Project Management

Five strategies for handling stubborn clients

When a client asks you to implement a project's solution that isn't up to your standards, what do you do? Here are five possible ways of handling this type of situation.

 Consultants don't technically own the project they're working on. The project belongs to the client, and they're the ones who will have to live with whatever monster you create for years to come. Nevertheless, the project feels like your baby. You care about the quality of your work, and you can't bring yourself to mar it with inelegance or stupidity. But you may sometimes encounter a situation when that's exactly what your client wants you to do. They don't think it's bad because, to them, it's a matter of following standard, documented practices. But you see that the standard has outlived its usefulness and that, in fact, it poses serious threats to the client's success down the road.

You explain your thoughts and give your advice on the matter (after all, you're a consultant, that's what you do), but your client's technical lead is adamantly opposed to these strange new ways. What do you do? Here are five suggestions.

  • Go with the flow. It is the client's system, after all, and they're paying you to do what they want. You've given them the benefit of your wisdom, and they've chosen to ignore it, so just do things their way. Who knows, maybe they're right after all -- there's always more than one way to look at the pros and cons of anything. Of course, this makes you less than excited about working for them. In fact, you may subconsciously start to think of the whole project as tainted, which could lead to quality slippage in other areas as well.
  • Go away. Ask to be excused from the project because you have irreconcilable differences with the approach. If they won't listen to you, then why stick around for the inevitable train wreck? On the other hand, it's highly likely that by dropping out, you could eliminate all future opportunity for engagements with this client. It might also be seen as a scare tactic or even a suicidal cry for attention.
  • Go up the ladder. Take your argument to the technical lead's boss. If you can convince her, then maybe you can bring pressure back around from the top. Of course, this won't help your relationship with the technical lead. Even if he has to give in, he'll look for ways to assert his control in the future. Watch for hidden daggers.
  • Go out to the masses. Discuss the pros and cons with as many people in the organization as might be interested. Create a buzz over your new ideas until the new ideas overwhelm the old ones. This approach can also cause resentment -- nobody likes to give in to mob rule. So you'd have to figure out how to build that support without casting yourself in the role of demagogue.
  • Go back to the drawing board. Look for new ways to make your argument. How can you express the benefits of the new approach more clearly? Is there a valid way to compromise -- getting essentially what you want, while satisfying whatever need is driving your client? Stop and think: Why is this person so attached to the current practices? What benefits from them, or what threats from your proposal, does she perceive? Maybe you should ask her just that question -- not in a snarky way, but really looking for her reasons. Of course, if the answer is "because I said so" (in so many words), then you've reached a dead end.

This situation isn't entirely hypothetical for me right now, so I'm keeping the details vague and the participants anonymous. I'm also genuinely looking for your help. I'm often amazed by the insights of TechRepublic members who comment here (except for the occasional troll, but that's the price of open discussion). What do you think? What combination of the above would you use, or do you have another idea that doesn't fit into these five strategies?

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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...

60 comments
jtechip
jtechip

I enjoyed this thoughtful article and the responses. I am a little tired of being hired by higher-ups as the knowledgeable expert who is much needed for the success of a project but then being put to work under a PM where the organization gives no credence to that. I feel like instead of being the starting pitcher or shortstop, I am now in right field (or on the bench) - except I keep jumping in there on my own to make those game-saving shortstop double-plays but then there is no appreciation from the immediate audiences, even though then I am doing partly what I am there for... There were some tips in this blog I might put into use about being proactive so my expertise gets seen by those who care. I liked the idea of setting up the weekly report. That would help prevent differences of opinion such as the on you are describing, and I think it would help me maintain the visibility I need and help promote the high standards I am hired for.

herlizness
herlizness

I'm not known for being a push-over but on this kind of thing I'm forever caving in if initial reasonable attempts at persuasion are unsuccessful. As you say, it IS their project, their business and I DO present myself, more or less, as a hired gun rather than an artist looking at their enterprise as my blank canvas. With that said, there are sometimes lines to be drawn, where you have to document your exceptions and get a sign-off or graciously find a way out of the project. All of this is a little easier in my legal work since I have an ethical obligation to maintain professional independence and, strictly speaking, cannot do anything the client's way if I believe it violates good practice. Ethical obligations for lawyers are not merely precatory; you can lose your license for violating them.

cadman53114
cadman53114

Not knowing everything about the situation you are in with the stubborn client, my one question would be is the stubborn tech lead trying to force these "old ways" after you are well into the project? If so, what kind of dollars will taking a step back in the project cause. If you bring it back into perspective with the money it will add to the project in the long run. If your approach to the project was approved at the start of the project and now the tech lead is just trying to push their weight around, they should have spoken up before everything got started. Also, to take the comments for documenting everything, I make it a point at the start of a project to have the client define everyone who may have direct influence over the project. This includes the tech lead, the tech leads staff if they are a team leader and the tech leads boss. I tell them I need this list to give "weekly" project status reports. Everyone on this list gets a weekly status report and the status report includes any requested changes made by anyone directly or indirectly involved in the project and the impact their request will have both in dollars, time, functionality, and end-user support. This gives me an in to the tech leads boss without stepping on their toes. They know that it will be standard operation procedure for their boss to know why there are delays whether the delays are due to changes I have made, or have been requested to make. I also include the time spent evaluating the requested changes. Because if I am wasting time reviewing how to implement changes I feel are counter productive I am showing everyone that this time could have been spent getting the finished product done rather than reviewing "what if" after "what if" just to please one persons ego. Any time spent not producing the final product is always time lost and is directly related to any delay in the finish of the project.

shreedhar_musalkol
shreedhar_musalkol

I would surely take up the 'Going back to the drawing board' approach. Having a Win-Win situation surely would benefit everyone involved.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Another negative is that licensure poses as a quality benchmark, but it might not be a useful measurement.

vijayk29
vijayk29

I think these days no one seems to trust anyone and thats one of the main reasons for all this. The client does not fully trust the consultant and hence any suggestion/recommendation made by you might be seen by the client that you have some hidden motive behind it. My suggestion would be to go with the flow and do your best on the job (exceed expectations of the client) and slowly the client will start trusting you and start valuing what you have to say and that's the time to share the facts that you would like to state. I know its quite difficult in the initial stages but hard work, sincerity and patience always pays. All the Best.

jan.dehaas
jan.dehaas

What I do when I end up in a situation like that is to clearly state all the cons and pros to the customer. Then if the customer still insists on going through with the crappy option that will result in issues later on. Make sure the customer signs off that he/she has been made aware of the issues. Also make sure to keep all your email, but that's probably a redundant remark. What I found out while contracting is that : First rule of contracting : Cover your ass. Second rule of contracting : Cover your ass!

becreativedammit
becreativedammit

Compromise, compromise, compromise. You may know that you're right, but if you can make them feel like you're implementing their ideas into your own, the client will be much happier with the overall finished "product" - mostly because people tend to think that they have the best solution, even if they're wrong. Sure, they're paying you for your ideas and wisdom...but in the end, they're the ones using it. Talk it out. One thing, too, I would recommend NOT going out to the masses. That feels more like betrayal than anything to people in management. If you hold interviews with people, just ask them what they're looking for without creating too much of a stir - then if what they say backs up what you're telling the client, you can tell them that the end users side with you. It's just a way of enforcing your ideas without stabbing anyone in the back or creating dissent within an organization. :)

goran
goran

I am in your situation right now, Chip, and I have felt beeing between a rock and a hard place now for some weeks. I sometimes hate it that I get so involved in having excellence in all we do. As I found myself losing sleep for the n-th night in a row I finally decided that it just isn't always right to go with the flow. And escaping just isn't my thing. So it seems like I will be doing a mix of the three remaining methods; analyse, simplify, collect organisational support, analyse/refine again. Then decide on which level in hierarchy is appropriate to approach. And go for it. What will I gain with this? By selecting a "new" customer, there is a new set of selling points, and somehow those more than once coincide with what I as a senior consultant tend to propose (cost saving, aligned with technical standards, maintainable, well documented/known solutions etc). At this point you have to pick your arguments very carefully, hitting the highest score with the first stroke (yeah isn't THAT a dream) or at least make sure you and your new customer are on the same path. I want the person I talk to feel like he always thought (or vry well could have thought) precisely that himself. So now I got the product, the customer, the customers' need and I come to the customer as a professional advisor, a business oriented fellow who does not speak a bunch of mumbojumbo (remember to consult your wife/husband/gf/bf etc first!), but has identified an opportunity to implement an outstanding solution in an efficient manner. Yep, true, you will most likely have to watch out for hidden daggers, political play-outs and other crap. But if you are not up to take that from time to time, you might reconsider your choice of career. Because delivering inferior solutions or hiding in the bushes etc will finally undermine the value you provide on the market. A very senior industry man once told me "It is equally dangerous to overestimate as to underestimate people. Focus on the business goals and the tasks that lead up to that" Customers tend to like it when we help them to succeed with clever solutions. But you as a consultant person will never get any personal cred for it... the best you can get is when everything works. Then noone speaks your name. But you knew that already. Oh dear... I have to go back to the drawing table and get me out of this mess now. Thanks for havin this thread here right now when I needed it most. Many good insights here. Take no prisoners.

weising
weising

"Go with the flow" seems to be the only way it works during my past eight years of consulting experiences in Taiwan. Here, most of the clients are arrogant and care only about gaining more power of their own instead of making the projects succeess for their companies. The only moral thing I can do is to prove that they were making mistakes and prevent the same mistakes from happening when other clients are planning the similar projects.

M103562
M103562

I have this problem very often. It is very simple: Make a document with your opinion about the way to go forward and the alternatives 'suggested' upon you. Under this place the 5 strategies of the article and place a [ ] for each of the strategies, replacing the number and present it to the responsible person or body. Let them decide by placing a [X}. You will see, that this really creates a discussion and because you are the expert and people are risk avoiding, you have the highest chance to win your case.

Marty R. Milette
Marty R. Milette

A common failing of many consultants is that they come in with preconceived 'solutions' without taking the time to understand the problem and the situations and circumstances that surround it. Before making too much noise, one would want to investigate the reasons WHY a sub-optimal solution, method or approach is desired. MANY times there are some very good reasons for doing things in certain ways that may not be visible without some very deep digging. I can usually work around the technical issues, but the ones that are really difficult are the 'political' ones. Sometimes someone somewhere up the food chain has ulterior motives -- ranging from friends and family in the supply chain -- to reasons to WANT to see a particular project fail. Unfortunately, in many cases you're too far 'into' the process to be able to back-out gracefully. In that case, one can only register their concerns (on paper), and do as one is told. Of course, if this path means changes to scope or duration of work -- as long as you have that covered, you can back out. This again gets back to having a proper written agreement up-front. Going up the ladder will almost certainly have repercussions that will make you wish you were never born. People you work for get real funny when you circumvent them to register a complaint about their choices. As for myself, I'll generally do whatever the client wants any way they want it as long as they pay me for my time and effort. As a 'professional' it is my responsibility to notify the client in the event what they want is not in their best interests, but beyond that my obligation is to complete the contract as best I can within any limitations and according to the defined specifications.

PunkRock_PM
PunkRock_PM

I face this as a project manager on a daily basis. The way I react is to present a list of well thought out choices (not more than 4) with pros & cons listed under the categories of Schedule, Scope, Budget, Quality, Satisfaction, Sustainability. I let my customer SIGN OFF on the one they're willing to live with. Make sure the choices are all acceptable whenever possible. In this scenario you are removed from being the instruction giver and are the knowledgeable consultant again. No one has their professional pride or experience dinged.

gr3nade
gr3nade

My favortie sentence is "All I do, is for what I think is the best for you, regarding to my way of knowing my job and trying to do it well". This sentence carries 3 importants sens : - The fact that it's for your own good ; "parent's words" which are caring and reminding of something they lived in their childhoold -not so far- - I know my job, nobody likes someone who tries to make you learn it when they don't pratice, here, I'm asking for a kind of doubt to their opinion because "I've already seen it before" not them. - I'm a perfectionnist, they know that I always try to reach the best, they have seen it in the past, this quality that always search excellence is a guaranty that I'm the right personn to do that, and that my advice is for the best, not the worst. It works mostly all the time (except when people have a little part of parano??a...)

mattie289404
mattie289404

I'm sorry all of my ideas have been taken. I just had one question that kinda stood out. Why all the "she" references. It is the american standard that "he or them" is used in writing an article...just curious if that was conscience effort on your part or a Freudian slip.

berryblitz79
berryblitz79

I'm always in this situation. And my office mate right now (at this very moment) is in fact swearing because of such case.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

Just a bit too specific about the staff involved there Chip. :p The best thing here is to go with the flow you don't really have much other choice. But you can make other changes to try to minimize the problems that may arise. Unfortunately being an outsider you are not as privy to the Internal working of any organization as one of the staff members and in a case like this there may be other factors in play here. Your best bet is to do the best you can and just hope for the best as there are quite likely other far more pressing factors at work in the sidelines you are not aware of. OH and Document, Document, Document with Fact as apposed to your opinions. Maybe I've spent way too much time working Legal things though. You don't need to do anything with the Documentation unless it is asked for latter. :) Col

josh.t.richards
josh.t.richards

Hey Chip, I typically end up doing something akin to this approach: * Taking a deep breath and sitting back a bit. I may start to compose my thoughts in writing but I won't send them off right away. * I'll consult with another colleague or two, kicking thoughts around. This either show me that there are some alternative viewpoints _I_ should be considering or re-enforce my own views... or, even better, talking through it with a friendly face will give generate some new ways of approaching the situation. * Reminding myself that quite often these situations aren't about what they seem to be about. And the gap, with the other person, often isn't as wide as it seems. With some perspective, some nuance, and diplomancy I can often work through these issues with the people involved directly. * I'll go back and visit what I started writing and now get ready to make it presentable for send off (usually it's an e-mail though sometimes it ends up just being notes for me for an in person meeting) * I rarely would go above their head, unless I already had a strong relationship with their higher ups. Even so, I'll generally leans towards just documenting my position, sending it off to the folks I'm involved with, and moving on with the project as-is. Though, at times, I've also found this to be a good reason (and opportunity) to get to know the higher up folks better if I didn't already. Sometimes you can read between the lines and tell if someone's manager is open to the idea that they may not be getting the full story. Often it doesn't even take much other than a quick informal sit down where you may have decided to _not_ take it to them but they have a way of communicating that they'd like to hear it. :) * I've kicked situations around with my wife before. She's not technical but that's sort of the point. These problems are truly technical in nature. They are about gaining perspective... and communicating well. I get a lot from hearing what she thinks as opposed to the viewpoints and biases often ingrained by other technical folks who I might have already sought for feedback. regards, -jr http://www.ITConsultingLessons.com/

SilverBullet
SilverBullet

with facts only, opions are like a_ s _ o _ e _. You will know well in advance of the type of personality you are working with. Document, and ask for aknowledgement with a signature, then move on with the task, again documenting everything.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

well said, and I particularly liked how you followed the metaphor with "lines to be drawn".

jtechip
jtechip

Thanks for sharing that proactive methodology.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

In the end, I registered my disagreement and went along with their policy.

mwmentor
mwmentor

Hi Vijayk29: I absolutely agree with you - you have hit the nail right on the head!! Kind regards.

Miglena75
Miglena75

Wanneer kom je eens over de brug laffe lammeling. Of durf je niet meer. Bang voor de confrontatie? Ik niet...

Miglena75
Miglena75

Waarom blijf jij zwijgen, ben je zo laf dat je mij hier in jouw shit laat zitten. Ik moet met Ella naar de doktor dankzij jouw heb ik hier geen geld voor. Ik kan maar net aan het eten blijven. Ben jij dan echt zo'n lammeling geworden? Waar is de man gebleven voor wie ik klaar gestaan heb met alles wat in mijn vermogen lag. Auto geld hulp in elke vorm die je vroeg. Ben je nu echt een klootzak van het eerste uur geworden. Neem contact op of ander ga ik op een andere manier dit proberen dit te regelen. Opsporing verzocht. Komt mijn maar ook jouw verhaal op de nederlandse TV maar ook in jouw nieuwe vaderland.. Dus reageer of mag je niet van je bange vrouw...... Je wilt of durft blijkbaar nog steeds niet te reageren, ben je nu echt een schijtluis geworden die zijn verantwoordelijkheden ontloopt. Een muis inplaats van een man. Mij verwijten maken maar zelf geen haar beter. Of mag het niet van je vrouw. Weet je nog dat J.Klosse via ons van bejaarden wilde stelen, dus ook van zijn eigen moeder, moet ik dus vaststellen dat je geen haar beter bent... Ok van je (vader) maar maakt dat het goed voor jouw... of ben je net zo'n grote zakkenwasser... Loopt jij of zij met het goud wat ik ook voor je beschikbaar had, de jaarstukken van kristal verpats mijn duikspullen???? Denk je dat je voor altijd daar beschermd zit. Op een dag komt het met mij weer goed en dan sta ik als oude man voor je neus. Ik denk niet dat je dat wil. Man of muis. Alles geteld is het dus ? 27000,00 + wat ik je meegegeven heb. Als je mijn banknummer soms zoekt. 10.85.45.482

Miglena75
Miglena75

Lees je mail eens op jdh@xs4all.nl Blijf je maar lekker verstoppen.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... provide real value for your client. But CYA definitely ranks in the top ten.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... in this specific case the decision is probably too atomic to render a compromise possible. I also agree with you about not stirring up the rabble. I got a chuckle out of your handle, "becreativedammit".

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Glad it got the wheels turning for you. One thing you threw out there, "it is equally dangerous to overestimate as to underestimate people" could be a topic for discussion all on its own.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Yes, even in the US this is one of the unspoken motivators for decision makers -- if it's their idea then it must be defended to the death, and consultants are easily disposed of. But there can be a genuine desire for the best alternative mixed with that -- so if that desire can be appealed to without compromising the client's pride, then it's possible to convince them.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Document my reasons for disagreeing with the approach, but go along with it anyway.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Many publications these days alternate between masculine and feminine pronouns in order to sound more inclusive. I've mixed them up for the most part in order to hide the identities of those involved.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Actually I changed some of the personnel around a bit to cover my tracks, but I'll admit it still does have the ring of a specific situation.

burntfinger1
burntfinger1

the last one brings back fond memories of my late wife. She had two gifts which made her indispensable to my business. She was not a techie but used a computer daily and she would tell me what she thought I was saying when I explained something. Ruthie, RIP. Josh, thanks again for the memories.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

You've given me some things to think about. Regarding taking a break from it: that's one reason why I wrote this post, to give me some distance from it and to get other people's ideas. You're right that often the gap is not as wide as it seems. I've already cooled off some from my initial temper over this situation, and have begun to see some opportunities for conciliation.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

That's good advice, SilverBullet. Of course, my perception that the way they're doing it is wrong has to be regarded as opinion -- but it's good to stick as closely as possible to facts: examples of how this has failed in the past, for instance, rather than "this is just plain wrong and everybody with a brain thinks so."

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... but if so, it would represent a shift from a long-standing relationship of trust. I hope that's not the case, but I'll keep it in mind.

herlizness
herlizness

> generally reasonable but can cause problems; I don't like to "disagree" with clients .. I'd rather objectively state the various consequences of doing A, B and C ... every now and again I find that there ARE no serious consequences and I'm really beefing about not "doing it my way" in the legal profession there's a widely accepted ethical tenet that the client directs the objectives of litigation but the lawyer directs the strategy ... so, we have an out: I CAN'T do it your way; it's unethical and I could be disbarred

mr_bandit
mr_bandit

I always tell my clients as part of the interview process that I will give them my best opinion, based on my experience. However, I don't expect them to slavishly follow it, because I could be 100% dead on && 100% irrelevant - they can see something occurring in 3 months that negates the situation. That said, I work on mission-critical systems. I *will* walk if they want to do something that will compromise the safety of the system - and a couple of times I have had to be clear about it. It made them stop && think. Of course, at that point it's a *people* problem, and must be dealt with as such. Take a look at Gerald Weinberg's "Secrets of Consulting" and sequel for tips (full disclosure: Jerry is a friend, so feel free to check the book out of the library - buy only if you really want).

josh.t.richards
josh.t.richards

That reminded me of something I've heard other (and, generally, very seasoned) consultants state... it goes along the lines of (obviously paraphrased): "As a consultant you're paid to generate ideas & provide guidance, among other things, but you're most definitely not paid to make policy decisions outright nor take responsiblity for them if they go wrong." That may sound cold. And I don't mean it as an excuse to not care about the outcomes of your advice. I realize that we might still get blamed sometimes when things go wrong... but the point is: if we provided our best counsel (the best we could at the time, not being too hard on ourselves once we have the benefit of hindsight) and let the client make the final call, that's really the best we could have done anyhow. If someone wants me to make policy decisions they'll have to pay me FAR more, give me the authority to make _any_ decision (not just the one they're trying to avoid), and they'll have to convince me I actually want that role in their organization. :-) I don't believe it's any different whether you provide solely advice/counsel or implementation services in addition. With the latter, you still should be providing your client with sufficient information to make an informed decision (even if that decision is to essentially trust your primary recommendation). I hope that came out right. -jr

RTHJr
RTHJr

A lot of technical writers these days speak of IT managers and managers in general as "she" as many are women these days and the majority holders of a college degree have been women for a number of years.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Yes, having a "real person" as a sanity check can be invaluable. And I'm sure that she meant a lot more to you than that.

SilverBullet
SilverBullet

I mean assholes,,,,,,, everyone has one and some people display their's with their personality.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I believe SilverBullet meant that opinions are like a$$holes -- everybody's got one and they all stink.

daileyml
daileyml

pull in the experts. When I find myself in disagreement with someone on the client team I first need to understand their level of technical knowledge. If it is obvious this individual is wrong, but has the client management's ear, I often recommend a sit down with technology experts in the field to discuss the options. Being in the field of networking, I often rely on partners such as Cisco and Microsoft to come in as a third-party expert on the issue. There is no reason for me to go head-to-head with the client staff, after all I need to maintain a relationship there. If done in a professional manner this approach often helps to build trust between you and the client. -Mike D http://www.daileymuse.com

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... I could claim that following a stupid coding convention could get me disbarred from software development. But no, in order for that to be the case we'd need some regulatory agency, and to hell with that. Live free or die!

josh.t.richards
josh.t.richards

I can attest to Secrets of Consulting being a good read. It's thought provoking and Mr. Weinberg keeps it humorous throughout. :) -jr Are you an IT consultant? Free business tips from successful IT consultants?sign-up @ http://www.ITConsultingLessons.com

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... you have to be careful which "experts" you bring in. Some who claim that status are only spouting a party line, draped in "enterprise best practices".

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