Project Management

Four telltale signs of a nightmare client

Can you tell a good client prospect from one with nightmare potential? Learn to spot these resource wasters from consultant and author Janet Ruhl.
 Editor's note: This TechRepublic article originally published on May 7, 2001.

Helping those without the technical knowledge or skill set they need to get a job done is what being a consultant is all about. Sometimes, though, a self-destructive or unorganized client can pull you into a lose-lose situation with no way out. These clients prove to be a drain on your patience, time, and resources.

If you want to avoid getting entangled in projects with nightmare clients, heed the warnings of Janet Ruhl, principal of Realrates.com and author of The Computer Consultant's Workbook and The Computer Consultant's Guide: Real-Life Strategies for Building a Successful Consulting Career. I'll pass along her four telltale signs of nightmare clients to look out for before you sign a contract and her tips for setting good boundaries to escape a nightmare client with grace.

Four warning signs of a nightmare client

Unfortunately, nightmare projects are not rare. If you can see the warning signs about the nature of a client -- which Ruhl says often show up during negotiations with potential clients -- you might be able to avoid a catastrophe.

Here are Ruhl's four warning signs of a nightmare client:

  1. The client is not clear about what he or she wants but somehow expects you to produce it without their detailed input. If they are too busy to either describe the project or to put you in contact with the people who can, watch out.
  2. The client reports having had a lot of problems with previous consultants -- a pattern of "problem" consultants might be a sign of a problem client.
  3. The client is ignorant about technology and has no competent staff. This client may expect you to wave your magic wand to give them some magical business advantage, while having no understanding of the complexity or expense of serious computer systems.
  4. The client makes it clear that they are looking for a bargain and focuses entirely on cost in your early contacts.

Turning the tables: How to stop a nightmare before it begins

"Problem projects come with the territory," Ruhl said. "Companies that manage their internal IT functions well are not as likely to need the help of consultants as those that do not. Successful consultants excel as much at handling the 'people side' of a project as they do the technical aspects."

To keep a client from becoming a nightmare, Ruhl said the consultant must be extremely clear on what he or she needs from the client at each step of the process and must communicate this to the client as tactfully as possible. The most effective way to communicate these issues up front is during the negotiation stage. Ruhl said it's important to have a detailed contract that discusses any and all issues that might lead to problems.

"The contract is written during the 'honeymoon' period of your relationship with the client," Ruhl said. "But it gives you a chance to discuss problems with the client before they occur."

It's also important to write your contracts in such a way that both you and the client understand exactly how payment will be handled if things do not work out. This will help you to make a graceful exit from the situation.

Ruhl also offered these additional tips for dealing with problem clients:

  • Don't let problems build up. They are much easier to solve when they are small problems.
  • Document major concerns in writing.
  • Explain the impact of difficult client behavior on schedules and deliverables.
  • Avoid blaming a particular client employee for the problem, but do explain how his or her behavior has adversely affected the project, if that's the case.

Learn from your mistakes

One consultant who is a TechRepublic member said his experience with the nightmare client prompted his company to change the way they do business.

"We've developed our own internal guidelines regarding projects....We offer to take over the entire project, and if we are just needed to staff a project, we make it clear that we are more than just hired hands."

He offered this advice for other consultants facing nightmare projects: "Take it as a learning experience....[Make it an opportunity to] try out different skills."

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11 comments
Jorge L.
Jorge L.

Hmm... What about adding the item "Internal Politics" When a person involved with the project leaves a the new guy doesn't want to continue what has been put in place since it will show in his status report to upper management that he dind't start the project

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I've seen it many times. Not only re: his status report, but he also has a bad feeling about anything that wasn't his idea -- it's like a control thing.

chris
chris

I can add to that. Have a client purchase a pre-existing site, and want you to make wholesale changes to the application running it, e.g., automatic watermarking, a different payment solution and it's one that will not play nicely with it, download delivery, you submit trouble tickets to the hosting company and the client cancels them, and you need answers that only the hosting company can provide. Then they get pissy about the invoice.

maclovin
maclovin

It's like your right next to me! If only I was just a consultant for this company, and not an employee!

maclovin
maclovin

Queue Clich?: Sometimes you just have to cut a man loose. Generally, I feel it's better to not have to deal with frustrations like this altogether for the little extra $$$. I'd rather have a quality, realistic client instead.

jmgarvin
jmgarvin

At some point you have to hand over what you've done for the client. If the client doesn't want to learn, they are a problem client. 6. The client plays Calvin Ball with the statement of work features.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I've found that the nightmare client can turn into good business if you manage expectations correctly -- but sometimes they're just not worth it. Thoughts?

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

Nightmare clients like these can be good business. Often they end up paying more in their race for the cheapest (non)solution. As you say, Chip, they do require more management -- just not always expectations management. The trick is to see things from their point of view and then adjust your situation to cope. For example, you may need to use fixed price contracts (and then overprice to account for negotiations).

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

when you're spending large amounts of time managing the client, they tend to get snippy about paying, unless they already have.

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