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...

19 comments
Techcited!
Techcited!

Funny how, for some customers, the electrons are always brighter on the other side of the router. I too have had this happen. I had been working with a customer for a significant period of time. Seemingly suddenly, I found another tech in the mix. I say seemingly because for the longest time, this client was a real drain on resources. Always questioning the smallest things. Needing a bid for every break/fix item that came along. I should've seen it coming. Even though I was furious for the lack of trust, I graciously bowed out for the time being. Sure enough, a couple of months later, the client comes back when the service he was getting from Tech B was less than par. Aha, now is my chance to set things straight. Client learned what it means to trust what he was getting from me in the previous engagement. He learned so well that I was able to move from a break-fix model to a managed services model. Now he & his emploees get even better service with less headaches than he was getting. And I get paid more than I ever was getting paid. A true win-win. For me, it is all about trust. My clients need to trust in what I do for them. The best ones never ask questions. The billing and payments go smoothly. And everyone continues to be happy. A couple of things I have learned... I have for sure learned to always exit gracefully. If you don't, you will never get the business back if you want it. I have also been that 2nd consultant on more than one occasion. I have learned (sometimes painfully) to ask alot of questions before moving in. Why switch now? What's wrong with their current consultant? Etc. After all, I too know that those shiny new electrons (customers) aren't always what they seem.

nyong2012
nyong2012

Having the gumption to approach clients takes some practice. Confrontation is typically not a strong suit of folks in IT (and before I get flamed/yelled at) let me explain. In any IT shop, go in and see how they handle conflict. They don't and when IT departments try - they don't do it well. The ones that actually have a plan in place for conflict resolution - are not only great places to work - they're typically voted Top 100 Managed. This shouldn't come as a surprise. They invest in their people because what's the alternative: keep hiring a warm body to fill a position until you miraculously find one or send that person/department for training? IT consultancies (non-evolved ones) typically lack the following: 1) Assertiveness training: definition (taken from the freedictionary) assertiveness training instruction and practice in techniques for dealing with interpersonal conflicts and threatening situations in an assertive manner, avoiding the extremes of aggressive and submissive behavior. Such training has as its goals enabling the learner to express personal feelings freely, speak up for his or her rights, communicate disagreement effectively, accept compliments comfortably, persist in expressing a legitimate complaint, and negotiate mutually satisfying solutions to interpersonal situations in which there is some type of conflict." Assertiveness training works hand in with conflict resolution and mediation. Conflict resolution and mediation: is essentially learning and fostering the behaviors such as diplomacy, tact and neutrality when faced with potentially volatile situations. With what happened to Chip and several others mentioned, is it possible that the client wanted to see just how badly you wanted their business or they were being pressured to use 'the new guy' - and they themselves didn't know how or couldn't say no? I understand this might fall under the 'what-if' or 'coulda -woulda-shoulda' category - however, I have to ask. Thoughts?

herlizness
herlizness

I've seen this scenario a few times and found the best approach is to fully embrace and welcome the "opportunity" to have another hand and pair of eyes on the project. It tends to smoke out the real reason the other person is there fairly quickly. Sometimes of course it means the client is getting rid of you. If they've reached that decision without prior consultation or discussion with you, it's probably final and that's that. Walk away gracefully and thank the client for the business you've had. Sometimes they come back when they discover that Mr./Ms. Perfect they brought in sold them a bill of goods. By then, you may or may not want or need THEM. Of course the real trick here is not being too dependent on any one client for your income; if you've managed that, these situations are really not a problem at all.

jack
jack

Always be reasonable on the billing, quotation and every single job, and be prepared to be questioned. Then, you have no fear about the situation.

loren.saunders
loren.saunders

I think that no matter how many consultants are "on the job" what matters most is to be a good consultant. Whether I'm the interloper or my client thinks they want a second opinion other than mine, all we can do is the best we can do, and that's what we should. Meaning... if the client is dis-satisfied with our service, then we either provide better service or lose the business, or if we're already providing exceptional service and the client is not satisfied, then we let them go away because they suck anyway. In any case... by always improving your work product, staying aware of your market space, needs, trends etc. you will be able to provide good service as a consultant. That's your job, to be objective and professional. If you're getting lazy and living off of one or two gravy clients, then beware... because a better, faster, hungrier consultant will come take your business... and you know what? That's good! That's how a free market works! By doing the best we can, and keeping each other on our toes, the crowd of consultants will be better for it.

dba88
dba88

If it threatens your cash flow and/or livelihood for you and your family, you owe it to yourself to confront the client. Ask directly, but tactfully, what the rhyme and reason for the other consultant. Tell your client that inless there's some design and organization, and you have an understanding for the new consultant and ways and directions the working relationship will ensue, that without this clarification, and if there's any interference with your work, you won't be coming back. This adds stress and tension and is complete and total BS, all because you don't know why your client did it, and especially, because your client did not share the reasons with you. Your choice. Get it out in the open and clarify it. Otherwise, it'll eat you alive!

reisen55
reisen55

Since I started this discussion, here is some of my fallout. I had it happen twice actually, once with a law office where the old consultant was 'tight" with one of the three partners, and that relationship can never be broken. Without going into details, I know their server is under a hack-IP address attack but their password is very strong. My medical office suffered the problem of the primary doctor "knowing alot about computers" but was not an engineer. This pearl of wisdom was given to me ages ago at an IBM business partner I worked for (in sales) with the AS/400 platform. 1990 and 1991. True, I knew alot, was not an engineer and same holds true for this professional. He may be a doctor and a surgeon, but he is not an engineer. But he thinks he knows his stuff. The old consultant was brought back in without my actually knowing about a new server build, an insult unto itself and I actually should have said BYE and walked then and there. I followed Chip's advice and tried to make lemonade out of lemons, be friendly and see what I can learn. OH Boy, did I get an education. Staff was never told I was terminated abruptly so when they called the next morning for a quick password fix (I am just around the corner), the were horrified to learn that I was now persona-non-grata. Revenge? Yes indeed.

martin
martin

This happened to us, a few years back. A local company with 2 people working 300 miles away, felt the remote support to the 2 in London wasn't good enough. (Actually we could never ever get on to the machines remotely to fix the issues) So they engaged a company from 300 miles away to support the 15 works here/and the other 2 with us providing the local hands on. Everything was to change Hardware/software/infrastructure. It was clear it would not work, and a we had already taken on too many new clients to provide proper support to, and because they weren't the best at settling their debts, we exited. They went bust in 6 months with nothing every working properly after we left. Not sure if we had agreed to stay, and sorted things out it would have been a better outcome for the client. But I love being right, we made more money from engaging with people who wanted us, than we would have from them!

dale.nix
dale.nix

What is the best course of action if you find YOU are the other/second consultant brought in? Now, you appear the interloper treading on the initial consultant's toes... you want the client / need the business, you believe you can offer better value (time, cost, materials, quality, etc.) or can provide a different perspective and perhaps a different means to the outcome. How would you handle that?

ishiro
ishiro

Today i experiment this first hand... from some months i've been hired as external consultant to implement an erp in a mining company. This same week we get at the third phase [of four] to finish the project and ...whoa! there was another consultant at the ceo office waiting for me to talk about my progress this morning. This person was all about a new sale, because he talked for a few minutes before i arrived he managed to sell the idea of getting out of one module of the existing erp and get his module because it can present the data in a different way... What i did was talk one hour after the meeting with the ceo and ask if it was necessary to have two consultants for an almost finished project and i can gladly step aside if this person can bring something new to the table. The answer was that the company needed the project finished in a much more short term*. The story will finish to unfold tomorrow as the new consultant brings his financial propossal... *I think of this as the pregnancy syndrome where a woman can have a baby in 9 months but you can't push 9 womans to have a baby in one month... ...let's see what happen tomorrow

millenium_komal
millenium_komal

I think the trick also could be, how to to be still in the business, compete, and gain client's confidence back. - In case both the consultants are offering same services, and similar quality of output, then you need to deliver extra. - Deliver more in same time, at the same cost. - Go for extra quality checks, and outperform yourself. - Educate the customer on difference between your solution, and competitor's offerings.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... how things worked out for the other consultant. Did he handle the client better than I did? Or did he come to a similar parting of the ways?

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... how the troublesome clients are often the low-revenue clients as well?

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

You try to be as friendly and helpful as you can be to the first consultant, and project an image that "we're going to all get along." Then the ball is in their court to be friendly or otherwise.

highlander718
highlander718

in the end if everything is fair play, the best should win the contract. Problem is with consultants who try to fool the client (and don't we have looots of examples of that ...)

highlander718
highlander718

Do you WANT to work with such clients ? Sometime it is just not worth it to bend all the way for extreme client demands. Also in this case it is clearly poor judgement to change when 75% of the project is done. I wonder if any bribery hapened there ... it is so strange.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

...but if you take the high road and be prepared to deliver, you might win the war. I've had it happen more than a few times where a "shiney new guy" casts a spell on the client. I take the attitude that if the client honestly thinks they've found a better deal, they should go with it. Besides, if you leave on good terms and the shiney new guy screws up, you might get called back to clean up the mess he created. I've found that cleaning up messes is quire profitable, and it gives the client a new found respect for you and the reliable service you provide.

reisen55
reisen55

In my brief conversations with the other consultant, he says he does not want the client either. Now this could be BS but he does know the limitations of dealing with this medical professional who is acting as his own network administrator. When I took over the client from him, he voiced the opinion that the doctor is difficult to deal with. So I can only presume that some background conversation was always at work. BTW - his office has only a few "office" computers and a great many specialized medical machines with massive amounts of data, all of which he wants moved to the new server. Good idea? Nope, not for these machines, which ARE his business, contain MEDICAL data and therefore cannot EVER go down. By moving everything to the server and not factoring in redundancy, his whole office collapses if ANYTHING breaks that connect from medical device to server. Can we envision a medical emergency too?? Lawsuit??? Oh yes, can happen.