Tech & Work

Resist the temptation to do wrong by your clients

Making ethical decisions, such as whether to tell a client about a mistake or that you aren't qualified for a project, can be quite a challenge for some consultants. Chip Camden says it isn't worth possibly betraying a client's trust to further your own interests.

 In an e-mail discussion with Steve Friedl about my post on keeping your pipeline healthy, he commented: "The hardest part of managing a pipeline is getting past the overwhelming motivations to do the wrong thing for your customers."

This struck me as one of the truest things I've ever read — everybody knows it, but nobody wants to admit it. It applies not only to pipeline management, but also to consulting in general. "Getting past the overwhelming motivations to do the wrong thing for your customers" covers most of the challenges consultants face, apart from finding business and knowing how to perform the work.

I'll be more specific. Here are some things you might be tempted to do:

  • Putting off getting started on your end-of-pipeline projects: It's all too easy to focus on keeping your pipeline full instead of providing service to your clients. Remember that clients assign projects to you in order to eventually get them completed, not to insure that you'll always have work.
  • Churning: This is the practice of making more work for yourself than the client needs, either by proposing projects that aren't necessary or by dragging out existing projects. While it may provide extra revenue in the short term, it's better over the long haul to build a reputation for getting things done quickly and effectively.
  • Stretching your reported hours: This is also known as lying on your invoice. Maybe you thought about your client's project for five minutes out of an hour in which you were working on something else, so you bill them your minimum half hour. Lawyers do it all the time, so why not? Because you're cheating your client, that's why — and that will always come around to bite you in the end. It's okay to bill that minimum half hour for only five minutes when the client required that attention, but if you're deciding when to work on a project, give it every minute that you're billing.
  • Keeping mum: There are a number of reasons why you may not be talking to your client. Maybe you don't want to admit that you're behind on a project, or you'd really prefer to do things your way rather than bringing an item up for discussion. Either way, you're robbing your client of valuable information to which they have a right.
  • Recommending solutions for the wrong reasons: Maybe a certain kind of work looks better on a resume, inflates your ego, or is simply more fun than another option that would meet the client's needs better. But focusing instead on the best solution for your client creates the best long-term relationship and the best referrals.
  • Staying on a project when you know you're not qualified: "But I need the business! Can't I just fake it until I make it?" If you misrepresent your abilities, you'll only set yourself up for failure and waste your client's time. There's nothing wrong with learning on the job, but only if the customer agrees to it in advance.
  • Clamming up about your mistakes: It's uncomfortable to come clean, especially when you're supposed to be the expert. And it's often all too easy to cover up mistakes when you're working independently. But everyone is ultimately more successful when mistakes are not only admitted, but analyzed in order to learn from them.
  • Making yourself artificially indispensable: Hoarding important knowledge or creating unnecessary complexity that only you can decipher may seem like job security, but to your client it will seem like vendor dependency instead — and that's something they'll get rid of as soon as they figure out how. Conversely, Steve talks about making yourself easy to fire. Make it so the reason for keeping you is that you provide real service — and that's a good enough reason.

Hiring a consultant requires a lot of trust. Your client trusts you to represent their best interests, and they don't always have any way of knowing whether that's really what you're doing — especially if you work remotely. It's very easy for your client to start wondering whether their trust is well founded, so you must do everything in your power to confirm that trust. Every one of the items in the above list represents a betrayal of trust — you're putting your own interests ahead of those of your client. It's often tempting to think that you can get away with something "just this time," but every little cheat erodes your relationship with your client, even if it goes undiscovered.

When have you been tempted to "do the wrong thing for your clients?" How did you resist the temptation? Or did you? Share your experiences and comments in the discussion.

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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...

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