How to Powerfully Reframe Client Issues for Maximum Impact (Part I)

By Andrew Sobel

Many years ago, a large, global company called me and said they wanted to create a cadre of client relationship managers in order to help grow their most important accounts. They asked me to help design the structure and train the chosen individuals. I quickly discovered that a powerful group of geographically-focused executives controlled everything. They managed the people, the infrastructure, and the client relationships.

I discussed this with the client, and they indicated they had no intention of adjusting the roles and responsibilities in the organization or altering the balance of power in any way to support the new structure. I pointed out that no matter how skilled the new account executives became, they would be unable to command the resources and make the decisions necessary to take charge of their assigned relationships and have an impact. I was met, however, with stony silence. Unable to persuade them of the futility of the project as currently conceived, I politely excused myself and said it wasn’t the right kind of work for me.

In this case, there was a dire need to reframe the client’s problem and solution, but unfortunately I was unsuccessful in persuading them. I chalk it up now to inexperience: I didn’t understand the tools and techniques for reframing. (At least I turned it down, as it would most certainly not have been a successful project as defined by the client).

Reframing is the art of identifying the highest impact solution to address the most relevant problem or opportunity. I’m going to take you through a comprehensive set of strategies for reframing to achieve maximum impact on your clients. I’ll cover four areas:

Part I
1. Reframing principles
2. Strategies for expansive reframing
Part II
3. Strategies for radical reframing
4. Tools to help you reframe.

If you use these ideas properly, you’ll be able to help your client define the right problem, the total problem, and the total solution. Your engagements will be more strategic to the client and, in many cases, larger.

1. Reframing Principles

Reframing can be liberating for a client. When you’re climbing the ladder to success as fast as you can, and you realize it is leaning against the wrong wall, there can be a great sense of relief and a sense of restored purpose.

Reframing can also be terrifying and threatening to a client. When an executive realizes that the relatively simple task of putting in a new IT system is not going to actually fix the problem without a host of other changes in peoples’ skills and behaviors, process redesign, and so on, it can be pretty jarring.

Here are four principles that will help you reframe:

1. Your client must have ownership of the new frame. You can’t push it down their throat. You have to work with your client and get them to embrace the new frame and become a proponent of it.

2. Your client must feel an emotional connection to the new frame. An intellectual understanding is not enough. Remember, facts tell and emotions sell. If a client is confronted with the need to expand or alter the scope of an initiative, they won’t truly buy into it unless there is an emotional commitment. This means appealing to their right brain—to their dreams, aspirations, desire for legacy, and so on—or, showing how fears and risks can be avoided, which is a negative but still powerful emotional motivation.

3. You must put your client in the new frame. If the new frame requires a restructuring of a company’s central functions, you must show the functional executive you’re working with how this can further their goals and interests and illustrate their role in the new structure.

4. You must show your client the new frame, not just tell them about it. Telling is going through a set of PowerPoint slides with the client that outline the broader solution you are proposing. That’s a start, but it’s not enough. Taking a prospective client to visit an existing client that you’ve helped go through the same transformation would be even more powerful—that’s showing. Using analogies and metaphors can also help you show rather than tell.

Now, let’s look at how to reframe.

2. Expansive Reframing

Expansive reframing is when you incrementally—rather than radically–expand the definition of the problem and of the solution. I also call this “level one” reframing.

For example, a client of mine had a product quality problem that was intractable. They had tried again and again to improve the manufacturing processes, but could not get to the consistency of quality they wanted. A consultant that they finally brought in was able to correctly identify both design issues and customer use problems that needed to be fixed in addition to manufacturing. The consultant appropriately expanded the playing field upstream into R&D and product design strategy, and downstream into customer behavior.

There are four main directions you can explore to create expansive reframing. Let’s look at them one by one.

1. Reframing into Strategy

When you reframe into strategy, you are trying to put the desired solution or transaction in the context of the company’s strategy and overarching goals. By doing so, you make it inherently more important and mission-critical. You can ask questions like:

• Which key strategic priorities does this support right now?
• What needs to be done to ensure this is seen as aligning with your most important, enterprise-wide initiatives?
• Can you tell me more about the overall context for this program? Why now?

When you reframe into strategy, you connect your specific project or transaction to the organization’s higher-level strategies and goals. It will then be a more complete engagement that has a high degree of fit with the strategy.

2. Reframing into Implementation

Client executives need to turn ideas, solutions, and products into value for their business—quickly. If you’re being asked to do something for a client, and they have not carefully thought through how it will be fully operationalized, then you need to remind them of the full journey they are on and explore it with them. You should ask questions such as:

• Who is responsible for the eventual implementation of this?
• Have you established measures of success? How will you know it’s working?
• In the past, what have you done to ensure a solution (product, system, etc.) like this gets used and implemented properly?
• From your perspective, what are the implementation risks? How can they be mitigated?

3. Reframing across the Enterprise

The first two reframing vectors are up into strategy and down into implementation. But there is a third one, which I call reframing across the enterprise.

There are vast interdependencies in any complex organization, but middle managers are often in silos where their point of view is local and their compensation rewards them for success in their particular pond. Yet, if you do something for HR or Finance or Operations, it will inevitably have knock-on effects across into other functions and business areas.

One of my clients discovered this when they implemented a new CRM (customer relationship management) system. To work effectively, it required changes in behavior across many different parts of the organization, not just from the salesforce. As a result it took nearly a year longer than expected to make it fully functional.

To surface these enterprise-wide interdependencies, you have to ask a lot of questions about how your solution or product will interact with other functions and business units.

4. Reframing around Process (Change Management)

The first three strategies for expansive reframing take us up, down, and across the organization. The fourth strategy makes you take a process or change management perspective around any major new intervention, product, or solution. This is an additional area to explore with your client that will inform and possibly enlarge the scope of what you do.

There are (at least!) five major dimensions to change management that should be considered:

1. Stakeholder alignment and management. Who are the key stakeholders, from within the area you’re working, but also from other parts of the company? How should this group be communicated to and managed? How can you ensure their continued support?

2. Technology and systems. This is a hugely important and complex area–many corporations invest over $1 billion a year on IT. You may know little about technology and information systems, but it behooves you to ask some basic questions and ensure your client’s systems will support, not obstruct, your solution.

3. Management process. Management process comprises the decision making protocols, supporting systems, and roles and responsibilities that surround the area you are working in. In the case of my prospective client who wanted to create an account management structure, this area was a big problem: The new structure was going to be toothless because the decision-making authority about client relationships was going to remain firmly with the geographic heads.

4. People and skills. This is one of the primary concerns of leaders—building talent across the organization—but not always of middle management who are more focused on their individual contribution. You should ask: What are the implications of our work for the people and skills you will need, today and in the future.

5. Organization Structure. This represents your client’s organizational hard wiring. Questions you might ask about structure include: Does your current organization structure support an initiative like this? Are you considering changes in your structure, either to better enable the success of this program or for other reasons?

To summarize, you need to carefully explore four areas in order to do “expansive” reframing of your client’s issue:

• Is there alignment with strategy and broader corporate goals?
• Have the implementation implications been thoroughly explored and planned for?
• Are there cross-enterprise implications of your work?
• What change management dimensions need to be guided and directed in order to ensure success?

In part II of this article, I’ll share five powerful strategies for radical reframing, such as highlighting opposites and revealing inconsistencies of belief.

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