Project Management

The clients who give consulting a bad name

Chip Camden describes caricatures of bad clients he's experienced in the wild. See if you recognize any of these types of clients from your consulting work.

Following on from my recent post on The consultants who give the rest of us a bad name, reader and blogfriend Stu Savory suggested a corresponding post on bad clients.

"Bad clients?!" I hear you cry. "There's no such thing as a bad client, as long as they pay my bills. Perhaps they're just misunderstood."

Certainly, we consultants have been known to misunderstand on occasion. But yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as a bad client -- a client who will cause you so much grief that you would gladly refund every penny they ever gave you if they would only forget that they ever heard your name. Not that any of my clients are like that. After all, I'm still taking their pennies.

As evidence of the existence in the wild of these "bad clients," I refer to Brad Egeland's TechRepublic article: Four types of clients to avoid. Allow me to add a few more caricatures from my own experience.

The damsel in distress

These clients wait until they're tied to the railroad tracks and the train is coming 'round the bend before they decide it's time to call a consultant. They expect you to ride to the rescue, fix everything, and then be on your merry way with a tip of your hat. Sometimes this can make for good business with excellent referrals, but more often than not if you buy into their unrealistic expectations you're going to find yourself catching the same train -- in the face. You have to honestly tell the client when they've called you too late to be of help. If you decide to take the engagement, set realistic expectations for what can be salvaged from the wreckage. Most importantly, try to educate them on how involving you from the beginning could have avoided this situation -- and suggest that they adopt that approach for future projects.

Ebenezer Scrooge

This client expects you to be available at all times, and work extra hours for no extra money. They'll try to blame their needs on your past performance, saying that it was understood that such-and-such would be included in the original agreement. "We paid you to get it working, and it isn't working to our requirements" is their common refrain. Never mind that the requirements have shifted over time, and were never all that clear to begin with. Never, ever do fixed-price work for this sort of client. In fact, the potential for encountering Mr. Scrooge is the main reason why I prefer hourly contracts in general.

The tyrant

The primary purpose of every project for this client is to enhance his or her power and glory. They downplay the achievements of others, especially consultants from the outside. Since every effort must bear witness to their superiority, they micromanage all aspects of the project and discourage innovation by underlings. It's "my way, or the highway." Hello, highway.

The impostor

Not to be confused with an otherwise capable person suffering from the Impostor Syndrome, these truly clueless people are actively hiding the fact that their mug belongs on the poster for the Peter Principle. They have no idea what they need, and they want you to cover for them. These people can actually make great clients if you can lead them -- until things go wrong, and you become the fall guy.

Summary

As I stated above, these are caricatures of bad clients. In the real world, a lot of clients possess some of these features to a degree. We consultants have to evaluate whether we can get past them in order to have a workable engagement. Often it comes down to perceiving the tendency and setting the appropriate expectations in advance. That calls for an insightfulness into interpersonal relationships that many of us geeks don't naturally possess. It's one more thing we have to work at to have successful client relationships.

What are we missing from the list? Please share your tales of villains and victims in the discussion.

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...

13 comments
SteelTrepid
SteelTrepid

Pretty good, this was a nice change.

spaceart1
spaceart1

I was on a contract to develop an online Testing Methodology and Help system for the IT department of a mortgage company. However, while I worked for the IT department, I was contracted under their Documentation department. The manager of the Documentation department had no clue how IT processes worked, and when she attempted to micromanage my time and efforts it caused nothing but problems. As a result, she was continually questioning my work and berating me for things that she simply did not understand. I found myself having to justify the smallest task, and it made life miserable for me. If it were not for the fact that I had traveled 1,100 miles for this contract and needed the money, I would have walked out the door because of her inappropriate and sometimes openly hostile behavior. She never did understand that it was her own lack of understanding and an improper reporting relationship that caused the problems and not the quality of my work, which was very well received by the IT folks. Going forward, make sure that the person you are working for is the right one to be reporting to.

vrrrao2003
vrrrao2003

Dear Chip, While most articles mention bad consulting already (cliche indeed), this article brings out points not in the light of blaming such customers but more importantly about how to deal with them. There are other categories which are a combination of these traits. Possibly in your next blog you can let us know how to deal with these. After all Enterprise projects are big and have many people. BTW, there are some who stay in and play from the background, who can only add to the misery. Any idea how to deal with them? Excellent post. Thanks. Venkat

santeewelding
santeewelding

For "insightfulness into interpersonal relationships that many of us geeks don't naturally possess" belongs in the Water Closet. Watch yourself.

Marc Thibault
Marc Thibault

I love the guys who don't know what they need. I generally make more helping them set clear, measurable and attainable objectives than I make helping achieve them.

sysdev
sysdev

The idea of the Peter Principle is really very simple. In business, people will tend to rise to their level of incompetence and then stop. Makes a lot of sense. If someone is doing a good job, they are more likely to be promoted. When they stop doing a good job (i.e. they have hit their level of incompetence), they will likely not be promoted. In the late 80s and 90s, there was such a significant shortage of skilled people in many businesses, people began to be promoted over their level of incompetence on a regular basis. These people had a lot of different traits, but one very common one was to attempt to improve the short term bottom line by hiring employees and contractors and consultants (yes, they are ALL different skillsets) at the lowest rates possible to improve the short term bottom line as that was the only way they felt that they could look good to their management. What they did not and still do not understand (among many other things) is that paying attention to the short term bottom line can do terrible things to the long term bottom line. A case in point. Most companies got through Y2K okay, but the way it was done (most commonly by selecting a break year) was done improperly in so many companies, it is scary. Multiple break years within a company and even within some systems. Most companies have to transfer data between their systems and some transfer data between companies. These systems will most likely not crash, they will do worse. They will transfer incorrect data and it will be more difficult to catch and to fix. Many of these are within financial systems and the break years are fast approaching. It will not only cause errors for individuals, it will cause errors for companies. If you thought the Trillion dollars spent on Y2K remediation was a lot, you haven't seen anything yet. People with the knowledge to help fix these problems are retiring and dying. It is going to cost orders of magnitude more than a measly Trillion dollars to fix this problem and it is going to happen over the next 90 years at least. Scary? You bet it is.

jmarkovic32
jmarkovic32

Especially ones who try to steal your contracts while you sub them out to work on a specific thing.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I don't naturally "get" people's unexplained intentions -- it's something I have to remind myself about and work very hard to perceive. I can't let it become the flanking move through the woods that cuts off my rear.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... of "consultant" better than implementing it does. If only more clients were willing to use us in that way.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

1) it doesn't take into account that people can grow into their new roles. 2) some people decide to decline advancement because they know it isn't a good fit for them. Paradoxically, these wise individuals are probably more suited to the position than others who would go blindly in. Yeah, I agree that break years were a band-aid on y2k. Should have bitten the bullet and gone to a four-digit year right away. That's one load of technical debt that's nearing foreclosure.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

You mentioned that you had at the beginning of the post!

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