I received the following email from a reader:

They’re lovely people, their mission laudable, their success rate enviable. Their IT problems are far beyond the scope of what they described, and more than I’m comfortable dealing with on a part-time basis.

A small-medium training firm uses cloud software to run their business. Setup was done by a consultant, and people in the firm have been populating the data objects and generating reports. I agreed to clean 5+ years of data–for one department–and set up the department processes to minimise future irregularities.

Sadly, I’ve spent a huge number of hours grappling with system administration–no access to server space; insufficient access rights to the cloud software; modules that were incorrectly installed, lack of storage, bandwidth and tools (hardware and software) and (worst of all) no documentation.

There’s no IT department. I work for sales: They’re hard to get hold of since they’re on the road most of the week, and claim they can’t afford add-on toolkits (which will save money and simplify cleaning) or additional storage space, which means I’ve had to accommodate their data on my system–a practice that makes me very uncomfortable. Finally, Sales department uses Mac; the cloud software toolkits and my OS are Windows, which sometimes results in incompatibility and data quality issues.

What are my big issues:

RISK: The scope of work is larger than outlined: Changes to data aren’t just to Sales; they ripple through to Operations and HR

RESOURCES: No IT staff to handle sysadmin issues (I’m spending hours working my way through ids, licensing etc); Hard to keep in touch with the client organization; incompatibilities with OS, chasing down documentation and apocrypha in e-mail and chat threads.

SCHEDULE: I’m limited to the number of hours I agreed to work, and to the number of hours I have available.

It’s a terrific project, but it’s not the project for me, especially since I have commitments to two other concurrent clients, both of whom are better at coloring inside their lines.

How do I leave the the training company without damaging them or me any further?

My reply

You begin with one advantage: you’re an excellent communicator. And what you need to do right now is communicate the state of affairs accurately to your client. Bad news is better taken earlier rather than later. Honesty and integrity are always a win, even when you’re losing business.

Obviously, you didn’t know what you were getting into when you took this engagement. Whether you failed to qualify yourself for the project or they failed to reveal its scope can be a subject for your post-mortem analysis (which you really want to conduct at some point for your own information). Right now the important thing is that based on your more recent knowledge of the project, you find yourself unable to meet their needs. Explain that you would be doing them a disservice if you attempted to continue.

It would be a really nice touch if you can recommend someone to replace yourself. If you don’t know of someone qualified, perhaps you could offer to help them find someone.

Perhaps our readers can share what has worked (or not worked) for them when they found themselves in a similar situation.

Ask Chip: If you have an IT consulting question, email it to me or use the “Contact” link by my picture at the end of one of my articles, and I’ll do my best to answer it. (Read guidelines about submitting questions.)