The dirty tricks clients play

Chip Camden describes common bad behaviors that some clients exhibit. He also advises consultants on how to respond when they encounter these bad apples.

Last week I wrote about the dirty tricks some consultants play, and how we need to avoid following in their footsteps. Today let's examine some dirty tricks that clients play in order to take unfair advantage of the consultants they engage.

Late payment or, worse, no payment at all

I believe this is the most frequently abused aspect of the client/consultant relationship. Sometimes it happens because of the sheer weight of your client's Accounts Payable machinery. Sometimes it's an unstated policy. Sometimes they're trying to give you a subtle message of some sort. But regardless of the motivation, it needs to stop. Your contract should spell out your payment policy in no uncertain terms, and you need to enforce those terms. If your client doesn't pay, don't work. You're not their bank. Related resources: 10 ways to make sure your clients pay you, What to do when your client doesn't pay, and Strategies for dealing with clients who don't pay.

Scope creep

You delivered exactly what you thought the client requested, but now they say it doesn't do everything they expected. They shouldn't have had to spell out these details, they say, because anyone in their right mind should have realized that when they asked for X, it naturally implied A through W.

There are two broad categories of solution to this problem: better specifications, or the ability to expand your billing. Since the former can never be perfect, I lean towards the latter. If the client needs more work from you, billing by the hour/day/iteration means you'll get paid for it. It may also encourage the client to be more specific in their original request.

Related resources: Sell clients on this pay-in-advance billing strategy and Is billing by the hour unethical?


Some clients try to get us to go beyond the terms of our agreement by issuing some form of threat, expressed or implied. Besides the usual leverage of potentially dropping the contract and becoming a poor reference, they may hint at legal action, some form of blackmail, or even bodily harm. If you've fulfilled your end of the contract, then you need to stand up against these abuses. But you don't have to become abusive yourself: ask for a precise explanation of any vague threats, in writing, so you can have your lawyer review them in the light of your agreement. That usually shuts them up.


On the opposite end of the spectrum is the client who wants to be your chum. "We're all friends here, so of course you'll do this little extra thing for me without charge — we'll catch up later, right pal? You're a good guy, that's why we like doing business with you."

This approach is more insidious than intimidation, and it's tempting to respond in the same friendly tone. Watch out, though, or you'll end up conceding somewhere in the middle, which is exactly what they wanted. Don't overreact either, though. Just firmly insist that your contract states otherwise, and that you'd be happy to help them as long as you're properly compensated.

Related resource: The human side of IT consulting.

Blood in

Clients will sometimes ask you to do something unethical or illegal as a favor. They may even say that they'll take responsibility for it, and you'll just be following orders. But if you go there, they'll have something on you. You'll be a member of the gang, and they'll expect you to go along with whatever else they order in the future.

Related resources: How to respond if a client asks you to lie, Devise an exit strategy when working for an unethical client, and An independent IT consultant's code of ethics.

The setup

Sometimes all the client needs in a consultant is a believable fall guy. They want the project to fail, and they need someone to pin it on. If you keep your nose to the wind, you can usually smell this one out early on. The number one clue: communication, or rather lack thereof. If your conversations on status get cut off early with a "whatever you think — keep up the good work" and none the employees seem to want to get involved, they might be grooming you for the role of bowling pin. Insist on establishing frequent acceptance milestones, so everyone signs off on your work as you do it. If the client won't agree to that, or fails to follow through, get out as soon as you can. "So what," you may say, "I'll take the rap as long as they pay me." You better make sure they will pay you after the project fails, and don't forget about your reputation.

Related resource: Don't let clients make you the scapegoat.


This list sounds pretty scary. The majority of clients mean well, and when they do stray into one of these abuses a frank conversation will often cure the problem. But if you're one of those people who think that everyone has some good in them, then you haven't met everyone. The few bad apples out there can make the life of a consultant rotten, if you let them.

Additional IT consultant resources


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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