Don't play dirty consultant tricks

Chip Camden offers his take on an article that characterizes consultants as vampires who are opponents of their clients' best interests. He also shares tips on how to avoid playing dirty consulting tricks.

In 7 dirty consultant tricks (and how to avoid them), Dan Tynan adopts a highly mistrustful view of consultants as predators who are looking for any excuse to take your money in exchange for results that are less than you expected. Tynan offers suggestions for remedying each of the seven foul practices that he discusses, but I take exception to the characterization of consultants as opponents of their clients' best interests. Therefore, I'll examine each item in Tynan's list from the perspective of the consultant, with the aim of preventing the problem altogether.

1. Bidding low, billing high. Tynan accuses consultants of intentionally excluding features of the project from their bid in order to come in lowest, then billing extra for "scope change" during implementation. Certainly, that would be dishonest. The other side of that coin is when clients ask for one thing, but after they get it, they decide it isn't what they wanted -- or they realize that they need something more. The gray area in between is the source of all the heartburn on both sides. Tynan suggests the remedy of making the requirements and scope more "flexible." I can think of no worse suggestion. Increasing the gray area will only lead to greater misunderstanding. Instead, consultants and clients need to make the expectations crystal clear. There must be no doubt as to what is or is not included in the scope. Certainly, some project decisions must be deferred until later, but that process and the limitations placed thereon must be clearly stated and understood.

Another way to avoid that battle is to refrain from fixed-priced projects altogether. Billing by the hour or by the iteration establishes the expectation that the client will pay for the efforts that they require. However, that approach doesn't solve the problem of unrealistic expectations about what it will take to accomplish a given objective. No matter how much we try to avoid giving a concrete estimate, the client will develop an expectation of how much it will cost. Nor can we fault them for that. It's up to us to set the right expectation (as far as possible) up front, and to communicate clearly and immediately any deviation from the expectations that we've set. If we can't know how long a specific task will take, it's okay to say so. Better an honest uncertainty than dishonest assurances.

2. Bringing in the B team. The old bait and switch: selling a level of talent that exceeds what you actually provide. I avoid that problem by operating as a sole proprietor. Prospects pay for me, and they get only me. On the relatively few occasions in which I have used subcontractors, I have always reviewed that alternative with my client in advance -- including a realistic assessment of the skills provided by those subcontractors. Once again, the solution involves honestly and openly managing expectations. 3. Stall tactics. Otherwise known as "churning," this is the tendency of consultants (especially when paid hourly) to drag a project out in order to continue to have billable work. It's a deplorable practice, even though it can be somewhat unconscious. Tynan states that the client needs to stay on top of the project, and I agree. But I also hold the consultant responsible for avoiding this. We need to understand TANSTAAFL: you don't get something for nothing -- everything has a cost. The cost of churning is paid by your reputation. If you really want to succeed, get things done. Be the one that they don't need to monitor, if you want to be the one they come back to again and again. 4. Taking hostages. I've seen this practice advocated by some TechRepublic members: retaining or seizing ownership of some part of the work product in order to maintain leverage with the client. Here's a clue: If you need that kind of leverage, you shouldn't be in this business. Once again, I agree with Tynan's remedy: clearly spell out ownership in the contract. But ownership cuts both ways. If in order to solve the client's problem, I apply an algorithm that I developed independently outside my work for that client, then I retain ownership of the original version of that software while granting the client a royalty-free, unrestricted license to use it and derive their products from it. I won't use my ownership to hold them hostage, but I expect to be able to reuse my own work. Again, all that must be stated in the contract -- there should be no surprises, and nothing taken for granted. 5. Kickbacks and double-dipping. This is when the consultant recommends a product or service only because they get a cut, even when it may not be the most economic or efficient solution. Tynan suggests that the client should always shop around. I say that the consultant needs to disclose their vendor relationship, and justify their selection based on the product's merits alone. 6. Selling you the latest and greatest, instead of what you really need. Sometimes this can be an honest mistake, because the consultants believe the hype themselves. We need to always ask "What's best for the client?" rather than immediately jumping on the Cadillac solution. If you're tempted to say, "well of course, this option is better," then you had better ask "In what way? How does it solve the customer's problem better than the other alternatives?" Once again, remember that all things have a cost -- and not just for the client. The cost of recommending an overpriced solution will be paid in your credibility. 7. Empty suits and vampires. The empty suit is the consultant who unwittingly takes on a project he or she cannot handle. The vampire is one who does it intentionally. The solution, according to Tynan's article, is frequent deliverables. We need to act much earlier than that. If we ever find ourselves in this position, we have already failed. The damage to our reputation would be irreparable. Before we ever agree to an engagement, we need to possess a correct assessment of our own qualifications. Sure, we may sometimes be over-optimistic. But as soon as we realize our mistake, we must own up to it and set things right.

Tynan's piece paints consultants as vampires generally. Certainly, some consultants have earned that reputation. Don't be one of them.