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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 blog, he also contributes to [Geeks Are Sexy] Technology News and his two personal blogs, Chip's Quips and Chip's Tips for Developers.