Project Management

Don't play dirty consultant tricks

Chip Camden offers his take on an article that characterizes consultants as vampires who are opponents of their clients' best interests. He also shares tips on how to avoid playing dirty consulting tricks.

In 7 dirty consultant tricks (and how to avoid them), Dan Tynan adopts a highly mistrustful view of consultants as predators who are looking for any excuse to take your money in exchange for results that are less than you expected. Tynan offers suggestions for remedying each of the seven foul practices that he discusses, but I take exception to the characterization of consultants as opponents of their clients' best interests. Therefore, I'll examine each item in Tynan's list from the perspective of the consultant, with the aim of preventing the problem altogether.

1. Bidding low, billing high. Tynan accuses consultants of intentionally excluding features of the project from their bid in order to come in lowest, then billing extra for "scope change" during implementation. Certainly, that would be dishonest. The other side of that coin is when clients ask for one thing, but after they get it, they decide it isn't what they wanted -- or they realize that they need something more. The gray area in between is the source of all the heartburn on both sides. Tynan suggests the remedy of making the requirements and scope more "flexible." I can think of no worse suggestion. Increasing the gray area will only lead to greater misunderstanding. Instead, consultants and clients need to make the expectations crystal clear. There must be no doubt as to what is or is not included in the scope. Certainly, some project decisions must be deferred until later, but that process and the limitations placed thereon must be clearly stated and understood.

Another way to avoid that battle is to refrain from fixed-priced projects altogether. Billing by the hour or by the iteration establishes the expectation that the client will pay for the efforts that they require. However, that approach doesn't solve the problem of unrealistic expectations about what it will take to accomplish a given objective. No matter how much we try to avoid giving a concrete estimate, the client will develop an expectation of how much it will cost. Nor can we fault them for that. It's up to us to set the right expectation (as far as possible) up front, and to communicate clearly and immediately any deviation from the expectations that we've set. If we can't know how long a specific task will take, it's okay to say so. Better an honest uncertainty than dishonest assurances.

2. Bringing in the B team. The old bait and switch: selling a level of talent that exceeds what you actually provide. I avoid that problem by operating as a sole proprietor. Prospects pay for me, and they get only me. On the relatively few occasions in which I have used subcontractors, I have always reviewed that alternative with my client in advance -- including a realistic assessment of the skills provided by those subcontractors. Once again, the solution involves honestly and openly managing expectations. 3. Stall tactics. Otherwise known as "churning," this is the tendency of consultants (especially when paid hourly) to drag a project out in order to continue to have billable work. It's a deplorable practice, even though it can be somewhat unconscious. Tynan states that the client needs to stay on top of the project, and I agree. But I also hold the consultant responsible for avoiding this. We need to understand TANSTAAFL: you don't get something for nothing -- everything has a cost. The cost of churning is paid by your reputation. If you really want to succeed, get things done. Be the one that they don't need to monitor, if you want to be the one they come back to again and again. 4. Taking hostages. I've seen this practice advocated by some TechRepublic members: retaining or seizing ownership of some part of the work product in order to maintain leverage with the client. Here's a clue: If you need that kind of leverage, you shouldn't be in this business. Once again, I agree with Tynan's remedy: clearly spell out ownership in the contract. But ownership cuts both ways. If in order to solve the client's problem, I apply an algorithm that I developed independently outside my work for that client, then I retain ownership of the original version of that software while granting the client a royalty-free, unrestricted license to use it and derive their products from it. I won't use my ownership to hold them hostage, but I expect to be able to reuse my own work. Again, all that must be stated in the contract -- there should be no surprises, and nothing taken for granted. 5. Kickbacks and double-dipping. This is when the consultant recommends a product or service only because they get a cut, even when it may not be the most economic or efficient solution. Tynan suggests that the client should always shop around. I say that the consultant needs to disclose their vendor relationship, and justify their selection based on the product's merits alone. 6. Selling you the latest and greatest, instead of what you really need. Sometimes this can be an honest mistake, because the consultants believe the hype themselves. We need to always ask "What's best for the client?" rather than immediately jumping on the Cadillac solution. If you're tempted to say, "well of course, this option is better," then you had better ask "In what way? How does it solve the customer's problem better than the other alternatives?" Once again, remember that all things have a cost -- and not just for the client. The cost of recommending an overpriced solution will be paid in your credibility. 7. Empty suits and vampires. The empty suit is the consultant who unwittingly takes on a project he or she cannot handle. The vampire is one who does it intentionally. The solution, according to Tynan's article, is frequent deliverables. We need to act much earlier than that. If we ever find ourselves in this position, we have already failed. The damage to our reputation would be irreparable. Before we ever agree to an engagement, we need to possess a correct assessment of our own qualifications. Sure, we may sometimes be over-optimistic. But as soon as we realize our mistake, we must own up to it and set things right.

Tynan's piece paints consultants as vampires generally. Certainly, some consultants have earned that reputation. Don't be one of them.

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...

53 comments
Richard-HK
Richard-HK

Chip, I'm coming in on this after the fact through the TOP 10 IT Consultants Postings for 2011 list. Great posting. Wish that I had seen it back in April. I'm not in IT consulting, so I don't have an idea how frequently #7 occurs in your field. However, in my field, accounting & financial reporting process improvement and internal control design, it happens frequently. I belong to several finance and accounting networking groups. Seems like several times every week someone posts a request for assistance on the group message boards asking for one of the members to bail them out of a project they weren't qualified to handle. Of course, they don't offer either a share of the fee or even credit for the solution. Most often it appears that these are people who are between jobs, have decided to do a little consulting or special projects to fill in while they continue a job search, and have a friend who connected them with an organization that needs help. Examples include people who have never worked with a non-profit nor done software selection who have gotten a project to source and set up an accounting system for a non-profit organization. People who have never done an internal control review, but have decided because they can read the COSO document, they are somehow qualified to perform a comprehensive process analysis and redesign of internal controls. People who have never even traveled outside the US, yet have taken on a project to set up international funds transfer capabilities for a small company expanding internationally. And the list goes on. Often they are so clueless in their assistance requests that they expect someone to provide a comprehensive solution for them in 2 paragraphs or less. I hope that this situation is a lot less common for IT consultants.

ahusmc
ahusmc

I for one am of the opinion that a consultant without a client is pretty much out of a job. I have always believed in equitable interactions with my clientele and as such have fostered long term mutually beneficial business relations.

darab_a
darab_a

I think it works well only if: Consultancy is always charged by hour and you do not have to know what you want. Project is always charged by lump sum and you have to know what you want. Even by saying: I want this.

JamesRL
JamesRL

At two previous employers, I've seen this happen. The big consulting company sends in their best and brightest as an example of the "value" they can offer, and lands the contract. Then when the actual team arrives, they are fresh out of university, with lots of theory and no practical experience. We end up training them, instead of them guiding us in what we paid for - best practises. In one case the project went in a totally wrong direction, and a couple of years later another project had to be launched to fix the errors.

Justin James
Justin James

Thanks Chip! Really timely article for me as my little business has been expanding. I'm learning the perils of subcontracting/hiring people. It's a tough decision between expanding the business, and having the people I hire be at the same level of quality I am able to personally provide. As you say, I've found it critical to set expectations with the customer, and let them know that I'm not personally performing all work, and that I work very closely with my people to ensure the quality, timeliness, etc. I just can't hire experienced people since I'm in such a small niche (OutSystems Agile Platform work... I'm the only independent consultant in North America from what I can tell!). Maybe in the near future I'll be able to take the next step, which is being able to devote 40 hours a week to the business, which means that I would be able to take on more of the work, and focus more on training and such. J.Ja Edit: Clarifying what I meant about expanding in the future

Englebert
Englebert

The number 1 thing a Consultant should not do is bill the client for minuscule items like muffins, newspapers, coffee etc when on business. The optics of this are so bad, considering their 3-figure hourly rate, that they make the newspapers, incur the wrath of the public and bring down senior executives.

paul.watson
paul.watson

The consulting competition who believes they are winning by pulling all the tricks is developing a reputation. Wait by the river and you will see the body of your enemy floating by. I would agree that a followup article on dirty client tricks would be worthwhile.

miller.carl
miller.carl

just a note on the latest greatest item, just because it's the latest doesn't always mean it's the greatest, especially for a particular client. Take for example, vista vs xp.

l.kobiernicki
l.kobiernicki

There are 2 kinds .. Those who value people ( the most precious resource we have - the builders, constructors, order-creators, sustainers of what really works ) - and those who value self-interest above all else ( the destroyers ). Which kind are you ? There is no convergency between ...

Alpha_Dog
Alpha_Dog

...a consultant who does all these things, but gets away with it by preying on the ignorant (plenty of them), nepotism (powerful family), and badmouthing other shops? Not my issue, but I have a colleague in a neighbouring town who is loosing about 60% of his bids to a schmuck that I didn't hire because of a complete lack of moral character and knowledge. Oddly enough, people keep going back to him even though he has yet to complete a job to his client's satisfaction. It's almost as if he has convinced them that they have no right to expect things to actually work!

cjchamberland
cjchamberland

Clients themselves are just as bad (in some cases worse!) than the consultants.

reisen55
reisen55

Ever need a tree removed from your hard. You call a removal service, the consultant studies the job and gives you a number. That is the way a classic consultant works. In our field, we have any number of intangibles to consider so what I do is (a) provide a good number for me that is honest and fair and include a second, worst-case scenario number that is a project cap. No more beyond that and if it goes beyond it, it is my time and risk to assume. The client has a bottom line that he can bank on with certainty and I have a reason to do the job well and a cushion of financial comfort. It also assumes that I AM COMFORTABLE with the task at hand. If I am not (web pages for example) I call in a co-consultant to do that job on his time and service. I am not a middle-man. But I manage my co-consultants with fair advice. I do not "make projects" EVER and was only accused of such, to which I responded with a decent amount of anger. Oh, we could do that alot if we felt like it. Selling my best is also usually selling my worst, in this case the WORST disasters i have resolved. Oh, why did that happen on my watch? The client may not want to know that!!!! Consultants HAVE to know and learn a great deal about an individual network, FAR more than a corporate team which is limited to a singluar environment. They have to know that environment as well as we have to know our multiple environments. Our job is FAR harder.

Marc Thibault
Marc Thibault

Maybe the best initial move is to call yourself what you are: a contract programmer. What you're describing has nothing to do with consulting.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

Who this guy is approaching for Consulting work. At a guess it's all the Newbies so he gets cheaper work which ends up costing him more in both quality and price. When the Guy paying the bills isn't happy all of the time you have to look at him as the problem not the people he asks to do the work for him. ;) Col

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

is just a way to lose money, or end up looking like a twat, quite probably both.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

I've seen consultants who quite obviously were not 'qualified' in what was required. I've seen firms employ them, who weren't prepared to pay for one who could do it, or pay one who could do it what they needed to do it. It's a game, buy a consultant's time and you try and wring as much value as you can out of them, as a consultant, you try not to be wrung totally out of any profit. Having been on both sides of the fence I try to be as reasonable as I can without taking the urine. Is bid low, charge high, a consultants fault? I worked at one place that effectively enthroned this manouevre by always taking the cheapest quote. They didn't even let one of us technical types sanity check it against the requirement. Vampire groupies, they were. They never got what they wanted and it always cost more than they planned. Never saw them learn that lesson. Vampires provide a valued service in the market place....

gharlow
gharlow

Consultants bill generally for specialized services at a much higher rate than employees, who have job security, a steady wage and benefits. The consultant may have down time, may have to wait months to get paid (if at all), provide insurance and pay for their own health insurance. The consultant will not get paid days off or sick days. For these risks a consultant needs and should be paid at a significantly higher rate than an employee doing the same task. Now... As to the consultants qualificiations? That is another matter. In general a consultant represents they are a senior level expert and should have the necessary skills to do what they do and do it well. A code of ethics should always put the clients interests first, but that does not mean freebies, which as a consultant I am continually hit up for by "cheap" clients. Generally such clients do not make my roster, but when they sneak by they can make our lives very difficult paying late, misrepresenting tasks and blaming for their problems.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... by specifying in the contract the experience level that consultants must have. Unfortunately, just as in searching for hires, quantifiable experience benchmarks usually don't tell the whole story. That, I think, is another advantage for the one-person consultancy: the client knows exactly who they're getting. We independents need to proclaim that advantage, rather than projecting a sense of inferiority because we're not a big firm.

Justin James
Justin James

If you aren't sure if Facebook can have any value, discussions like that are a good example. I've gotten very lucky to have gotten a "critical mass" of people on my friends list who are able to have well thought out, respectful conversations that bring something new to the table on a regular basis. J.Ja

Alpha_Dog
Alpha_Dog

But it has been a number of years and the dolt's business volume does not seem to be weakening. One of these days he's going to cheat the wrong guy and literally end up coyote chow, but he's also doing something very right to offset his lack of success. I would like to figure that out.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Which is why blindly selling the most-hyped, newest product is a bad practice.

reisen55
reisen55

See SAIC - the people who brought New York City THE DISASTEROUS CITYTIME project. And IBM outsourcing services, and ACS, now a Xerox company, and my favorite home (not) - Computer Sciences Corporation. All huge thieves of money, and zero talent.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Predators have only a short-term strategy. Your colleague can speed the process by differentiating himself from them.

reisen55
reisen55

Spelling. Too early in the morning

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

Sorry but that is an old red herring that has nothing to do with the discussion at hand. IT Consultants regularly flip between consulting work and contracting work. So while there is a difference neither our clients nor our industry is definitive about the difference. (Old story ... I used to be a Heating Contractor ... we had a division that did nothing but give advice on how to reduce energy use. Did that mean we were consultants? Yes, but never once did I hear the term consultant ... )

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I believe the above discussion applies to consultants who don't do any of the coding, but only advise. The distinction you're drawing is valid, but misplaced.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

If you want something programmed, and you don't have a clue how to do it, you consult someone who can.. Same as anything else. If they don't know how why are you asking them?

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

The clients who always take the low bid create the opportunity. The consultants whose fiscal need exceeds their ethical fortitude jump at it. I steer clear of those kinds of clients by always bidding high.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

I don't really see a connection between your post and the points of the blog, can you elaborate? I'd say your response fits better with the Consultants Vs Internal IT -debacle of the last couple of weeks. All I see Chip saying is, don't screw over your clients.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

"The customer is always right" does not mean that they get to abuse the consultant. Service isn't subservience.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

If so, then he's got some great marketing wool to pull over the eyes. If there's any significant repeat business, then he must be doing something right.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... have the added marketing tool of "we're the big boys". There's a status boost for the client in just being able to hire them. Even when they screw up big time, people shrug and say "oh well, that's a risk of big projects." It's high time we disabuse the industry of the mistaken notion that bigger is better. Bigger is usually far worse. Slower, more expensive, and the left hand knoweth not what the right hand doeth.

Alpha_Dog
Alpha_Dog

...Everything scales. That is my real interest in understanding my colleague's issue. If I can understand the mechanism behind the dolt's success: 1. I can devise a defense strategy for my colleague now and my company later when I inevitably bump into these clowns. 2. Perhaps I can incorporate some of the more tasteful marketing techniques and presentation the dolt uses to kick my company into the next gear.

Alpha_Dog
Alpha_Dog

But it seems that between deep pockets and the fact that the dolt can really sell, the expected learning cycle I would expect the clients to achieve isn't happening at more than a glacial pace. I've never seen anything like it.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Shame on me for being so lacking in trust, seeing insecure border-peeing pee-wees everywhere...

Marc Thibault
Marc Thibault

You want a house built and you don't have a clue how to do it, you consult someone who can. If they're competent, they won't be calling themselves a consultant.

ethan
ethan

Gotta love that feeling of validation you get when the client reels back around and hires you to fix the low bidders mistakes, granted they're willing to pay for the proper service and solution this go around.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

that the "sour grapes" refers to the author of the article that provided the impetus for this one.

Alpha_Dog
Alpha_Dog

We have a massive opportunity if we can somehow make folks understand the solution. I think its time for a massive combined PR campaign.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... that they have no better alternative. Sounds like you have a massive opportunity if you can exploit it.

Alpha_Dog
Alpha_Dog

People just about burn this guy in effigy and actively dislike him, but still return to him like moths to a flame. That's why I'm so fascinated. My colleague and I have both fixed the messes the dolt leaves. The point where this became ridiculous is that these repairs accounted for 20% of my colleague's business volume for 2 months last year, yet most of these people returned to the dolt for the next round of work.

Alpha_Dog
Alpha_Dog

We are in direct competition with a large firm, but are able to execute a comparable lob for around 20% less and in half the time.

Alpha_Dog
Alpha_Dog

Tried it. They acknowledge the error, but continue the behavior. It's almost as though he convinces them that they have no right to expect their computer/network/whatever to actually work, but somehow they still must pay him. I'm just glad they know who to call to make it work eventually, though it would be nice to occasionally have my colleague or I "one-shot" the issue. I have a photo album of his work and our repairs. It's a sad tale that could have a happy ending if people would actually learn.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... diverges significantly from the truth, but a lot of people are willing to go along with the message. An "Emperor's clothes" offensive would involve pointing out the truth -- but it can't be overstated and it needs solid facts.

Alpha_Dog
Alpha_Dog

I don't think appearing at his clients in his birthday suit would be effective, nor what you had in mind. Care to elaborate?

Alpha_Dog
Alpha_Dog

He serves about 10-12,000 people in a rural isolated community.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

.... on the breadth of the market. Where there's lots of opportunity for new business, the "screw the client" business model can keep on chugging. But they won't get too much repeat business that way. Your colleague might be able to carve out his own industry doing follow-on cleanup for these people.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

I never call myself a consultant, even when people consult me. :D May be me, but your post came across as a bit cross that someone could associate such poor practices with such a valued type of IT person. :p

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