Project Management

Tips on vetting prospective clients

Chip Camden discusses three areas in which consultants might be able to do more homework about prospective clients before accepting an engagement.

In the never-ending search for new consulting work, we sometimes forget that not all business is good business. If you manage to sink a ton of hours into a client who doesn't pay, then you've not only failed to make your efforts productive -- you've probably also missed better opportunities because you were too busy worrying over that deadbeat. Whenever this has happened to me, I've thought to myself, "If I had known they were going to put me through this, I'd have never agreed to work for them at all!" Bad business is far worse than no business.

The consultant probably has at least as much at stake in the relationship as the client does. So why don't we consultants do more vetting of clients before we agree to the engagement? Here are three areas in which we might be able to do more homework:

The interview. While the prospect is grilling you about your experience and qualifications, remember that the interview should be a two-way street. You should be just as concerned as they are to insure that this is a good fit. Ask probing questions not only about their expectations and work flow, but also about how they handle Accounts Payable and expense reimbursement. If they volunteer information about why they "got rid of" the last consultant, listen carefully and ask clarifying questions to make sure you understand their role in the failure of that relationship. Be particularly keen to detect assumptions on their part about what they expected from the consultant, and why they were disappointed. Reference checks. I've never asked a client for references, but that might not be a bad idea. I have on occasion asked a friend or a colleague who had worked with the client before about their experiences. Of course, you always have to evaluate this sort of information objectively -- you can never rule out that your source may have some need to justify their own part in the outcome. The web. Check the Better Business Bureau site for complaints. You probably won't find anything there, which is good. Google the business name, combining it with the words "complaint," "mistreatment," and "sucks" to find the most emotional negative reviews. Chances are, none of those will be former consultants, but if the company abuses customers or employees, you can bet they'll mistreat a consultant as well.

Whatever you find, take it under consideration, but don't make it your sole factor in deciding whether or not to take the engagement. I've had a couple of clients, each of whom I was warned about, who turned out just fine. Some people have odd personality traits or hot-button issues that have to be handled a certain way or they feel cheated. As long as you're OK with that, and establish the right expectations up front, the relationship can work out splendidly. In fact, you might become their darling because you're the only person who seems to understand how business ought to be carried on.

How do you vet prospective clients?

What tactics do you employ to find out information about prospective clients? Do you come right out and ask for references? If so, what is a typical reaction to that request?

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...

5 comments
Greendata
Greendata

weigh up the potential customer straight away, use your experience in 1st impression as a professional consultant and have a close look at the work environment they are in. Speak with them in non technical terms unless they throw it at you :) Ask many questions about them and their needs and expectations. It you have to hide something or are to intimidated to ask, maybe you need to consider what you offer. create win/win or it could simply go pear shaped with no legs to stand on. We always follow up with an email detailing our terms and conditions and expectations and fees in a printable PDF only. Along with our contracts to sign. Nothing takes place until the paper work is finalised and this is always discussed and explained at the meeting. That way it is not a shock and the customer remains very clear from the beginning about your committments to them and vise versa. Always remember they came to you or want to at least speak with you, so it is safe to say they do not know everything anyway otherwise both parties are wasting their time. And don't lie. We also use an andriod app that send an sms to our customers on contract every week with something of benefit to them. Our customers appreciate the regular touch as we are not always visible to them on a daily basis. Keep them thinking about you.

reisen55
reisen55

Here is a tip I learned through formal interviews. Take the attitude that the employer is not interviewing ME, BUT RATHER I AM INTERVIEWING THEM to see if they are good enough for me. Ever walk into a reception area and you can hear, in the background, somebody in an office yelling. "Lou, get me those damn numbers from BRAZIL RIGHT NOW!!! I know, Bernie never is on time. I DON'T CARE." This is telling. Consider that when thinking about working there. You could be Bernie. Secondly, physical atmosphere - good reception area, men's room clean??? Tells you alot. Keep your ears and eyes always working. This could be your mess to manage. Not the other way around. Third: do they listen to YOU? Or are your comments bouncing off of a wall. If so, then this could be a client you do not want. But judge their business, not your business. My 2 cents

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

,,, that I could just ask my wife, since she worked in software sales and often knew the very clients I engaged with. Now that she's been out of that line of work for 14 years, she's not so current (though that doesn't stop her from having an opinion).

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I think a lot of consultants are so desperate for work that they only see those things that relate to whether or not they can land the gig. In my view, you can only afford to be that desperate when first starting out -- if you stay that way for very long then you won't succeed at it.

biancaluna
biancaluna

I've been around the block a few times, and I have built up a network of folks in many places. I ask around, a few strategic phone calls will provide you with the backup of a gut feel you may have had during an interview. It is eerie how you mention becoming a darling, I have found that sometimes you need to look at client references with a specific filter. I have had situations where I had been warned about a particular person or aspect of a prospective client, only to find that I could build a stellar relationship. Sometimes it is about a different style, or about listening versus preaching or about having a sense of humor. Some consultants preach and are beligerent, no wonder some clients glaze over. I go with my instinct a lot. I always ask a client to walk me around the floor and that gives me a 6th sense insight due to the "vibe of the place". You get better at it, the more you go around said block. I also ask what I would hear if I would ask staff members what it is like to work for a specific client. If the prospective client sits back in their chair and the body language betrays what they fear, I know I am onto something. If they sit forward, look me in the eye and give me permission to talk to people, or tell me something I know is true, I am there with them. Some clients tell you what is going on honestly too and you need to respect that.

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