Project Management

When your client thinks the grass is greener elsewhere

Don't be adversarial if a client decides to hire another consultant or go with a solution other than the one you present. Chip Camden offers advice on how to handle this situation.
TechRepublic member Imnogoldfish requested our help:

New company in town markets to my long-term customer and does the razzle-dazzle marketing, while criticizing every teeny thing that isn't perfect in the client's systems (whether I had anything to do about it or not). Customer hires new company. It takes months and sometimes years before the customer realizes that things are worse and deteriorating.

They call me back, tell me the story, and hire me to come in and clean up the mess. Meanwhile, I've been questioning myself, thinking about day-labor and drinking.

This arc seems to repeat over and over.

Oh Sage, I need an article about that.

Don't allow these situations to make you doubt yourself. While it's always good to evaluate your own work with a critical eye, if you feel driven to alcohol and career change, then perhaps you're not being objective about it.

You're not alone. I've seen this kind of thing happen over and over again; I call it GOOSE marketing, for Grass On Other Side Emerald. It's all about pointing out all the weeds in the current approach, while painting a picture of promised perfection with which to contrast it. No non-trivial solution is ever free from all flaws, but when a client tires of dealing with even a small number of regular frustrations, they can be willing to believe that "this one will be different." They flee the flaws they know to embrace the ones they don't. Unless the new solution really is better, the transition only disrupts their operations -- if it succeeds at all.

How should consultants deal with this situation? Here are some options:

  • Let 'em go. When a client tells me they've found a better solution, sometimes I've said that I'm happy for them and wish them well. On occasion, I've even added, "Let me know when you need me again" (when, not if). Be careful not to add a barb, though. You don't want to communicate any resentment or ill will towards their decision. Remember, your job is (was) to help them succeed, not to hold onto them at any cost. Most clients will come back apologetically after their little fling turns sour.
  • Question their decision. Ask about the analysis that they've performed. Have they obtained any third-party input, or does everything they know about the solution come from its prospective provider? Perhaps you have some experience with the approach that would enlighten them. Be careful not to get adversarial though. Always stay focused on finding the best solution for the client.
  • Unmask the impostor. Sometimes the grass is greener because it's over the septic tank. Your competitor keeps the less pleasant aspects of their seduction carefully covered with buzzwords and glossy prints. See what you can find out -- get your client to let you help review the proposal. Once, I had the opportunity to sit in on a competitor's flashy demo. The screen was full of cool graphical widgets, and with every click the UI responded immediately. Then I asked, "what happens when you click that button?" The presenter briefly explained its function, but I insisted, "I'd like to see that. Show us." He turned a little red as he admitted that the entire demo was a carefully constructed PowerPoint presentation. Further pressing revealed that the real product was not yet ready to demo, and a long way from release.
  • Seek third alternatives. If you didn't see this coming, then you didn't have a good read on your client. Find out why the client thinks they need to change. What bothers them about your solution? Could you do things a bit differently to make them happy? Furthermore, even if they adopt a new approach, that doesn't necessarily spell the end of your involvement. See if you can still play a role.

Sometimes, people in your client's organization (especially C-levels) believe in magic bullets. Other times, they propose these kinds of sweeping changes to try to shake things up and see how you'll react. They want to find out how much you value your position with them, and how hard you'll fight to keep it. I don't play those games. It's not about me, I keep reminding myself; it's about what the client needs. Frame every response in those terms, and your client will learn something about you that they may not have known they were seeking: your dedication to your customer.

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...

29 comments
AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

"...was not yet ready to demo, and a long way from release". Ok, srsly... how does one stay professional-like at a moment like that? And not jump on the desk, hollering "Boo yaa!" or "in your face, suckaroo!" or something to that effect...

jvansanten
jvansanten

A couple quick thoughts. Handling this in a professional way is key -- and the focus on the client and the client's needs is paramount. That said, if, for whatever reason, one has lost credibility, it's usually best to accept that situation and not fight it directly. The client bears the responsibility for making their business decisions. But, I think IT folks may be particularly susceptible to this kind of scenario. There's an "impedance mismatch" between what IT folks generally think is important -- technical excellence and feasibility -- and what management considers important -- viable solutions. IT folks can enhance their credibility by thinking and communicating from a management perspective, I think.

bergenfx
bergenfx

Maybe everyone has experienced getting shopped around on. It happens. But if it seems to be happening with some kind of regularity, we may need to re-evaluate not just the skills we bring to the relationship, but what we do to keep our clients happy. Retaining a client shouldn't be that different than obtaining them in the first place. Maybe we started with candlelight dinners and trips to the museum, but now we drink beer in front of the football game and leave our socks on the floor. Maybe that dress our client is wearing is starting to look a little shabby, and we just don't notice anymore. Many of these occurrences can be prevented by valuing these relationships and continually proving value to clients. If they are saying, "It isn't you. It's me." It's probably too late.

mikifinaz1
mikifinaz1

I usually stage the solutions you provide in a hierarchy, with "let them go" being the last step after I have danced around with them about what they see as their issue. Often they just want you to pat their hand and tell them everything will be fine.

gscratchley
gscratchley

While I appreciate your options, and they seem intelligent, I can't see any positive outcome to trying any of them (other than 'let them go'). If the client doesn't want you, they've probably given a lot of thought to it, and have made up their minds (unless getting a competitor was an emotional reaction to a specific event in which you were involved). In which case, why would they accept your advice about an alternative or even let you sit in on the competitor's demo? In every case, wouldn't they assume you have an alterior motive (whether you truly do or not)? Glen

maclovin
maclovin

"...that button?" Then it doesn't work.....classic! Powerpoint and flashy graphics, unfortunately fool MOST closed-minded management-types. THey just don't get it. Having a couple hot chicks come in also helps. Ones that don't know anything about the product, but claim to after using some buzzwords they were taught in their company's training video. I often come back with something like "that's not the way the Internet works". Unfortunately, my boss doesn't believe me, even though I'm the one that's supposed to be providing the technical advice. Ahhh....well...

scaron
scaron

I used to work with a guy who specialized in ppt-based "demos". I saw him get cornered that way once. He moused over the button to be pushed and then quickly hit the power button on his laptop - then apologized profusely for "his crummy laptop crashing". As a guy who often demos product, I would *never* use a ppt demo - or at least, do it without fully informing the customer what i was using. Most customers have had to demo stuff in the past and know that *something* always doesn't work in a demo. Be upfront about it and you build credibility, not destroy it.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I just sat back and smiled, while the client's people made all the jokes and laughter. (But inside I was pumping my fist and asking my competitor if they liked how it felt).

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

There's a lot of overlap between technical feasibility and viable solutions -- so we tend to confuse the two. You're right, to secure the business we need to think like the customer -- which means putting the priority on what works best for them, considering all their constraints and opportunities, technical and otherwise.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

If you don't have trust, you don't have much in this business. You need to consistently groom the relationship. I have many clients who don't think twice about the greener pastures before discussing it with me, and they know that I'll give a straight answer even if it means that there are aspects of my service that don't compare as well as I'd like. I've also had this happen to me, but it's always with clients where the relationship is not so great. You're right, if this is happening too frequently with your practice, then you either need a better class of client, or need to re-evaluate why it is that you are continually coming up short.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

It's important not to take the relationship for granted. Unfortunately, as in the spouse/partner relationship, it takes a lot of energy and creativity to keep things alive. This could probably be an article all on its own.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

In practice, you consider all options and try the ones that seem helpful. "they just want you to pat their hand and tell them everything will be fine." There should be a name for that condition -- the fear that someone experiences when they've heard of something they didn't know about and suddenly they feel like the whole world has changed right under their feet. They don't want to miss the boat, so they're ready to jump ship -- until you tell them that the iceberg was a lie.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

They may have just gotten stars in their eyes from a demo, and need to be brought back to reality. Most of my clients would ask me about it before they decided, even if they were leaning heavily in that direction. But I have had occasions where their mind was made up before I had a chance to provide any input, and those are best left to their own devices.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Unfortunately, that strategy works -- even when the victim knows he's being led by the...

spam
spam

I see there are two opportunities here. Firstly, if clients are openly receptive to sales communication from alternative vendors, then you need to better communicate with your clients. So, what is the client looking for in terms of proactive communication on your part? What softer communication is required? It's not all project status reports and maintenance schedules (apply the style to one's respective field). Clients are often looking for communication around the potential in a situation, not just the status quo. That is, what is the vision of their future that they are looking for in the other vendor, that you could have been discussing with them while they're already a client of yours. Secondly, professionalism isn't just about the quality of the job you do. It's also about the image you present of your business. Obviously, you shouldn't have a flashy image of your business if nothing is underpinning it. However, if your offering is strong/quality/etc. then you have the opportunity to create marketing materials which describe your business in terms your clients will understand. That is, your offering in business terms and in sales terms. Just because it's flashy doesn't mean it's wrong. If it's flashy and it's correct, then when the other vendor comes on the scene, you can compete (from a sales perspective) on a like for like basis. Don't force your client to distil the difference between your marketing message (nothing, word of mouth), and your competitors (brochures, powerpoints, etc.). So, where is your professional marketing/sales material? I can assure you - if you're proactively communicating with clients in soft terms, and have the marketing/sales collateral to appear on the same (and better) terms as the vaporware vendors; then you're less likely to find yourself replaced as you're communicating in a way you're clients are listening.

tbmay
tbmay

I don't do the grovel thing. It wouldn't help if I did. I always encourage them to use who they are comfortable with. I'll say this though, I have questioned this career because of that "magic bullet" expectation. I would have thought by 2010 people would be a bit more savy on complex systems and what engineering them entails but, oddly enough, there are still plenty of people in influential positions who aren't. Unfortunately, I've dealt with that as an employee and as an independent. Getting away from that means getting out of I.T.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Any time you go off-script in a demo something will fail. So when a member of the audience asks me to show them something, I'l agree but warn them, "I'm going off-script now, so something is likely to blow up." Then if it does, I relate the following story: In 1987 at DISC's Annual Conference, Ken Lidster (CEO) was demoing the new windowing system he had built, which was in beta. Ken got excited about its features and he began to ad lib a little. The entire thing crashed on the monitor in front of all of his most important customers from around the world, spewing forth several lines of error messages. After a moment's hesitation, Ken remarked, "... and see how detailed the error reporting system is" as if it were all part of the planned presentation.

apotheon
apotheon

That's a pretty good description of the situation when it comes to client satisfaction and retention, outside of the basics of meeting technical expectations. edit: Of course, many with technical expertise aren't so savvy or comfortable with marketing and other more socially-focused tasks. Describing the problem so well does not immediately translate into solving it for such people, especially since getting someone on board to help with that side of the business can also require some social skills that many technically proficient introverts lack.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... and it shouldn't be too surprising. After all, we techies have enough trouble anticipating what's really needed for a project, so why would we ever expect end-users to have a clue?

spam
spam

@chip - they are consultants paid on an hourly basis, for as-needs advice and to help set the strategy. In the same way you hire a technical specialist, these guys are paid to know the answer before the question is asked. That is, they ask the key marketing and sales questions and drive the process. It's our job to execute based on their guidance. Even though it's been a bit expensive, it has been worth every penny. It took our business to the next level so I'd recommend the investment regardless of your size.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Are these full-time employees? Or part-time contractors? Many people in this forum could not afford a full-timer for those activities.

spam
spam

@apotheon - I totally agree, and you make a great point. In a Myers-Briggs sense; I'm very much the "I", so outgoing communication, marketing and sales is not my strong point. But, if you're going to take your business seriously, you need to decide whether you're running a hobby / pseudo-contract arrangement or a proper business. And a proper business does sales and marketing. So, in my business' situation, I have hired a marketing consultant (whose brain works nothing like mine) to help us communicate the brand. I have hired a sales coach to help us with a simple roadmap for selling to clients in the way clients want to be sold. You don't need to partner; just hire them on commercial terms. It has dramatically changed the results of our business; so I'd highly recommend it - more so especially if you lack the social skills to drive the marketing and sales yourself.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

comes to mind... Hence: Any thing that is effective, must be controlled carefully, because effectiveness hardly ever has an enough-is-enough cutoff point built in.

apotheon
apotheon

Sometimes, they are both at the same time.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Attempts to solve that problem have resulted in some of the most toxic (as well as some of the most effective) partnerships in the history of our profession.