TechProGuild held an online chat on Sept. 28, 2000. Rick Freedman discussed dealing with difficult and high-maintenance clients. Here's the edited transcript from that chat.
Note: TechProGuild edits Guild Meeting transcripts for clarity.
MODERATOR: Welcome to Thursday's Guild Meeting everyone. Our speaker for this evening will be Rick Freedman. He'll be discussing how to deal with the consultant/client relationship. Sometimes it can be tricky, and Rick is here to tell you how to successfully handle it.
RFMAN: Hi, thanks for attending this meeting. I'm Rick. I write a column for the TechRepublic IT Consultant site on managing client relationships. I also wrote a book called The IT Consultant, and I'm glad to answer any questions about managing client relationships. Rzam, are you a consultant, an IT professional, or other?
A human discipline
JCARLISLE: Hi Rick! What's the most difficult thing a consultant has to face when dealing with clients?
RZAM: I am an independent tech/consultant.
MODERATOR: For those of you joining the meeting tonight, our speaker is Rick Freedman, going by the nickname RFMAN.
RFMAN: JC, the most difficult thing for a lot of consultants is realizing that being a consultant is as much a human discipline as a technical one.
JCARLISLE: What do you mean by human discipline?
RFMAN: Lots of consultants and IT pros focus on the technical aspects and don't concentrate on the human relationships.
Teaching by example
FRANK: Rick, how might an IT manager handle a not-so-disciplined consultant that has great tech skills?
JECASSERLY: Hello! I am sorry for being late.
RFMAN: Things like managing change, communication, gaining consensus, and all those other human interactions. Frank, the best role a mature consultant can play is that of a mentor to a consultant that needs to develop relationships skills.
IFLIP4DOC: Good evening everyone, sorry for being late.
RFMAN: Of course, the best way to teach is by example! There's an old saying that you teach consultants by telling them how to do it, then letting them watch you do it, then letting them do it.
FRANK: Understood. So coaching from one consultant/IT pro to another is acceptable, so long as the consultant understands he/she is to provide the client with what he/she was hired for.
RFMAN: Moderator, can we go around the room and see what everyone's specialty is?
MODERATOR: Let's hear it everyone. Let’ s go up and down the user list and introduce ourselves.
FRANK: On one.
JCARLISLE: I’m a network administrator for a medium size manufacturing company. We deal with both Novell and NT. I also do consulting work on the side.
RFMAN: Frank, in my consulting teams, I'll often begin by role-playing with a junior consultant, walking him/her through the process of understanding the client's goals.
FRANK: Frank, network admin/engineer Novell CNA 3.x, 4.x, CNE 5.x in progress, Nortel Cert. Manufacturing and ex-consultant.
TSQR5: Windows NT NW admin and Tier 1(help desk) support, work for TRW.
JECASSERLY: Jecasserly. I am studying for my MCSE +I and I want to learn as much as I can.
RFMAN: Frank, then, I'll take the consultant with me to one of my client negotiation sessions, to watch me go through the process.
FRANK: So, a follow-by-example rule, then?
RZAM: As I said earlier, I provide technical support on an independent basis, so how I handle clients reflects upon my whole business. I am the business.
RFMAN: And then, I'll walk through the results with him/her afterwards, all the while focusing on the client's experience and goals.
JECASSERLY: Lol. I am the junior!
IFLIP4DOC: IT service manager, I work mainly with SBS and NT.
RFMAN: Rzam makes a great point. Tom Peters, in his new book on professional services, calls it “Brand Me”—meaning that you are the brand. The customer's experience with you—not just the technical outcome—colors the engagement and creates a brand around your services.
FRANK: Okay. So we get into negotiation consultant/client needs, goals, ultimately cost, and then interview of prospective consultants for project work.
RFMAN: So Jecasserly, what works for you? How can a senior person help a junior with superior technical skills elevate their game on the relationship side?
JECASSERLY: By showing, watching, and boosting confidence.
RFMAN: Frank, I wish there was a shortcut, but my experience is that it's an iterative process of coaching, doing together, reviewing the results, and refining the approach.
FRANK: But also not becoming too overconfident, I think, Rick.
RFMAN: Jecasserly, I agree that only by building confidence and trusting, can senior folks help their associates gain mastery.
IFLIP4DOC: Welcome, Adavis.
RFMAN: Frank, I agree that overconfidence can be a problem. I know many consultants who decide that they're smarter than the client because they're technically sharper...
JECASSERLY: I also learn a lot about people by listening.
RFMAN: ...but clients alone have the organizational insight to know which goals and approaches will work in their world.
IFLIP4DOC: Welcome, Adavis.
JCARLISLE: How do you deal with a client that clearly wants to go down a technological dead end?
RFMAN: Jecasserly, listening is the number one skill for a consultant! Unfortunately, some less mature consultants see consulting as a platform to display their skills, instead of focusing on what the client is saying.
FRANK: Rick, so, in the approach of a perspective client, the consultant and/or team should try and ease into the job at hand, not just to get caught up by a client that may be on the same technical level and just need workload help?
RFMAN: Jcarlisle, it's definitely the consultant’s role to protect a client from his own worst instincts. Some clients, because of political pressures or lack of understanding, want to go down into the black hole.
FRANK: To avoid the possibility of upsetting the client.
JCARLISLE: How hard do you fight to keep them from doing that though? Is there a point where you threaten not to do the job? Or do you just do it and try to figure out how to spin the damage later?
RFMAN: Frank, I make a distinction between consulting and workload help, what I call "body shop" work. "Body shop" means that you're a technical hired gun at the client’s direction. Consulting means you're an advisor. Two very different things!
IFLIP4DOC: If I may, are we talking about consultants or decision makers?
FRANK: Good point, Rick.
MODERATOR: Both, Iflip. If you have a question from a client side, feel free to ask.
MODERATOR: Like... on the flip side, how should a client deal with a know-it-all consultant?
TSQR5: I did “body shop” work for ten years, in the 80s and 90s.
RFMAN: Since you're taking the role of an advisor, it's your responsibility to make a strong case for the right technological direction. Like a doctor, however, you can advise but you can't decide for the patient—only the patient can make the commitment to do the right thing.
IFLIP4DOC: Thanks, I was just adding to the conversation.
FRANK: Rick, damage control. How do you handle a client who’s aggravated (i.e., job not on time, bad technical skills)?
JCARLISLE: Thanks, Rick!
RFMAN: Frank, it's all about honesty to me. Tell the client as soon as you know you're hitting a snag. Tell him/her where you're at and what's happening. The worst thing is a surprise. Frank, it's also about managing expectations up front—including the expectation that there is risk in every technical project.
FRANK: Agreed. Honesty works for almost everyone. Just a few exceptions. Lol.
IFLIP4DOC: Agreed. You still have your credibility.
JECASSERLY: And, for the few it is risk management.
FRANK: You can say that again, Jecasserly.
RFMAN: If we go back to the concept of "Brand Me," then reputation is everything. So managing expectations and keeping the client informed of the good and the bad all the way through protects your brand as well as that specific engagement and relationship.
IFLIP4DOC: Welcome, Pasha.
Give and take
JECASSERLY: How do you, as a consultant, keep the client training time appropriate?
FRANK: Rick, can we look at the flip side for a moment? If we use the honesty approach and a client is unhappy about services being provided, how does the client tackle this?
RFMAN: Hi Pasha—I'm the speaker. Tell us about your work and projects. Frank, I have a simple rule in all my engagements: I guarantee everything I do! If the client doesn't feel he/she got value from my participation, he/she doesn't pay! It sometimes costs me (rarely), but it definitely clarifies the relationship. It also forces me to confront the unpleasant aspects immediately, which can be tempting to sweep under the rug. It's the best decision I ever made in my career!
FRANK: Money and satisfaction guaranteed. It’s a good way to do business. Do you feel the need for contracts or the old handshake and a promise?
RFMAN: Consultants with strong skills are in so much demand, it's counterproductive to be arguing over bills and hours when we could be out billing and getting paid.
FRANK: True, very true.
RFMAN: I always have a written engagement letter, not because I'm going to use it legally against the client later, but because it ensures that we both see the engagement the same way.
FRANK: So, you see it as kind of a dance—one partner, the consultant and the other, the client. And, if all goes well, a beautiful waltz, freestyle, or whatever your choice?
RFMAN: The problem with a handshake is that you can't refer to it later.
JECASSERLY: That is poetic! As long as it is on paper.
RFMAN: Frank, it's definitely a relationship—each player has a role. It's critical to know who's leading and who's following.
RZAM: However, there are clients who are very contentious, and you do not find this out until after you have spent a tremendous amount of time on a job. It would be nice to say, “If you are not happy then don't pay anything,” but it is not always practical. Not for me, anyway. At some point, you have to handle disputes. I think that's where a good contract is worth the trouble.
FRANK: Rick, that’s true, but some older companies, especially privately held ones, still do business on a handshake. How do you approach them to sign the paper? Thanks, Jecasserly.
RFMAN: Rzam, there are a lot of clients out there who have a right to be contentious—they've been burned before! Also, IT consulting is so ambiguous. The results are hard to measure and services are an intangible to begin with. For major engagements, I agree that a clear contract or scope of work is required. I also am a strong believer in what I call “assurance factors.”
FRANK: Assurance factors, Rick ?
RFMAN: Because clients are so skittish, we need to build in status reports, milestones, meetings, updates, and whatever else will keep the client assured that we're on track, on budget, and not hustling them.
IFLIP4DOC: Would you agree you should start smaller, and then go big?
RFMAN: Too many inexperienced consultants will come in to the client's site, say "Where's the server room?” go do their thing, and then leave, without ever helping the client understand what they were doing, why, what the results were, etc.
JECASSERLY: You learn a lot doing small projects. The people skills are more intensive.
FRANK: So, even though you’re consulting, you should provide some knowledge transfer to the client?
RFMAN: I usually start my relationship by saying "Give me a little project, let me show you how I do it, and how I keep you informed and comfortable, how I train and document.” That always leads to add-on work
IFLIP4DOC: That sounds like a great plan.
RFMAN: Frank, knowledge transfer is part of it, but to me it's just doing a complete job. This is what I meant at the beginning. The technical piece is just one component of a complete engagement.
FRANK: Rick, agreed.
JECASSERLY: I think so. The knowledge transfer is forever downloading, and meanwhile you complete the job.
IFLIP4DOC: I still go out into the field and find myself having to clean up some of my tech's messes both technical (what they thought they knew) and relational with the client
RZAM: Hmm, maybe many clients have been burned before, but I have also been burned by clients (many times).
RFMAN: Iflip, I'd guess that 75 percent of my work is cleaning up other people’s messes. There are a lot of technicians and consultants out there who don't know how to deliver customer satisfaction. How much better for us who have the customer relationship skills!
RFMAN: Rzam, tell me more. What kind of experiences have you had? Any clients with bad intent from the beginning?
FRANK: Rick, now that we have covered the front end and the middle, how about the back end when the task at hand is winding down. What then?
RZAM: I agree with what you are saying, but I guess what I am asking is how do you handle someone who is always blaming you for their problems, even when you have nothing to do with them?
RFMAN: Machiavelli said that "the prince who is not wise himself cannot be well advised." Substitute client for prince.
That was then, this is now
IFLIP4DOC: Rfman, what would you say is your approach when dealing with clients who have just had a bad experience with a consultant? Welcome, Rdanderson.
RFMAN: Rzam, the more contentious the relationship, the more formal I get in terms of documenting everything. If I suspect from the start that the client is skittish, or just a pain, I'll write a scope that defines every responsibility to the gnat's a—, then document every conversation and memo.
FRANK: Iflip, good question.
RDANDERSON: Thank you.
RFMAN: Iflip, if it's in the open that the client had a bad experience, I'll come out and ask what happened. I'm especially looking for the client to take some responsibility for the problems. If all they can do is blame, I may not want to be in that relationship.
IFLIP4DOC: Welcome back, Pasha.
MODERATOR: Only 10 minutes to go everyone! Get those last-minute questions in! Don't forget to stay to see who wins tonight's Guild Meeting Participation Entry for our monthly prize!
FRANK: Rfman, how does one bow out, so to speak, and still keep the brand?
JECASSERLY: Documentation is a generic way to prevent a lot of problems.
RFMAN: Iflip, I still think the same rules apply. Document to the nth degree, build in multiple reassurance factors, such as written status reports and milestone meetings, and take the client's pulse very frequently. If the relationship is going off the rails, admit it immediately and get the client to meet and discuss it.
RZAM: Exactly, Frank. That is what I was trying to ask. Thanks.
PASHA: Jecasserly, that's true, but one may have to read it.
FRANK: Rzam, no problem.
IFLIP4DOC: Good suggestion, Rfman. I can see that you probably do well in the field.
RFMAN: Frank, I often bow out of projects—both for personality issues as well as expertise issues. Some personalities just don't gel. In those cases I'll try to find a replacement that fits the culture better. If I don't have the expertise to add value, I'll stay on and act as an advisor until they find a better fit. I'll also often change my role—becoming a project manager or a general contractor and allowing the technical subject matter expert to take more ownership.
JECASSERLY: But, if you are consulting, you need to have a contract with the client to clarify the roles and problems to be solved.
FRANK: Rfman, an excellent idea. Advise the client that you may not be what he/she wants, but you can still help them with the issue at hand.
IFLIP4DOC: Most times we take on a lot of roles, wouldn't you say, Rfman?
RFMAN: Jecasserly, it's true that you need some type of agreement, but agreements are between people, and people can change them! I try to keep my relationships fluid enough that if the circumstances change, we can change the engagement so everyone gets the best value.
FRANK: Rfman, is it always the sale that drives the dance or is it the challenge technically?
RZAM: No kidding! Like my credit card company does :-)
PASHA: Frank, sometimes the client hardly understands what he wants, and what you can do for him.
RFMAN: Frank, there's a practical and an ideal answer. Ideally we take the projects that turn us on, but practically we need to pay the rent. I'm lucky enough that I can select projects that I want for experience or technical reasons.
FRANK: Pasha, then I think that’s where the consultant would put on his/her advisory hat!
MODERATOR: Ok gang. Top of the hour! Any last minute words, Rick?
RZAM: Yeah, thanks.
RFMAN: But I understand that many consultants have to take on projects that may not be the hottest technology due to company or monetary requirements.
IFLIP4DOC: Thanks for your time, Rfman
TSQR5: Thanks Rick, very informative.
FRANK: Rfman, I find that to be true also because of today's marketplace, don't you?
JECASSERLY: Thank you.
RFMAN: I'd like to leave everyone with two things: Consulting is a human discipline, not a technical one, and it's all about the best interests of the client. Anyone who wants to can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
MODERATOR: Thanks to Rick for leading a lively and informative discussion. And thanks to all of you for attending and participating tonight. Now it's time for the Flying Fickle Finger of Fate to go up and down the user list and pick tonight's Guild Meeting Participation Winner. It's... It's... Frank! Congratulations! You win an entry for our monthly Guild Meeting prize. The person with the most entries this month wins an Athlon motherboard and CPU. Congratulations!
FRANK: Rfman, thanks for an interesting one!
PASHA: Frank, and he doesn't care who will run around him.
IFLIP4DOC: Good night all
RDANDERSON: Good night.
JECASSERLY: Frank, congrats!
MODERATOR: Frank, send your snailmail information to jharvey@techrepublic,com.
FRANK: Thanks, moderator.
RFMAN: Good night, and thanks!
FRANK: Pasha, lol.
ADAVIS: Congrats, Frank!
FRANK: Thanks, Jecasserly.
MODERATOR: Thanks again everyone, and good night. Guild Meeting adjourned.
ADAVIS: G'night, all.
FRANK: Yes sir, mod.
JECASSERLY: No problem, Frank, you earned it!
Rick Freedman is the author of three books on IT consulting, including "The IT Consultant." Rick is an independent consultant and trainer, working, through his company Consulting Strategies Inc., to help agile teams and organizations understand agile practices and migrate successfully.