There is nothing better for the bottom line than a regular long-term contract. A consistent income allows you to plan ahead and create long-term plans for your business or, if you're part of a team of consultants, puts you in a strong position for advancement. However, as the expression goes, “familiarity breeds contempt,” and both contractors and clients can fall into bad habits.
Contractors can forget they are highly paid temporary additions to the corporate family and view themselves as employees who do what is required rather than striving to excel. When you're being paid hourly, at a rate generally higher than that of permanent staff, the quality of output is also expected to be higher. Relaxing on the job is dangerous for your career.
A client also can forget a consultant is human and, rather than remembering a long period of outstanding work, concentrate on the contractor’s last oversight. A client also can begin to expect too much of a contractor, forgetting to give clear specifications or setting impossible deadlines, especially when the pressure is on, as I learned during one long-term engagement.
The long-term client: University administration
After hiring me for a few months to create a number of reports for a client, the university decided to extend my contract. A couple of days a week, I would go onsite to maintain the reports I had created and expand the collection as required. Things had been going well for a number of months. The report collection was expanding and the departments that used the reports were content with the turnaround time and quality. However, as the end of the year approached, pressure began to build for my client to deliver results to the departments at an ever-increasing pace.
The problem: People behave differently under pressure
As more pressure was put on my client to deliver results, tasks began to fall through the cracks. Specifications weren't as complete as they usually were because of time constraints, and procedures were being neglected to get the information to me as quickly as possible. Coupled with this were my own personal pressures. I was about to be married and, despite all good intentions, the organization of the wedding was spilling over into work hours.
Although my work was complete, I wasn't striving to go that extra mile for the client. Rather than concentrating on adding value, my mind was on the wedding speech.
The client’s work pressures and my personal issues were a bad combination. I would deliver what I thought was required, only to have the client send it back, requesting a number of amendments. The extra time added by the passing back and forth of the reports meant deadlines weren't being met, which in turn put more pressure on the client and me to deliver. I was getting frustrated with the gaps in communication, and my client was getting frustrated with what he perceived as a reduction in the quality of my output.
The consequence: Frustrations spill over
The client called me into his office. He told me he didn't think my mind was on the job and that, with my contract up for renewal in a few weeks, he would seriously have to think about what he was going to do. Although I told him I disagreed and insisted I had missed not a deadline, with no documentation to back me up, I was fighting a losing battle. I told him I would do my best to remedy the situation and went back to my work.
This is a situation you never want to be in with a client. The client is unhappy and the relationship is damaged because of it. I had to go into damage control mode. I put out of my head anything to do with the wedding. There would not be much of a wedding if I had no job to provide for one. Also, I didn't want to give the client any reason to complain.
Back at HQ, I informed my boss that the client had complained about my work and that I disagreed and felt the dissatisfaction was the result of work pressures. I told my boss I would work with the client to ensure that the situation was resolved. He appreciated the feedback and left it in my hands.
Initially, I had been concerned about telling my boss of the situation. No one wants to admit to their superior that there is a problem with a client, but as any public relations officer will tell you, when your reputation is at stake “tell it all and tell it fast” because it is always better coming from you than from someone else.
This proved to be the right course; a couple of days later the client called my boss expressing his dissatisfaction with my work. Since I had warned him of the situation, the news wasn't a surprise and he already had my side of the situation to weigh his response. He contacted me, informed me of the call, and left it for me to deal with, trusting my judgment.
Resolution: Keep track of what you do
I began to document my work. By using a Work in Progress (WIP) sheet, I ensured I could account for the work I was doing and show where projects had gone overtime and the reasons for it. The university had its own task sheet, but it didn't have the detail I needed, and with procedures being relaxed, not all jobs were making it onto the sheet.
Whenever a specification was unclear, rather than try to fill in the gaps myself and potentially waste time, I immediately consulted with the client. By being respectful and courteous at all times, I minimized the chance of the client becoming frustrated by the time being taken up in this clarification process. Although specification was taking a little longer, it ensured fewer problems at completion.
At the end of each week, I e-mailed a copy of the WIP to the client and my boss. This way, they both could see those “extra jobs” that cropped up and also see the progress made during the week.
By following these procedures, I made it through the end-of-year rush and the client renewed my contract.
Download a Work in Progress sheet
You may download a sample WIP sheet here and tweak it to suit your purposes.
The bottom line
There will be times when a client is under pressure, and the company's dissatisfaction may translate into unhappiness with the work you have done for it. Remember not to take the criticism personally. Try to understand why the client is complaining and put procedures in place to ensure it doesn't happen again.
At all times, be professional and courteous. You may not agree with the client and you're entitled to express your opinion, but offending an already dissatisfied client will not help your situation. If you work for a company, make sure your boss is informed of the situation. Management can accept bumps in the road but hates surprises, and not having all the information hinders their ability to do their job effectively.
One useful way to prevent problems from arising is by using a Work in Progress sheet. This helps you keep track of the work that needs to be done and allows you to set the priority of the tasks. By sharing it with the appropriate parties, you make sure everyone is on the same page in terms of your workload and output. Don't be afraid of being accountable for the work you do. It forces you to maintain a standard and ensures that you have proof of the standard you set when it is brought into question.