would spend on a small process project would still be less than the cost of the delays, wasted time, and loss of forward momentum exhibited here.
A new fiscal year is coming, so we we’ll see if it makes the budget.
Have any stories about “soft skills” projects your company needs but continues to avoid tackling? Leave a comment or email me.
Email Dr. Jayne.