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by Vault Consulting Editors | March 10, 2009

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Consulting is a difficult career for a young person, both mentally and physically. With ceaseless travel, long hours, and unrelenting pressure to learn everything, my first year in consulting has been challenging. However, like most well-informed consulting candidates, I came into the profession fully anticipating these bumps in the road. That is why one unexpected difficulty I have run into has been so painful. It was a struggle that I simply didn't expect and didn't prepare for.

Simply put, clients do not like working with young consultants.

Because the economics of consulting demand that young consultants make meaningful contributions in projects, it is unfortunate that many clients feel this way. Their behavior can make working relationships demoralizing and unproductive. Often, they can be dismissive, passively treacherous, and sometimes just plain "in-your-face" mean. Here are some ways that client anti-youth syndrome has happened with me:

  • Ignoring my comments at working meetings
  • Prying about my age and credentials
  • Directly attacking my age or credentials
  • Telling derisive jokes ("Hey kid, when is nap-time?")
  • Passively undermining my work behind my back
  • Assigning secretarial tasks
  • Using personal arguments against me in meetings ("If you knew how it is done in the real world, you would agree with me.")

I have experienced each of these behaviors at some point. My reactions have varied. I have felt eye-popping anger, embarrassment, depression, loss of confidence, and a fear of contributing in meetings. It has occasionally made me feel inadequate and unable to do my job. Luckily client anti-youth behavior does not have to be so painful! Along with thickening my skin to elephant-like levels, this experience has taught me how to cope with and rise above the client's natural hostility towards youngsters. I have been able to be a better consultant as a result.

~Prevent, Manage, Respond
There are several different ways to work with client anti-youth hostility. The first level acknowledges that the best first step is to avoid the hostility altogether. The next level uses common sense to deal with the difficult client when a problem does occur. The final level is used when the situation becomes uncontrollable, and some action must be taken.

Prevent: An Ounce of Prevention?
There are several things that you can do to make sure that your age never becomes an issue with the client:

  • Demonstrate unflappable poise and professionalism. Be a star consultant who is above criticism.
  • Be prepared for every meeting.
  • Speak well. Do not say "gonna," "doin'," "like totally," or anything else that marks you as young and unpolished.
  • Emphasize your experience over your age.
  • Do not mention the word college, ever. Also, don't mention any college classes you were in.
  • If asked about your qualifications, substitute the word "background" for "major." For example, "My background is in finance." This works better than, "My major was finance."
  • Make it your mission that no client will ever find out your age or how long you have been out of school. However, do not lie about your age or experience. It is not worth it.
  • Become skilled at deflecting uncomfortable personal questions.

The point of all this is to make sure that your work, your talent, and your professionalism speak for you, not your youth and inexperience.

Manage: When Clients Attack
If you are a young consultant working with clients, then client hostility is unavoidable. You can manage the pain that you feel from a difficult client. Additionally, you can avoid making mistakes that will haunt you later (like coming back with a snappy joke that ends up getting you in trouble).

~Here is how you can deal effectively with a youth-resistant client:

  • Understand their perspective
    Clients have an inherent fear and distrust of consultants. They imagine that consultants make huge paychecks and wield undue influence with their senior leadership. They become resentful over how much money their company is "wasting" on consulting fees. Then, you enter the picture - enthusiastic, rosy-cheeked, and well-dressed. Many of the clients probably have children that are older than you. You will be working as a peer with them on a team analyzing an issue in their company. This can be hard to stomach for a proud, yet fearful, client. This whole situation is threatening their ego and touching on their fears about their career.

  • Don't take it personally
    Many of the emotional factors around a consulting engagement can be trying for people in the client's organization. They have fear of changes that might happen, resentment about expensive consultants telling them what to do, and embarrassment over having to bring in outside help to solve a problem.

    In short, clients can sometimes be unhappy and hostile towards consultants in general - and young consultants just happen to make an easy target for someone to beat up. Remember that the aggression usually has nothing to do with you. It has everything to do with the client's ego and fear about the future. Doubting yourself and feeling depressed would be the wrong reaction considering that the attacks are simply redirected at you.

Respond... with care
Sometimes turning the other cheek is not the best thing to do. Responding to the client with a gentle comeback when they chide you about your age can be a good way to deflect their attack and lighten the mood. In other situations, where their actions are particularly aggressive and harmful, the best action is probably to stand your ground without becoming angry. You can respond with something like, "Do you feel better now? Let's move on. We have work to finish."

~Go for help
You can almost never go wrong by involving your boss. He or she can support you and speak with the client directly to solve whatever the problem is. This can keep you out of trouble if a relationship with the client is suffering. Besides, it's always a good idea to seek guidance from your elders.

The last word
Being young does not have to be a disadvantage in the field of consulting. You bring a fresh perspective, strong academic credentials, lots of energy, and a powerful brain. Even though difficult clients can make your job more challenging, they do not need to derail you and make you feel worthless. Stay strong and continue to add value wherever you can. Good luck!

Chris Sieber is himself a young consultant with James Miller and Company, a managment consulting firm based in Houston. With JM&C, Chris has worked on projects ranging from process reengineering to e-business planning. He holds a degree in Business Honors and Finance from the University of Texas at Austin. Chris may be reached at cosieber@jmandc.com.

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