Project Management

Be courageous when your client calls in another consultant

Chip Camden reflects on how he will respond if a client brings in another consultant who muddies the working relationship.

TechRepublic member Bob Eisenhardt (reisen55) sent me an email about one of his clients, which read in part:

About a week or more ago he told me that he had called in his old consultant to build a new server and set it up. THIS changed the whole working relationship, but I thought it could be a positive experience. Boy was I wrong. Not only in came the old consultant who ignored me but also a slew of other specialized consultants. No body can run under situations like this and for that reason the client and I parted ways this morning.

This reminded me of a situation I faced years ago. A client of mine on the opposite coast brought me on-site for a week. He treated me like royalty, putting me up in the finest hotel and taking me out to dinner at a fancy restaurant. But when I arrived at the office, I found another consultant living in his back pocket. "Fine," I thought. "There's plenty of work here for both of us. Try to get along." My gut, however, was sounding the alarm -- and it was right. After I returned to the West Coast, the other consultant took full advantage of his proximity to bend the client's plans in his direction. There were too many spoons in the pot, and mine had to reach all the way across the continent. Within three months, we terminated our relationship.

I've often wondered what I could have done differently to save that situation. Perhaps nothing would have helped, but if I had it to do over again I would start by frankly asking my client what his reasons were for bringing in another consultant and how he envisioned our working relationship. I failed to take that sort of direct approach, not wanting to make him answer a potentially difficult question, paradoxically because I was too afraid of losing the client! If I had courageously risked losing him, then I might have him as a client still.

Depending on my client's answer to the question, I would have responded in one of three ways:

1. If the arrangement seemed tenable, then I would try to suggest some steps to put my client's plan into action: for instance, details about the division of responsibility and plans for coordinating our efforts. This would show that I'm supportive of the plan, and bear no ill will towards the other consultant.

2. If the client's vision seemed impossible or even unproductive, I would try to gently suggest some modifications to it. If those met with absolute resistance, then I would prepare myself and the client for the end of our relationship. As Bob said above, some situations just should not be endured.

3. Perhaps the client doesn't have a clear vision, and is just trying to shake things up. The best response to that, I think, is to help them do the shaking. Ask them what they would like to test, and suggest ways to construct those tests.

In any case, I would set aside my fear for my own business, because fear makes you small. When you act small, you can't win. Instead, courageously focus on what your client is trying to achieve and how you might be able to help with that effort, regardless of whether another consultant is part of the mix.

As the Tao Te Ching says (VII):

Therefore the sage puts his person last and it comes first,

Treats it as extraneous to himself and it is preserved.

Is it not because he is without thought of self that he is able to accomplish his private ends?

Have you ever dealt with a similar situation? What was your response to the introduction of another consultant? Would you handle it any differently if you had it to do over again?

About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

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