A few months ago I received a surprising and disconcerting email. A month earlier I had given a three-hour presentation to a group of 15 senior managers from several different countries. My contact for this global company wrote, “Although they had a few take-aways from your session, the majority were very disappointed with the session as a whole.”

I asked for more specific feedback in a follow-up email. The response: 1) They felt they got “textbook principles rather than your experience;” 2) “They were disappointed there was [sic] no real actions developed in the session;” 3) “A number of questions were asked, but often not answered other than referring back to the principles;” and 4) “We were paying you as a speaker and didn’t appreciate the reference to available books, articles, websites, etc.”

After giving serious consideration to this negative critique, I’ve defined five lessons learned from this incident. I believe they can be helpful to both consultants and those who hire us.

Honest exchanges are key to keep consultants on course.

Clarify expectations

The facilitator of the safety-leadership meeting emailed me her desire for me to teach People-Based Safety (PBS). I had lengthy preconference phone conversations about the critical safety concerns of this organization and was given general direction on what to cover.

But we never discussed deliverables. What did the group expect to achieve from the three-hour meeting? I presumed it was knowledge gain; later I learned they wanted an action plan. Consequently, I explained principles and procedures while referring to relevant case studies, instead of leading a discussion of people-based action-planning.

Expectations of a client can be unrealistic. In this case, the diverse cultures represented by the group participants would have made developing a generic action plan impossible.

Some industry leaders want experienced consultants to rapidly deliver a quick-fix magic bullet to solve complex and multifaceted problems. And frankly, many promotional brochures from consulting firms lead clients on, giving the impression they have the answer to occupational safety, organizational leadership, and culture change.

Know your audience

Had I received background information about each participant and carefully studied these data, I could have customized a more pertinent presentation. I could have facilitated a more applicable discussion. How much did the individuals already know about PBS? Had they ever attempted a behavioral observation-and-feedback process at their sites? Had any read one or more of my PBS books?

I would have taken an entirely different approach to the meeting if I realized the cultural diversity of this group, and the aspiration for an action plan. I would have insisted a company-wide action plan cannot be developed in a three-hour teaching/learning session, and perhaps not at all. I would have presented relevant principles and offered advice for adaptations to particular cultures and injury-prevention circumstances.

Ask for a process check

Throughout my interactions with these corporate leaders, I assumed everything was going fine. The questions were thoughtful and expressed with genuine concern. My answers appeared to be accepted. Several participants contributed examples to support pertinent principles or procedures. I had no idea the meeting was off the mark.

My mistake: I never stopped and asked, “Are we meeting your expectations for this session?” I didn’t even question individuals during the lunch break. I just joined in the friendly conversations among the group. Not a single concern was aired that the session was not achieving its mission.

No news is not necessarily good

I assumed my performance and the group discussion went well. At the end, I thanked everyone for the opportunity to share the essence of PBS with them, and I expressed sincere appreciation for their thoughtful questions and supportive dialogue. Friendly smiles and handshakes prior to my departure felt rewarding, signaling a successful teaching/learning experience for all.

A month later I learned the session was judged a failure by “the majority” of the participants.

Solicit immediate post-session feedback

My good friend John Drebinger distributes his own feedback forms at each of his instructional sessions. He asks his audience what they liked best about his presentation and where there is room for improvement. He does this even at conferences with their own evaluation process. John always gets immediate impressions of a particular session. This information is considerably more useful than the non-behavioral rating scores obtained months after a professional conference.

How many of you distribute evaluation forms at the end of your consulting or training sessions? Do you ask outside consultants and trainers to use feedback forms to assess their impact?

I received the negative critique a month after the three-hour session. This feedback had limited diagnostic value and came from one person, conveyed as a group opinion. How much more timely and relevant it would have been if I had distributed a feedback form at the end of my session, or better yet, during the mid-session break. I would have learned each person’s perspective, and might have been able to make some on-the-spot adjustments.

To conclude

We learn from the errors of our ways. I sincerely hope you find this confession of my unsuccessful consulting experience to be constructive, and not an attempt to rationalize my mistake. Perhaps the need to clarify expectations prior to a consulting or training session is blatant, as is the value of a process check in the midst of a consulting meeting. The need to obtain specific feedback regarding every participant’s perception of a training event, including suggestions for improvements, is clear.

Have I only reminded you of the obvious? When engaging a consultant, it’s best to follow behaviors relevant to each of the five lessons outlined here.

But do you?

Perhaps my story will convince some of you when working with consultants to set clear expectations, provide relevant background information, build in time for a process check, and let your consultants know in “real-time” if your goals are being met.