How dare you say ‘no’ when I pay you so much?

The best HR technology consultants do say ‘no’. The brightest customers know how to distinguish between ‘no’ meaning one of three things:

  • It’s impossible. We need to move on.
  • It’s inconvenient. I want to move on.
  • It’s inadvisable. We should discuss more together.

In this blog post, we are going to discuss how to tell the difference between these different types of ‘no’. Discerning, as a customer, what ‘no’ means in HR technology consultancy is one great way to get the best out of the project-work or services that you commission.

The Art of the Barista

One of my favourite Insights features – and not just because it gives me the opportunity to promote my drugstore of choice – is I’m the client and I know how I like my coffee. Do read it if you’d like to be reminded of the courage of your convictions to have your say with your suppliers and partners.

The article has a twist in its tale. You get to call the shots (ooh, two please!) but you need a barista to get that coffee made well. Brewing beans is not an art form I profess to.

You might say that I work with HR technology ‘baristas’. We share something with consultants out there practising in microclimates of professional services and technology, where the same idea applies:

As a consultant, there is the perceived unacceptability of the word ‘no’. You pay us lots and so we’d better do what you need to be done with your systems. We pitch to do the job and do it well.

Here, I’m going to take a look at why the best consultants can and do say ‘no’ and if your consultant says ‘no’, just what that might mean.

I’m the consultant and I say ‘No’

Consider why you pay an external expert. It’s unlikely because you want to reflect back precisely those skill-sets, specialisms and strategies you already have within your own teams. Note that I do think that to do so is one valid reason for external help – a partner no doubt adds weight to a voice struggling to be heard. Sometimes, being an outsider adds credence and conviction.

The chances are that you’d really hope that a good HR consultant is going to add a little more value and bring new things. It follows that the answer to your every whim and wish ought to sound a little like…


‘Maybe not’


Tip: I encourage you to start a consultancy dialogue with a wish-list. A counter-argument to the case for no, is that you just might find some of those wishes and whims make for a readier ‘yes’ vote from your expert than you had imagined!

The 3 meanings of 2 letters

There are three reasons why the answer may not be as you wish it to be. Be savvy about hearing the meaning behind a word that is too few letters to interpret. When you’ve read this, ask all the questions you need in order to understand.

This is about hearing whether your barista is giving you a real clue that there is a better order on the coffee board, all accounting for your tastes. (I am not sure I would have tried a Macchiato without a bit of a nudge and it has taken several iterations of the same question in quite a few languages to learn quite how those in each region on the continent make Americano).

And when it comes to all the HR technology consultants out there, please think about how you use these three versions of ‘no’. Think about the following questions:

  • Do you have the right balance?
  • Do you explain which ‘no’ you are using?
  • Do you hide behind one type of ‘no’?
  • Are you aware of your own reasons for doing so?
  • Can you do anything about constraints that put you in a position to need to say ‘no’?

Impossible (We need to move on)

‘Impossible’ is the easy no. Some things cannot be done within any reasonable parameter, whether this is payroll consultancy or in people analytics. This is, in terms that HR people might understand about employment law, the “beyond the boundaries of reasonable response”. It is the Espresso that is derived from the tea plant.

An application consultant can tell you the limits of their tool. In the case of HR systems, this may be the availability of calculation power, the links between data fields or the prospects for opening up or locking down security within a given support platform. A reporting tool may reach limits on the number of questions (queries) which can be joined into one report output.

Impossibility may, of course, be about legal compliance – in payroll, pensions or governance.

Hear these verdicts, ask about the other options (known as ‘workarounds’) or compromise on the end result you want and move on. Please don’t argue with the well-informed ‘no’ that means impossible.

Inconvenient (I want to move on)

‘Inconvenient’ is the nasty ‘no’. This ‘no’ I’d like to be struck out of the consultancy conversation. It derives from motives that may well not align with your own. This is the hidden option on the menu or the extra shot of something that is under the counter.

One inconvenience to a consultant is a lack of knowledge. This is a fact of life. Hiding behind a lack of conviction, an aloneness, missing knowledge-bank or newness to working as a consultant by saying ‘no’ is rare but not unheard of. Answers that are negative but simple – most typically on a configuration question – is a cop-out.

Remember, I’ve already told you some things are impossible to do with a system directly so how do you check out whether this is what’s afoot?

Working with a consistent and trusted partner is clearly the medium-term aim and you’ll soon be free of doubt. But in the early days, look for encouraging signs that a consultant is checking their own facts, taking time to think, consulting others and supportive of knowledge-share and networking. Seeking explanations is a great way to drill down to establish real understanding.

Then there is the inconvenience of time. This type of ‘no’ is a quick way of saying the job is not done and the day is over. And consultancy days are short.

Fortunately, this one is an easy spot. In the consultancy role, I empathise.

Running out of time hits at a higher level too. There is cost, commerce and contract. For example, every contract model is premised on certain product and services purchases. Consider the difference between a time and materials arrangement or that of a fixed price deal. Or of a full configuration implementation plan and a business pack. Or pre-paid plans and billing on utilisation in retrospection.

Here is a cheeky but easy diagnostic: “If I paid more or had more time, could I get it?” Most consultants will really wish to help. Make the dialogue real and open. You might gain a choice.

Inadvisable (We should discuss more together)

‘Inadvisable’ is the collaborative ‘no’. It is the no I like to hear from colleagues and that gets the best out of consultancy (read here a take on how to do that!). This is the cream in the coffee, the froth on my macchiato discovery or the extra special blend.

Discovering the advisable ‘yes’ and the inadvisable ‘no’ is the coffee essence of technology consultancy.

Inadvisable is the ‘no’ I recommend you listen up to.

The majority of business process requirements can be delivered with your chosen HR tech in a number of ways. A broad example is that of the balance between manual effort, configuration and customisation options – with configuration as the choice to go for where the match to the requirement is adequate. A consultancy no on your process might be because the organisation would need to deviate from optimum system performance or to set itself up for ongoing effort or cost. Manual routines or upgrade performances stem from ill-fitting practice and technologies and can be avoided.

A subtler approach may be questions of best practice. Payroll consultants understand why best practice is important in reconciliations and control behaviours. IT professionals will advise on the safest ways to keep systems running swiftly, securely and sustainably. HR professionals can offer policy choices which deliver differing points of emphasis. In working with your HRIS consultant, recommendations need to take account of these extra questions.

No’s, nerves, and nuances

The ‘no’ that means impossible is straight-forward. The ‘no’ that means inconvenient I doubt you’ll find acceptable. The ‘no’ that means inadvisable is nuanced.

With that nuance, the aim is to explore the why of the ‘no’ and to agree upon the balance between factors at stake. Is it more important to protect the roles within a department or to pay for IT effort? Is it more important to cater to system design employees on one type of terms and conditions or another? Is the appetite for one project milestone a trump card over a back-room cost?

If you are the client with any and all of the ‘maybe’ or ‘no’ verdicts you might hear from our professional world, hold your nerve. Yes, know how you like your coffee.

If you are the consultant, do question the impossibility and apparent unacceptability of ‘no’.

Let’s all distinguish between impossibility, inconvenience and inadvisability and be sure that the right outcomes are brewed up. Who needs an extra shot at it?

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