Editor’s note: This TechRepublic article originally published on May 7, 2001.

Helping those without the technical knowledge or skill set they need to get a job done is what being a consultant is all about. Sometimes, though, a self-destructive or unorganized client can pull you into a lose-lose situation with no way out. These clients prove to be a drain on your patience, time, and resources.

If you want to avoid getting entangled in projects with nightmare clients, heed the warnings of Janet Ruhl, principal of Realrates.com and author of The Computer Consultant’s Workbook and The Computer Consultant’s Guide: Real-Life Strategies for Building a Successful Consulting Career. I’ll pass along her four telltale signs of nightmare clients to look out for before you sign a contract and her tips for setting good boundaries to escape a nightmare client with grace.

Four warning signs of a nightmare client

Unfortunately, nightmare projects are not rare. If you can see the warning signs about the nature of a client — which Ruhl says often show up during negotiations with potential clients — you might be able to avoid a catastrophe.

Here are Ruhl’s four warning signs of a nightmare client:

  1. The client is not clear about what he or she wants but somehow expects you to produce it without their detailed input. If they are too busy to either describe the project or to put you in contact with the people who can, watch out.
  2. The client reports having had a lot of problems with previous consultants — a pattern of “problem” consultants might be a sign of a problem client.
  3. The client is ignorant about technology and has no competent staff. This client may expect you to wave your magic wand to give them some magical business advantage, while having no understanding of the complexity or expense of serious computer systems.
  4. The client makes it clear that they are looking for a bargain and focuses entirely on cost in your early contacts.

Turning the tables: How to stop a nightmare before it begins

“Problem projects come with the territory,” Ruhl said. “Companies that manage their internal IT functions well are not as likely to need the help of consultants as those that do not. Successful consultants excel as much at handling the ‘people side’ of a project as they do the technical aspects.”

To keep a client from becoming a nightmare, Ruhl said the consultant must be extremely clear on what he or she needs from the client at each step of the process and must communicate this to the client as tactfully as possible. The most effective way to communicate these issues up front is during the negotiation stage. Ruhl said it’s important to have a detailed contract that discusses any and all issues that might lead to problems.

“The contract is written during the ‘honeymoon’ period of your relationship with the client,” Ruhl said. “But it gives you a chance to discuss problems with the client before they occur.”

It’s also important to write your contracts in such a way that both you and the client understand exactly how payment will be handled if things do not work out. This will help you to make a graceful exit from the situation.

Ruhl also offered these additional tips for dealing with problem clients:

  • Don’t let problems build up. They are much easier to solve when they are small problems.
  • Document major concerns in writing.
  • Explain the impact of difficult client behavior on schedules and deliverables.
  • Avoid blaming a particular client employee for the problem, but do explain how his or her behavior has adversely affected the project, if that’s the case.

Learn from your mistakes

One consultant who is a TechRepublic member said his experience with the nightmare client prompted his company to change the way they do business.

“We’ve developed our own internal guidelines regarding projects….We offer to take over the entire project, and if we are just needed to staff a project, we make it clear that we are more than just hired hands.”

He offered this advice for other consultants facing nightmare projects: “Take it as a learning experience….[Make it an opportunity to] try out different skills.”

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