Use your head when dealing with client chaos

If all your clients had their acts together, they probably wouldn't need you. But what do you do when a client is so disorganized that you can't get the job done?

It’s a fact of contractor life that sooner or later, you will work for a client whose management or staff—or more likely, both—is so disorganized and chaotic that you can’t make headway on the project. If you’ve been contracting for long, you’ve probably already been in this situation.

That’s because companies that need contractor help often call in that person only when the project has become completely unmanageable by their own staff. Contractors rarely walk into situations where everything is under control. This article takes a look at some ways you can deal with client chaos when it’s an obstacle to completing your work.

Identify the problem
First, attempt to pinpoint the cause of the disorganization. It could be any or a combination of a number of things. Here are a few possibilities and some suggestions for first-line remedies:
  • The project was not clearly defined from the start. If this is the problem, back up. Call a meeting of the key people as soon as possible and attempt to further clarify the scope and direction of the project.
  • Feature creep has gotten way out of hand, and there’s no system for revisions and additions to the project. This topic has been discussed in several TechRepublic articles, and unfortunately, it isn’t easy to get under control. You’ll need to either implement a system for dealing with revisions and change requests, or make clear the point at which you will no longer accept revisions, period. (Your contract should have addressed changes and revisions as well.)
  • The wrong person is heading the project. Your key contact person at the company doesn’t know much about the project and doesn’t seem to want to be involved. If so, you need to have the project reassigned to the right person.
  • You can’t get the resources you need. Perhaps the client’s IT department never gets around to installing that critical software or assigning the necessary permissions, you don’t have access to the people you need to work with, or you’re waiting forever for another developer to finish a piece of code. If a direct appeal to the person responsible for the roadblock doesn’t solve anything, you’ll need to go higher up. You aren’t being a snitch—you’re trying to complete the project for your client.

Get their attention
Once you identify the problem, you probably won’t be able to solve it yourself. (If you can, do so now, especially—be honest here—if the problem is your own disorganization or lack of initiative.) You’ll need to call in the relevant people: management and possibly staff. Be sure that both the main project contact and the person who brought you in to do the project—if these are different people—attend.

Use your best judgment as to whether a group meeting or individual conferences is the better approach. If you need to do some finger-pointing, you may be better off talking with people one-on-one. However, if you’ve already asked the client to correct the issue, it may take a group meeting to make other people aware of the problem. Sometimes, you have to lay the blame in person, with tact.

No matter what the problem or the solution is, the way to get your client’s attention is to appeal to their bottom line, never your own. Explain that you were brought in to accomplish this project and you can’t do so, which is costing the client money either because they’re paying you to be unproductive or because the end product they need from you is being held up. (Here’s a tip: When you have to call a client on the carpet for their disorganization, using the passive voice can be a good thing.) Point out not how the problem is affecting you, but rather its impact on the project itself.

Always attempt to offer a solution
Part of your value as a contractor is your ability to offer solutions, not just identify problems and expect the client to solve them. Of course, some client input will be necessary if they’re creating the problem. But you should go into any such meeting prepared to present what you see as the cause of the problem, followed by at least a couple of possible solutions. You can then ask the client for further suggestions. Offering solutions also helps your client move beyond the defensive position you will invariably create by pointing out any obstacle that they’re creating.

The solution you can offer will depend on the nature of the problem, as outlined earlier. If you simply can’t resolve a specific problem, here are a couple of other options you can toss out:
  • Look for something you can do right now. If you can’t complete part X of your project, find out if you can move on to part Y and return to X later. Make it clear that you expect to have the problem with X resolved at that point.
  • Offer to resume work at a later date. Depending on your situation and how long it will take to fix the problem, you might offer to go on a short hiatus from the project while the client gets their act together. You could devote this time to finding your next project, or perhaps take an impromptu vacation. With this option, the client must agree to remedy the problem within a specific time.

If you propose the latter option and the time away will be more than a week or two, you should probably draw up a contract addendum to address the terms and what will happen if you can’t resume work upon returning. You can keep the addendum simple by presenting it as a letter outlining the terms. However, make sure that an addendum is legal by your current contract; you may need to terminate that contract and draw up another. If you’re taking any financial risk by committing a chunk of time in the future that you could use for another project, you don’t want to return and find that the client still isn’t ready.

As a last resort, consider ending the project early
If the client is unwilling or unable to remove the obstacles in your way and you’ve given them many opportunities to do so, sometimes the only thing you can do is bow out of the project, complete or not. Especially if the client’s disorganization means that you aren’t making any money on the project, at some point you need to move on.

If you are truly unable to make any progress on the project, the client is probably committing a material breach of your contract, but you should always check the ramifications of leaving a project before it’s complete. If you’re being paid a fixed fee, you may be able to leave the project and keep what you’ve been paid so far, or negotiate to be paid for the work you have been able to complete, if this isn’t already in your contract.

Keep the problem in perspective
Finally, draw a line between client disorganization that truly hampers your ability to complete the project and that which is simply annoying, or that calls for some extra work on your part. As a contractor, you should strive to accommodate your client, even if they don’t always work in ways that make your life easy. Almost every client I’ve worked for who had a sizeable project was disorganized to some degree, and that’s part of why they needed me. I don’t ever like it, but how they run their business is not my concern as long as I can run my business.

Meredith Little has worn many hats as a self-employed writer, including technical writer, documentation specialist, trainer, business analyst, photographer, and travel writer.

When you enter a new project faced with total chaos, what do you do? What do you recommend to your peers who are tempted to turn and run away from these situations? To share your thoughts, post a comment or send us a note.

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