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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...

37 comments
StevenDDeacon
StevenDDeacon

As a consultant I find these practices spanning from malfesant to corruptible. Totally unprofessional and an utter insult to my profession. Just the thought that any consultant would consider any of these practices is contemptible. I would aggressively confront any consultant who exhibited any of these practices as despicable and unfit to participate in our profession.

reisen55
reisen55

Own up to them and (this was an earlier subject) charge for them with extreme care. Generally I do not charge for making a mess and have now taken the attitude that if I have client with an issue, then this issue is the reverse of mistake: OPPORTUNITY IN WORKCLOTHES. Hey, you are right Mr. Client, this is a problem so how can we address it NOW so that we are done with it in the FUTURE!!! Clients like this pro-active approach and I instantly modify any agreement or letter of intent I have with the client (as I am going to do at a client site, writing this, in 10 min) to put that corrective action into work.

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

Funny enough these are all issues that raise in a sales field too. I know that's irrelevant but it does show that while these issues are very real and should be of great concern, these have been issues of sales reps and customer service people, accountmanagers since the dawn of time. 1) Getting started - Also known as padding. In sales it s a bit different, reps will have a good month and delay putting through invoices so they can padd next month's sales. It screws with teh customer and puts money in the saleman's pocket, though only short tern due to lost repeat business. 2)Churning, a resp wih a good account often milks that account and works to oversell it, rather than seeking new, cold prospects. Of course the result is a client that is sick and tired of hearing from the hungrty rep all the time. 3) Stretching your reported hours, doesn't really apply but in IT it's extremely common. Sales consulting sees a lot of it, especially for consultants that don't work on building new business. 4) Keeping mum, happens a lot when reps oversell or overprice product, knowingly sell solutions that don't offer the right solution etc. Result is a client that loses faith in teh rep and goes elsewhere. 5)Recommending solutions for the wrong reasons. Too common with poor salesmen. Either as a result of improper qualifying or fillign a need that doesn't exist. 6)Staying on a project when you know your not qualified. This happens a lot, a company does not have the right solution that a competitor does, therefore they create a Mickey Mouse way of achieving teh same result that really doesn't work. 7) Clamming up about your mistake: another common one, not telling someone a product does NOT do something is far ore acceptable, it seems, than telling them it does when it actually doesn't. It is how some sales reps avoid feeling guilty for misrepresentation, "I didn't say it COULD" but then again they didn't say it couldn't, even knowing it would be a setback for the client. 'Don't ask, don't get told'. 8) Making yourself artificially indispensible, again this is very common with reps who don't want to work. They make clients feel that thier knowledge is unique and only pass on what the client absolutely MUST know. Often when teh client returns with a problem, they will use that to upsell product that was misrepresented to begin with. Vey common examples of "bad business", whether in IT, sales or day to day life, these things all apply and are common in lazy, unskilled employees.

prasuhnrl
prasuhnrl

Ya' know, with a bit of 'wordsmithing' (by changing some of the words to apply to different jobs/positions) methinks this 'COULD' also apply to our governmental representatives (i.e., Senators and Representatives -- as well as other government offices officials). Don't you think? With your permission sir (Mr. Camden)I would like to 'forward' this to my governmental representatives as a means (and effort) to get them to do THEIR jobs in an honest and forthright manner. Thank you, sir.

pgit
pgit

But if you have to tell someone this stuff I doubt there's much hope for them, cosmically speaking. When I was a corporate chief pilot/director of flight operations my own bean counter (CFO) told me I'm "too honest." I heard it every week. The key is, as with everything, motivation. Unfortunately organized religion and the "entertainment" industry have muddied the waters of moral and reason beyond recognition. There's always been little hope for the average man born into this world. The temptation is institutionalized. (starting with the banking institutions)

saghaulor
saghaulor

I think that it may also be unethical to take a job that you're overly qualified for, but pretending that such expertise is required for the job. For instance, a Senior Network Engineer claiming that he must remain for the entirety of basic Ethernet cabling job. I can understand a few hours guidance and supervision, but any more than that is not required. Alleging that it is is purporting that such expertise is required, and consequently payment for such expertise is required, when in all actuality it is not.

Bullmoose
Bullmoose

I am/was a partner in a consulting firm that made that list part of their goals. I at first thought I could change my partner, but realized it wasn't going to happen. Thank God it is true you reap what you sow because this "company" never has had much business, which means I might have saved my name in this small town of less than 200K... Anyone need a Technology consultant in Boise? I'm lookin' for a job. ;-)

kenr
kenr

I've found that it's important to establish a reputation for not caring about the source of a mistake compared with the correction of the mistake. By exhibiting this "anti-witch hunting" attitude, it tends to be infectious (in a good way). Once people are more interested in "fixing the fault" than "fixing the blame", everyone's mistakes are more readily forgiven, come to light earlier and, as a consequence, cause overall less damage.

reisen55
reisen55

Independent consultants would not stay independent long if they followed these practices. It is not enough to say RESIST the temptation, NEVER DO THESE THINGS is more to the point. I never over-bill, keep projects closed and to the point. I shop aggresively for my clients and when I can save them substantial money, I do and show them the savings. Only on SERVER work am I totally rigid on hours, but on workstations I follow a flexible policy of time as I choose to invoice or not to invoice. My choice. I also give a few extras whenever I can too,

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

This was a big temptation for me when I first started consulting. After a couple of crash and burn projects, though, I realized that it's best to honestly represent your abilities, then let the client decide whether they want to help fund your education.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

There's a delicate balance between mistreating your customer versus having to do normal maintenance work for free. Generally, I consider corrections to software as billable work, unless the mistake was blatantly stupid on my part, and mine alone.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I guess salesmen and consultants aren't different species from humans after all.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

Not about your post ... your tag line. "Snowy Canada"???? It's been raining for the last week here ... all the snow is gone and the river is running under my house and down the road once again! Glen Ford in "Sunny????" Mr & Mrs Sauga. (Near Toronto ONT.)

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

It seems that a lot of consultants need to learn these principles the hard way -- I'm hoping this post heads that off at least to a degree, but I expect that most of the consultants who need the advice probably don't read TR either.

Dr_Zinj
Dr_Zinj

Point one. Anyone tells you "you're too honest" has just told you that they are not honest at all. Point two. It's easier to tell lies that people want to hear rather than tell them unpleasant truths. Point three. A lie is inconsistent with reality. It sets up ripples which require more lies to supress and explain away. Point four. Nobody can remember everything, which means eventually a framework of lies will be found out. Point five. In the long run, lies require more energy and resources to support than the truth. Ergo, honesty is the best long term policy.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

That's similar to churning -- making more work for yourself than the client needs.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

As I said a few times in the article, you can make short-term gains out of doing the wrong things for your customers, but they bite you in the long run. Good luck on finding a new engagement.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

You can sometimes even change the culture at your client's office, by example.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

You always want people to think well of you, even if things don't go well. Reputation is everything, especially in the age of the Internet and blogging.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

I never charge for my own bonehead mistakes. In fact, doing so would only add insult to injury and serve to bring unneeded attention to them. I do charge for "mistakes" that are the result of someone not accurately explaining or documenting an issue, or those that are inevitably part of normal maintenance.

pgit
pgit

I used to frequent "Mrs Sauga" back when I was corporate pilot. (ssshhh! don't tell the wife!) So it's mud, eh? Well, the world is upside-down then. Down here in SW New York (your back yard) it's been bitter cold, we have snow on the ground and a recent rain didn't pan out, was more snow and freezing rain instead. Did I say cold? I keep records (daily, over 30 years) and this has been the coldest winter I've ever experienced here. I checked my compass and "N" still points toward you people, so it ain't a "poll shift" or whatever mumbo-jumbo. Maybe it's because they shut down the local coal fired power plant... so our county is experiencing a mini-ice age. Maybe. Before they erase the USD altogether you might want to get down here and tour the finger lakes area. If you like wine, oh boy! Hundreds of wineries. If you go to Wagner Estates look for "Corey" and tell him you're from Tech Republic, that "your dad" sent you. He'll set you up good.

pgit
pgit

Nothing is as frustrating as being dead right about a situation, but your advice is ignored. The mayhem you could see happening happens, people/things are hurt, and after the fact the perpetrator realizes you were right all along. That happen to you? I get that almost every time a problem comes to my attention. Even people who have seen me proved right numerous times still do not take heed of the experiences that I simply wish to give freely, to everyone's benefit. It's odd that although my experience with others in certain situations says "don't even bother" with trying to help them, I just can't do that. I'll never give up trying to help people avoid bad situations. As "Apotheon" says, you sure know how to spark a good thought. This topic is uncannily appropriate this week, as it happens. BTW point well taken on how far do you go vis 'point two.' I have been brutally honest in some situations like that, and I've never suffered for it. Of course I've spent the last 20 years as the boss, lately 'my own boss.' I'm probably not a fair measure of such things.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... is the one that keeps people from being honest most of the time. "Does this make me look fat?" Honest answer: "Clothes don't make you look fat. Too many calories and not enough exercise make you look fat." Are you up to that level of honesty?

pgit
pgit

One of my pilots built a house of cards that ultimately came down on him. We discovered he was just about incapable of telling the truth, even regarding trivial things that didn't matter. Only guy I ever had to fire. That bean counter was usually referring to the fact that I reported maintenance problems that grounded the aircraft until fixed, whereas most operations (really almost all, including your airlines today) don't report certain maintenance items and fly illegally, with broken equipment. Not that it's unsafe, for instance a light out on the instrument panel isn't a safety item. Even having one of two communications radios down isn't always a safety issue. If commercial operators didn't bend the rules, there'd be NO air travel today. I, on the other hand, ran up some hefty bills fixing everything that came along. The CEOs loved me for it, as did the FAA. The bean counter was the one tasked with trying to shave costs. "did you really need that ITT gage right away...?" That and I tipped waitresses, drivers etc 40-50% sometimes. The CEOs didn't mind that either.

reisen55
reisen55

At Aon Group, when IT was outsourced to Computer Sciences Corp BUT the internal staff was still employed (later replaced of course) ... a project was estimated to take 20 hours and CSC/Aon agreed to that estimate as billable time. The internal tech did the job in 10 hours. Knew what he was doing. Done. How much do you think CSC billed Aon for? (long pause ........) 20.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... you can still build your reputation through integrity and providing the best service that you can.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

you can make the 4 flights ... I have problems with one :> And the last time I was supposed to have a PT they decided they couldn't do anything with me. Glen

pgit
pgit

I needed a good laugh, thanks! ...sober. That's rich! And when I say "needed;" I went to the post-physical therapy physical trainer (PT) for a consult last night. I'm not supposed to be carrying anything up and down stairs, for one thing. In fact it sounded as if I'm not supposed to be hauling my carcass up and down stairs. Guess I'll have to grab that 80 pound steel case Dell XPS game unit out of the lab and haul it back down the 4 flights to the basement where I got it from... as I shouldn't have touched it in the first place. Just don't tell my PT.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

Why would I say that ... and why would he believe anyone that old would remember Wagner Estates? :> (I'm probably older than you are... and that takes into account your 18 years as a pilot ) ... I remember Jungle Jay when he was sober....

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Yes, I've often faced that situation where my advice is ignored to the detriment of the client -- even when they're paying me for my advice. Too often a result of competing goals within the organization.

reisen55
reisen55

Overbilled Aon by $200 million in the first year, was in danger of losing the contract in 2005 (Sears chucked them out at the sametime) and SO THEY KEPT THE CONTRACT by terminating 140 technicians and server support staff, outsourcing these positions to BancTec and RCN. Not in the client's best interest but definately in CSC's best interest. And then 200 servers were infected by a worm under their watch in October 2006. Oh my.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

The problem with that example is that this work was done as fixed cost (quote "CSC/Aon agreed to that estimate as billable time" ). With any fixed cost project, the supplier takes the risk of overage (usually within limits) as part of the cost. They also absorb the risk of underage. Typically, the pricing/estimation goes along the following lines (in theory), Minimum 10 hours, Most Likely 15 hrs, Maximum 25 hours, so charge for 20 hours. If the cost had been 30 hours what would CSC have billed? (no pause)20 hours of course. Sometimes you win - sometimes you lose. Unfortunately, AON was too focused on limiting their exposure so they ended up paying too much. Their mistake was in thinking they could avoid the cost of the risk. Now if this hadn't been fixed price, I would have said yes this was a good example. (Actual time 10 hours, billed 20 hours). But, unfortunately, fixed prices are a problem of their own. Glen Ford, PMP http://www.trainingnow.ca

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

Is that they are driven by the Bottom Line so provided that they have the correct number of staff they are more concerned with getting the Cheapest Staff Possible rather than the best. They count heads not experience so in the case you mentioned they could have quite easily spend 30 or more hours developing that project and eaten the loss to keep the work. :0 There is no substitute for First Hand Experience with the customer that is where money is saved and that requires staff who are highly experienced and that means highly paid. Large Companies are not interested in these people generally speaking. In that case all that the customer was interested in was the [b]Overall[/b] cost to them not how the work was done or how much better it may have been if handled internally just what the finished product cost. Col