Breaking up with problem clients

You don't have to stay with a dysfunctional consulting client forever. Here's one approach that can help you free up time for the good ones.

I've recently had some extraordinary luck in regards to freelance consulting. I successfully "broke up" with a dysfunctional client, and I signed a new, highly focused client—all in the same week. If you're losing money on a problem client, try what I call the refer-and-run approach.

Control your own destiny
TechRepublic member David recently kicked off a discussion thread in response to the Consultant Master Class column written by Rick Freedman entitled ”Do clients throw projects over the wall to you?” (You can jump into that thread here.)

David's post included the statement: "My client is too busy to allocate the necessary time to this project." The question he put to fellow TechRepublic members was, "Should I increase my fixed price or just learn a lesson not to get into a project like this without a schedule?"

You can never please some clients
I was in a similar situation recently, and that's when I realized that, despite your best intentions, you can't consult for everyone. I had accepted work from a client who was dysfunctional in a number of ways:
  • Like David’s client, he had no time for explanations or discussion of options.
  • He operated in constant crisis mode, always in a hurry and unfocused. When I asked for written change requests, he said, "Well, you can remember this.…"
  • He made business rules and then changed them without warning.
  • He didn't understand technology yet considered himself qualified to micromanage technologists.
  • He second-guessed and micromanaged database and system design decisions.
  • He had made promises to his customers and prospective customers that even a technologically savvy company would have a hard time delivering.

I was learning things on this gig, and the checks were clearing, but I knew my patience with the CEO wouldn’t last forever. So I used the refer-and-run approach to get out of that mess.

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Fortunately for me, I had something that young David did not—a written agreement with my dysfunctional client. My deliverables were scheduled, and I decided to time my move to coincide with delivery of (and payment for) the last piece of software I promised. I would pledge to support any of the tools that I had created in the same meeting when I handed the client off to a new consultant.

I also had the luxury of knowing a former coworker with an Internet consulting company. He is someone I trust and someone who can meet this client's needs.

I explained to the client that he needed more time than I could give him as a freelancer, and I told him I would leave him in capable hands. I briefed my friend, the one who took over the account for me, about the client’s eccentricities, and I'll never forget the last meeting. It happened just like I planned. I picked up my last check, introduced the client to his new consultant, turned in my key to the client's office, and I was out of there!

If you don't have any friends or acquaintances in IT consulting, you can still refer and run. However, you can't simply throw a dart at the phone book to choose your replacement. Invest some time in making calls, checking references, and acquainting yourself with the people involved before you hand off your client. Even problem clients are precious commodities.

Choose clients who are focused, grasshopper
As I mentioned, during the same week I got rid of the problem client, I also signed a new, heaven-sent client. Why heaven-sent? This client is focused.

When I met with him to start "needs analysis" discussions for his Web site, he had already storyboarded most of what he wanted. Later, when I asked him to initial each page of the design specification, he was only too happy to oblige, indicating that he understood and agreed to every detail. When you get lucky enough to find a client like that, it helps you forget about the others.
Have you ever tried to consult for someone who couldn’t be pleased? If so, please share your pearls of wisdom by posting a note below or write to Jeff.

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