Project Management

What to do when your solution doesn't work

If you roll out a solution that doesn't work, your payment and your reputation could take a hit. Here's how to show the client you're on their side.

Market-based economies typically only reward success. The practice is brutal, though efficient. If you try really hard and get 90 percent of the way to the goal, that's progress, but it usually won't get you paid. That's why the second-most frustrating experience technology consultants experience is deploying a solution only to find it doesn't work as advertised. (The most frustrating experience is rolling out a successful solution and failing to get paid by the client.)

Technology's complicated

Here's the scariest part: Technology consultants can properly audit a client's network and systems, thoroughly research potential solutions with third-party hardware and software providers, and even receive written guarantees, but it's the consultant who must make it all work. And, sometimes, it just doesn't.

Routers and switches sometimes ship with failed or corrupt firmware; software applications occasionally don't do what manufacturers promise; equipment may be dead on arrival; hard disks fail; motherboards flake out; network cables go bad in the wall — I've seen it all. Honest consultants who've been practicing for at least a couple of years will have such stories.

What should you do?

The client is hot, and your reputation is on the line, and what you do at such a critical juncture is one of those moments when you'll learn whether you can make it as a consultant. Surprisingly, judging from failed projects my office inherited, some consultants shrug their shoulders, insist they've met requirements, and wash their hands of the project. Others blame the vendor, hardware supplier, software programmer, or other party. Those actions don't solve the problem.

Consultants should follow these steps, instead:

  1. Admit the problem. If something's not working right, tell the client and explain that your office can replicate the failure. There isn't much that infuriates a client more than encountering failures and being told the system is working properly.
  2. Come up with a plan. Determine the next steps. Try to isolate potential causes, document what you know, and then determine who can help fix it.
  3. Share the plan. Clients may only see that their big investment is failing to work. If you tell them what you've done and what you're doing and why, that should provide the client with some peace of mind. If nothing else, it lets the client know you're working on the issue and aren't abandoning them or the project.
  4. Partner with the responsible vendor. Rain all over the apparently responsible vendor, and it's unlikely the company will call you back. For better or worse, you're married now, and you need to make the relationship work. Try to position yourself as the boots on the ground working to make the vendor's product work for the client.
  5. Document everything. No, this isn't CYA documentation (although that mindset doesn't hurt). Document who you talk to and what steps are taken and when, and then share that information with the client. Occasionally the process helps to highlight something that was overlooked. Other times forcing documentation helps isolate or trace a failure in ways that weren't previously evident.

Success is borne of commitment

Technology solutions are too interconnected, too interdependent, and simultaneously incompatible to not expect failures and strange errors no one has ever seen before. While you can't plan for all contingencies, you can prove your mettle by sticking with the client and proving tenacious when projects threaten to go off the rails. Failures are going to occur, but the way your office reacts will determine whether you find success.


Erik Eckel owns and operates two technology companies. As a managing partner with Louisville Geek, he works daily as an IT consultant to assist small businesses in overcoming technology challenges and maximizing IT investments. He is also president o...

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