From day one, you’ve been certain that your contract with your latest client has been going well. As far as you can tell, you’re delivering what the client has requested, you’re within budget, and there’s been little, if any, scope creep.

So imagine your surprise when the contract ends and you receive a less-than-shining performance review. What do you do? Challenge the review? Find out what went wrong? Shake someone’s hand and wish him or her the best?

We recently asked IT Consultant Republic members in our Discussion Center about their experience with negative performance reviews and how they dealt with them. Here’s a rundown of some of the tips and insight offered by members.

Could it be right?
After you’ve received your poor evaluation, calm down and be honest with yourself: Is there a grain of truth in your negative evaluation? Inna Babaeva-Brown, an IT manager for Baku Steel Company in Azerbaijan, suggested that you ask your client for clarification. If they’re right, it might be worthwhile to ask your client how to improve your professional skills.

If, however, you’re sure the evaluation is biased, don’t waste your time. It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to change your client’s opinion of you and is perhaps more probable that you could damage your professional reputation.

Win an ally
While it may seem counterintuitive, clients who give consultants a negative review can sometimes be used as the foundation for a long-term business relationship, according to Peter Martinson, president of Bozeman Industrial Controls in Bozeman, MT. He suggests that honest, negative feedback is the client’s way of getting you to inquire how problems can be fixed.

“A little effort in trying to repair a relationship can yield a very loyal customer,” he wrote. “A customer who is honest about [his or her] feelings will be much better than one who gives a good or lukewarm review but never calls you back again.”

Understand the client’s limitations and expectations
In some cases, you may need to pay attention to your clients’ technological understanding to give them a clear picture of what the contract will entail and how much time and money they will need to invest, wrote Eudora Sindicic, a systems engineer with Alameda, CA-based Telecare Corp.

“Set the expectation and be very clear about what you will and will not do and what can and cannot be done with their budget,” she wrote.

Understand the consultant/client relationship
According to another member, consultants are hired for reasons other than for their abilities and experience. He suggested that companies will, for example, hire consultants to:

  • Deliver a message that the board itself doesn’t want to deliver.
  • Select and implement enterprise software/hardware so that the company management won’t have to take responsibility for making the decision, especially if the choice is poor.
  • Hide their unwillingness to admit they “don’t know what they don’t know.”
  • Use as a scapegoat when the costs exceed the immediate value.

If consultants understand this relationship, there’s no good reason to receive a bad report if:

  • The consultant has complied with the scope of work.
  • The enterprise sponsor and consultant have set the expectations and established assumptions.
  • The consultant has a realistic and approved project plan in place.

The member also suggested that you may also be more likely to receive a poor review if “executive oversight hats” have changed. If that’s the case, take the report to the enterprise steering committee, lay the “facts” out on the table, and give them the opportunity to retract the bad report.

But if you did blow your contract, move on.

Review progress with the client at milestones
If you don’t have a good idea how your relationship with the client is going, figure out why quickly, wrote cbeaves4. “Otherwise, [your] days as a consultant will be short.”

He suggests that consultants pick milestones in the project at which to have progress reviews with the client. If it is honest, you should have a good idea of what the client’s final impression will be, as long as the agreed-upon product is delivered.

Like cbeaves4, consultant Steven Casey has established milestones during the project at which he and the client review project progress. “I haven’t had a bad review yet,” he wrote.

Along the same lines, another TechRepublic member suggested that one main cause of negative feedback is the discrepancy between the client’s objectives and expectations and what the consultant perceives them to be.

“Sometimes this can happen because the client doesn’t fully explain or express their true expectations, and sometimes this can happen when we as consultants just plain don’t ask the right questions,” the member said.

When the member’s clients suggest that they’re disappointed, he usually has a candid discussion about what happened and where the breakdown in communication occurred during the consulting process.

“This usually leads to either my doing more work for them (so that their expectations are met) or my walking away with a better understanding of what happened and being able to use that experience with future client/consultant relationships,” he wrote.

Don’t forget the customer
If a consultant receives a poor review, the first question should be, “What went wrong with the customer relationship?” said Grant Casci, a telecommunications consultant at New Zealand’s TeleConsultants.

“Everything comes down to customer perception,” he wrote. “You can be the best techo in the country, but if you can’t communicate and manage the customer relationship, you’re making a rod for your own back.”

Document and stick with the basics
Another member, Cheryl Hubert, argued that documentation can be helpful in settling disputes over the consultant’s performance and protecting yourself in the future. “Ensure that you document any responses you may have concerning the negative feedback,” she wrote. “If you are representing a consulting company, ensure that you speak about it with the sales manager/VP and that your responses are filed in your personnel folder.”

As a consultant for more than 20 years, consultant Myrna Kasser follows a similar tactic: Create a written contract with the client’s input, including measurable goals with specific dates for each, specific general review dates, and a specific chain of command. When there are problems, notify the contract manager.

She also includes some commonsense advice on heading off a negative review: Stay out of office politics and don’t make personal phone calls on the client’s phone or during the client’s time.

Join the discussion

How do you deal with a negative assessment from a client? Join the discussion and give us your advice.