Patrick Lencioni: Getting Naked with Clients

Patrick Lencioni interview
Patrick Lencioni

Patrick Lencioni is a consultant, best-selling author, and president of The Table Group, a consulting firm that specializes in executive team development and organizational health. He speaks and consults to a wide range of companies, including multinationals, start-ups,and non-profits.

Lencioni’s books include Silos, Politics, and Turf WarsDeath by MeetingThe Five Dysfunctions of a Team, The Three Signs of a Miserable Job, and Getting Naked: A Business Fable about Shedding the Three Fears That Sabotage Client Loyalty.

In Getting Naked, Lencioni tackles an issue that every consultant faces: how to retain the clients you really want. We asked Lencioni about the strategies he uses to build trust and keep clients loyal.

Interview Summary: Three Fears That Sabotage Client Loyalty

  1. Losing the Business: Worrying about losing a client’s business may cause you to avoid doing the very things that ultimately engender loyalty and trust.
  2. Being Embarrassed: Rooted in pride, this fear can lead you to withhold your best ideas from clients.
  3. Feeling Inferior: To avoid feeling irrelevant or being overlooked, you try to achieve and preserve a high level of importance in clients’ minds.

Adapted from: Getting Naked, by Patrick Lencioni

McLaughlin: In your book, you talk about “naked service.” Could you explain what that is and how clients and service providers benefit from it?

Lencioni: Naked service is about being completely vulnerable with clients—open, selfless, humble, transparent, and kind. It means that you always act in the client’s best interests, and don’t over-think what you say and how you say it.

Clients benefit from naked service because they hear what they need to hear, without having to parse through what you are saying. When they know that you are giving them direct, unfiltered feedback, they have much more confidence in your advice.

For service providers, vulnerability is liberating, especially if you’ve been trained to pretend that you know it all and to project more strength or competence than you might feel. Naked service is easier and more rewarding than trying to manage people’s perceptions.

But, in practice, many consultants don’t behave this way in their interactions with clients, even though they know they should.

McLaughlin: Do you think some service providers withhold information about themselves from clients or try to cover up what they don’t know?

Lencioni: Yes. At times as a consultant, it can feel like your job is to manipulate clients into thinking highly of you. That is the opposite of being naked with them.

The point is that nineteen out of twenty clients will respond positively to your vulnerability and see it as a breath of fresh air. They’ll appreciate and value you and want to cling to the relationship—in a good sense.

Maybe one out of twenty is not going to like it. That’s okay because that relationship is probably not a good fit for you anyway.

McLaughlin: Do you think naked service makes it easier for clients and consultants to decide whether they should work together?

Lencioni: Absolutely. And, in fact, with naked service, you don’t need to sell anymore; you consult with the client and look for a good fit. You figure out what the client needs, and give the client some of that right away.

If the client thinks what you are providing works, then you go forward together. If it doesn’t, you tell the client to take what you’ve given, use it, and find somebody else who would be a better choice.

McLaughlin: You say that naked service providers not only overcome the need to get clients to think highly of them, but also knowingly accept a “lower position.” Could you explain that?

Lencioni: In our culture, it’s natural to want others to respect and admire us. But striving for status in a client’s eyes can really get in the way of a trusting relationship. Naked providers do whatever the client needs them to do, even if it might temporarily make them seem “inferior” in some way.

When clients realize that you believe they are more important than you are, ultimately, they will admire you for that. At the time, some task may seem beneath you, but you do it because you honor them in that way.

Our job, after all, is to serve clients. We can’t do that if we think we are somehow better than our clients. In all your client interactions, you have to demonstrate that you are willing to set aside your ego for the client’s benefit.

McLaughlin: You talk about the consultant’s willingness to “enter the danger” in client situations. What kind danger do you mean?

Lencioni: Entering the danger means confronting uncomfortable situations when your instinct is to keep quiet or run the other way. I learned about this years ago when my wife took me to an improvisational acting class. The best improv comes from walking straight into the middle of uncomfortable comments. Someone says something and you think—I don’t know what to do with that. I’ll just wait for somebody else to address it.

In client situations, there will be moments that are unsettling, weird, or potentially threatening to you. That’s probably exactly where you should try to add value.

In one instance, I was working with a well-known, intimidating CEO who was conducting 360-degree feedback. As he was going over the responses with his team, nobody would own up to the results. He said, it says here you think that I’m not a very good listener. Well, what do you think? And nobody responded.

This was one of my first clients, and I remember thinking, like it or not, this is where I have to step in. I rolled my chair up next to the CEO and said, somebody in here said this stuff because you’re the ones who filled out the survey. The CEO was not happy to talk about his weaknesses, no doubt about it. But I made his team confront him.

 In client situations, there will be moments that are unsettling, weird, or potentially threatening to you. That’s probably exactly where you should try to add value.

Entering the danger is similar to another naked concept—something we call telling “the kind truth.” As a consultant, you should use the kind truth in those moments when you don’t want to be the one to speak up or tell clients something they need to hear, but you do it anyway. You do that with respect, not in a cocky or condescending way, because you know it will ultimately help them.

McLaughlin: When working on client projects, we all make mistakes. Some consultants go for damage control or try to gloss over a mistake; others disclose it fully. What’s your approach?

Lencioni: Full disclosure is the way to go. If clients see you pretending, deflecting blame, or trying to minimize your responsibility, that’s a sure way to blow their confidence in you. But when you do let clients know you’ve made a mistake, always put it in the context of how you can help them recover from it to their benefit.

You say, I feel really bad that this decision didn’t turn out well. Now here’s what we can do about it. Make sure clients know that you take full responsibility, even if that means they fire you.

McLaughlin: You’ve talked about service providers getting naked with clients. How important is it for clients to also be willing to get naked?

Lencioni: It’s very important, and clients will follow your lead as they come to trust you and see that you’re doing it. Almost always, a great client relationship will result in mutual nakedness, if you will. But the consultant needs to demonstrate it first.

Clients are accustomed to a parade of consultants telling them how smart they are and trying to manipulate them. So it takes a while for a client to realize when a service provider is being completely vulnerable and honest. Once they realize that, they will respond in kind. If they don’t, they probably don’t appreciate you and the relationship will fade anyway, which is good.

McLaughlin: One last question: If you could give a consultant one piece of advice about strengthening client relationships, what would it be?

Lencioni: My advice would be to realize that avoiding discomfort in your interactions with clients is a recipe for failure. You have to take a leap of faith. If you want to build a great practice, and if you want long-term loyalty from clients, you have to be willing to do things in the short term that may be painful, uncomfortable, or even risky.

I don’t want people to think that this is easy. But those who are willing to get naked with their clients will develop mutually-beneficial, lasting client relationships.

McLaughlin: Thanks for your time.

Find out more about Patrick Lencioni, his books, and services at

You might also be interested in our other interviews with Lencioni:
Patrick Lencioni: Miserable Jobs
Patrick Lencioni: The Dysfunctions of a Team

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