As a busy IT consultant, I was spending yet another week on the road, waiting in an airport terminal, when my pager buzzed. The black letters spelled out 911 and my manager’s cell phone number. As reluctant as I was to do so, I answered the page.

My manager (I’ll call him Bob) said that he wanted me to review 100 pages of project docs and e-mails. One of our project managers was having a bit of trouble with a good-sized deployment of a messaging system. He was hopeful I could help. Bob also wanted me to fly out to the client’s headquarters site.

I spent that weekend reading rather than sleeping. Bob’s fears only scratched the surface of the problems. Based on the information I had, my best guess was that the project would fail in eight weeks unless we took drastic action. My Monday morning “catch up” call with my manager focused on getting me out there before the disaster hit.

Weeks passed. The client said everything was fine. Bob knew better. He battered the client decision maker, offering to send me out for just the cost of travel expenses. I received occasional updates from the project manager. A handful of technical team members chatted with me about the problems. I helped where I could. Advice over a telephone only goes so far, though. I needed face time with this client to put things back on track.

Then disaster struck. Six weeks after the initial page, the client threw the project manager off the site. Bob pulled me off my current site to send me on an emergency trip with our senior executives.

The client encounter
The subsequent client meeting counts among the five most stressful in my career. The clients did not want to be there. They attacked us from all sides, pointing out our incompetence. We responded by agreeing with them. We discussed what we did wrong. Then we moved on to how we would like to help them in the future.

I spoke a bit about what I saw in the project plan. We discussed some of their basic technical issues. At the end of the meeting, the clients agreed to at least talk with us again. Counting that as a victory, we left.

Back at the hotel, we hatched a desperate plan. I would stay with the client for the next three weeks, at our cost. If at the end of that time they felt I provided some value, they could pay for that time. If not, they would lose nothing.

Those three weeks passed in a flash. I led meetings, worked on project plans, and spent long hours discussing the design. The client and I worked in their test lab. We explored risks throughout the project and system life cycle. One day, we transcribed the entire work breakdown structure onto sticky notes, then rearranged the whole thing by putting it up on the walls of a room. On the last day, they asked me to stay on another week to finish up.

After four weeks, my time with them ended. I asked for a meeting with my client counterpart. (I always ask for an exit interview before leaving a site.) We talked over the last month of work. At the end of the review, my counterpart said he wished I had come out three months earlier, when I might have prevented the original meltdown.

Ever alert for an opening, I asked him why they initially resisted. He told me that six weeks prior to Bob asking them to let me fly out, one of my peers had made a startlingly bad impression with them. In one week, she had offended the entire client team. They resolved at that point to deny my group access to the project. Since my title clearly marked me as a member of the team, they categorically refused to even consider my involvement.

What really was the problem?
In this case, we had two related problems. Both fundamentally undermined our ability to react to our client’s needs.

First, our onsite team failed to communicate with both the client and the home office. A lot of pride got rolled up into the team’s performance. They didn’t want to admit that something was wrong. Not to us, not to the client, not even to each other. When they stopped listening to the client, they set themselves up for failure.

Second, our executive team failed to respond in an aggressive enough fashion. We knew something was wrong. If we had established good rapport with a handful of client team members early on, the entire situation might have been avoided. If we had pinned someone down about their satisfaction level, rather than taking an over-the-phone “everything is fine,” things might have turned out differently. Instead, we worried among ourselves until it was too late.

How did we resolve it?
I wish I could say we resolved these problems. We lost the project and left the client in disgrace. On the other hand, we did get paid for my time and travel. The project proceeded with some input from us. I’m told that the client’s deployment went smoothly. I know that the month I spent with them helped.

Fast forward
A year and a half later during a meeting with another client, I noticed his knuckles whitened and he changed the topic every time we mentioned “system architects.” During a break, I took an opportunity to chat with him in the coffee room. It turned out that another consulting company had sent him a kid in architect’s clothing. The deception cost him tens of thousands of dollars before he worked it out. It also nearly killed one of his mission-critical projects.

Over lunch, I suggested to the client rep that we change my title in the proposal from “system architect” to “senior implementation consultant.” He looked at me like I had suddenly sprouted four heads. But we made the change.

A few weeks later, we landed the client. I spent six weeks on his site. As always, I designed system architectures and assisted with project management. At the end of the contract, the client laughed when I finally gave him my business card.

In the first case, we had terrible problems with client and internal communication. These failures eventually led the client to remove us from the project. In the second case, we carefully watched our client’s reactions to what we said. When he became uncomfortable, we changed our presentation to avoid a problem.