Banking

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?

Intimidation

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.

Sweet-talking

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.

Summary

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

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...

27 comments
aandruli
aandruli

I had one job where I was brought in to troubleshoot and resolve a network problem and this fellow kept standing a bit too close to me. Finally the person who contracted me came in and said -- "Oh yes. By the way -- we want you to show (name of guy) what you are doing and teach him how to do it."

pgit
pgit

I've "fired" clients a couple times, for the 'blood in' concept. When they sprang their idea on me I told them I won't go there. Most people at this point ask what can be done, and either elect to go that way or put things off altogether. A couple insisted though, and dropped the usual 'if you won't do it I'll get somebody who will.' My response at that point is "I'm sure you will." At least one time I told the fellow I won't be billing them for the work I'd already done. (wasn't a heck of a lot) It was a spur of the moment call, that I later figured must have been an unconscious attempt to try to get across to this guy that "no, everybody does NOT do it this way." Good article, well written.

Vidya BR
Vidya BR

Good stuff, Chip. What you've written is so true. Add to the list clients who keep extending project timelines and make the commercials agreed upon seem like peanuts by the end of the engagement. Vidya

biancaluna
biancaluna

I have indeed experienced a lot of the bad and risky behaviours in this list. Some clients only want you as a paid sacrificial lamb, and have been set up a few times. The ethical issues are interesting, I used to deploy a lot of cloud based technologies and the question of IP, data in the cloud, patriot act, safe harbour acts and different jurisprudence and legislative authorities were areas I focussed on a lot. Not just to protect the client, but to protect my backside. But the consultant said.... I've had a few bad experiences that go above and beyond the intimidation and bullying and those are clients that treat you like a prostitute. And yes, it happens. I've heard some beauties - "as a consultant, you are the lowest in the pecking order", "I pay for you so when I ask you to do 60 hour weeks, I expect you to deliver", "You are only a contractor, you must do what I say and remove that paragraph from your recommendations document" (the latter said screaming down the phone). Some clients think they can treat you like dirt if it suits them, and bullying I have found quite rife in some industries where ego plays a massive part. HR typically don't want to know, they perpetuate the "only a consultant" attitude. I have found this to be concerningly common and have experienced it working for Universities, Government Agencies but also Tier1 IT outsourcing companies who should know better. You see, my reputation is something someone else gives me, I have no control over that. But my values and integrity - now I listen to those inner voices a lot. I do not sell my soul, and when a client thinks they can buy me as a scapegoat, to see if I can fix what ails them, as the fall gal, or as someone that can be used in any means, including unethical decisions - I gracefully decline.

JimTheEngineer
JimTheEngineer

I received a call from someone who got my company from the phone book. They had a problem with relays welding shut and asked if I had ever worked on that before. I asked them to send a schematic, and it was missing clamp diodes to control the surge. I answered their question without asking for a billing. It took me two hours, one hour of which was to make sure I had it right. They were happy, and asked me to come out to check their work, and then I mentioned my hourly rate. They haven't responded with a request for me to come out, but I tried to figure that my free response let them know of my abilities if they should need help in the future. Was I just trying to convince myself that I wasn't taken, or does this seem like a good practice to follow in the future? How does one respond to a question that can be answered with a quick response over the telephone? - JimTheEngineer

manuel.bulatao
manuel.bulatao

the problems are true and will perpetually recur due to the numerous shortcomings on the followiing area: 1) Users/clients are not trained to understand the scope of the project. 2) Unclear on what are CORE specs vs Nice to Have needs. 3) and most unfair of all..."you are expected to ANTICIPATE needs" 4) the systems analysts approach is a wrong approach cuz you are expected to be a superman...a good researcher, analysts, writer, presentor, data base guru, programmer, etc etc. 5) the tragedy of the systems graduate is..'no matter how high your degree, ms, phD, highest honors, best schools, highest IQ,...you are only as good as the person defining the requirements.. 6) IT courses are TECHNOLOGY RICH yet APPLICATION POOR. Ergo, output at best is a trial-and-error, fragmented, and with a life equal to the employment of the programmer. 7) Cost of Systems Building is 99% talking and 1% programming. I solved this issues by training the users to do the systems specifications with DATABlueprint, a one page matrix methodology.. manny

amar_prus
amar_prus

Awesome post on client behaviour,having worked with all type of clients

TomLenzo
TomLenzo

A religion-run hospital in San Fernando Valley interviewed several consultants for a project. The interviews ended with "How do you feel about working for a religious institution?, followed by a question on how to solve a technical problem. A hospital employee told me, no one was hired and the solutions to the technical problems were implemented by the employees.

ylto
ylto

I think the list is spot on based on what Ive had other professionals tell me. Fortunately, the two that have been tried on me in the last three years have been "Blood In" - which I have found are easy enough to deflect with a "naive" yet firm talk about licensing and others getting paid for their hard work. Intimidation - which again I've simply suggested (honestly) that if they feel like my response time wasnt going to be feasible for their operational requirements that they should indeed find another provider. They promptly backed down from their position. As for perhaps the most important one - getting paid - I just have a strict policy. I invoice frequently, and if you dont pay I dont come back. To date, not only do my customers pay, but they pay within a week generally and they've always come back for more.

excelciors
excelciors

After 7 years making software as a freelance programmer, I've seen my share of people like this. You give them a hand, they ask for your arm. From what I've learned (so far), you can save yourself a ton of problems by saying "NO" at the start if you are able to smell that your current clients are going to pull on are one of these very "dirty" tricks.

tr_
tr_

Interesting

Spitfire_Sysop
Spitfire_Sysop

This is a scarey list. Your "The setup" section is making me paranoid! What if I am doing a good job and nobody wants to get involved because they have given me a terrible project that nobody else would touch before I came on?

douglas.gernat
douglas.gernat

Have ran into these situations numerous times, and these will provide great points to pass along. Thanks, Chip!

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

if you were getting paid for training as well.... :p Engage jargon mode Put the thingy in here and the whatcha'm'callit will not bug you for a silicon aeon. :D

douglas.gernat
douglas.gernat

I've had those types of comments thrown at me before as well, and certainly a toughie. I don't know if the client is trying to assert themselves the alpha in the client-consultant relationship, but it is certainly difficult to deal with at times, and down right insulting to me.

douglas.gernat
douglas.gernat

Plays into the helpdesk and project model well. I often have my helpdesk staff ask me this, and my response is simple: Any helpdesk uses a ticketing system. If it takes more time to enter a ticket, and enter your notes, then don't worry about billing. Problem being is that there is now no tracking of this issue, and the future time spent because 'you helped me before' never gets tracked either.... gulp

LLL3
LLL3

I sometimes do this for 1 of 2 reasons-- 1) It's a simple request and I can help them out now with very little trouble on my part. 2) I can tell they're potentially very needy but also not prepared to pay and I want to solve their problem so they go away (happily). In the case of #2 if it's something where I can make them self sufficient, I give the help for free and move on. Jim, in your case, 2 hours is quite a bit of time. Of course I've put entire days into proposals that didn't pan out... I would be very interested to hear how others handle this type of situation -- do you mention your fees right away? Do you always get something signed before giving any assistance? I see giving some help for free as a way to build credibility but sometimes it gets awkward when I let it go on too long and they haven't even asked about my rates.

douglas.gernat
douglas.gernat

I had a similar experience when I was freelance consulting a few years ago. They went even further by actually asking me my religious background. Not wanting to offend, but at the same time being firm, I politely deferred the entire project to another consultant. I know the old joke that the 8th, 9th, and 10th layers of the OSI model are Religion, Politics, and budgets, but come on. It has no place in the workplace in my opinion.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

f'ed. Too late. Been there, unfunny but valuable learning experience. One thing I did learn, never working for those cunts again. Wasn't bad money, but the taste it left in my mouth lasted longer....

pgit
pgit

To become a flight instructor there's a written exam called "fundamentals of instruction." 99.999% of aspiring pilots HATE the schooling and the test, I am the .001%, I found it the most valuable knowledge I gained from my aviation career. One point in educational theory is the "law of primacy," which is simple enough. The first way someone encounters an idea or fact, will be the foundation, the filter through which all further learning related to that idea will be built. At some low level if you throw someone off course with even one faulty concept it's going to be much harder to straighten them out later. The "law" implies simple be very careful with terminology and such, early on in a student's education. It doesn't matter if the concept is getting across, necessarily. Someone may understand the concepts of, say, navigation using a non-directional beacon. But if they are taught the wrong terms from the start, eg "relative heading" instead of "relative bearing," guess what... they may be able to fly the thing, but they are going to fail the written exam, and not be able to discuss the matter with others without difficulty. So I am very careful to use proper terminology around the people that ask me to show them how to do something. I find it helps immensely, because more often than not within the first two or three concepts/terms I lay on them they say "ok, stop, we'll just call you again next time." If they still want to learn, they will be able to get the point across accurately and more swiftly when they call me with a related problem later. I use analogy, but ultimately if they are writing something down it's beneficial to all if it's standardized. just my 2 cents, YMMV, and I am actually criticized for being too accurate, aka "too technical" when explaining things to people. I just can't help myself, I've taught many subjects over the years, just can't bring myself to 'break the law' of primacy... =\

JimTheEngineer
JimTheEngineer

I actually thought that one hour was about the right amount to charge, although I spent quite a bit of time - hours - mulling it over in my head, just for the fun of it. I do that a lot, but don't think it's fair to charge for what I consider entertainment. It certainly didn't keep me from my other activities. (If I were involved in something else that took up my thinking time, I would not have spent the time on this until I did get an agreement. I do mention my billing rate in the first call.)

Spitfire_Sysop
Spitfire_Sysop

I knew it was a undesireable position when I took it. It's only temporary.

douglas.gernat
douglas.gernat

This kind of ties into other categories, but the long time client that pulls the 'we've been in business together a long time', trying to pull the good business heart strings is about it. This is a really comprehensive list of pitfalls we've all either stepped into, or will one day have to take on. Regarding scope creep, I've found that presenting a solid SOW and clearly defining the scope as well as deliverables, assumptions, and milestones to be very effective in setting the pace up front. Also, I like your line of ensuring that the billing can change by listing the process for change orders for ANYTHING outside of scope. Additionally, it is a very noticable difference when you present the final sign off document up front, instead of when you feel it is complete. This is another pace setter. The client must realize that at one point, sadly, your project will come to an end, and they must pay you for all the hard work.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

to fix an existing application, the inhouse boy who wrote it was busiy f**king up something else. One of the things they wanted me to 'fix' was having more than one order per customer. The people responsible for the initial mess managed to cover me in their glory before the contract finished. It's one of my all time favourite technical debt examples now. The design was done on the basis that each customer onkly has one first order. The crap design, incestuous coupling, poor lifetime management, huge memory leaks and juvenile crap like a link to the billing system by surname, turned out to be an obvious indictator of how important they felt the job was. If they'd have let me look at the code first, I would have doubled my rate and set a very low expectation. Oh and UI was a multi tabbed effeort based on the spreadshhet they used to collect the data on. Just to cap it all, one the furkers gave me a bad but unofficial reference and left me out of work for a month and a half. Doesn't sound too bad but that's half of the total time I've been out of work since 1981...

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