Exceptions to the rules of consulting engagements

You don't want clients to think you're a pushover, but sometimes making an exception to your rules of engagement will show your goal is their success.

 As an independent consultant, you'll never have to worry about dying of boredom. Every new client contributes to the variety of projects, problems, preferences, and personalities you must juggle each day. Your ability to manage this variability plays a large role in determining your long-term success as a consultant -- because if you can't deal with change, change will deal with you.

Attempting to manage the chaos that is consulting, the fledgling consultant may be tempted to lay down The Rules. While it's a good thing to have strong principles about how you'll do business, it's also important not to get too set in your ways. As long as it doesn't involve a breach of ethics, making an exception to your rules of engagement can often demonstrate to your client better than anything else that your goal is to help them be successful.

For example, I've made a point of insisting on timely payment. When a client becomes habitually late, I take steps to reform them (insisting on pre-payment, for instance). But if that fails, I'm willing to let them go -- I don't need that kind of headache when other clients will treat my work with more respect. They're not worth it, and I am.

However, if a client who normally pays on time approached me and said, "Chip, we're really in a bind. We desperately need your help with this project, but we won't be able to pay you for three months," I wouldn't immediately send them packing. I'd do everything I could to help them figure out how to pay me sooner, but failing that, I might still agree to help them out. Why? Because of how the client approached me. They presumed that timely payment was expected, and they're treating this situation as an exception. They didn't let me do the work and then silently forget to send me a check, nor did they expect me to just happily go along with the program. They acknowledged the validity of my policy, and respectfully requested an exception. If those kinds of requests became habitual, then they'd no longer be treating it as an exception, and I'd have to readjust their expectations.

Here's another example. I take great pride in my workmanship. I don't like to do shoddy work -- besides the fact that it just makes me feel dirty, it also goes to my reputation. I never want someone to stumble across my creation years from now and think, "Who designed this mess?" (although I'll admit to having had that experience with my own code from time to time).

But sometimes the perfectly designed solution is not the right thing to do for the client. Perhaps it has to integrate with existing components that can't be redesigned. Rather than standing on principle and fighting to translate the other component's paradigm to my more excellent way, I often find it better to try to grok the geist of the existing system and try to improve it incrementally, if at all. You can make the argument that taking the time to do it right will save time in the long run (and I can vouch for that from many experiences), but sometimes the client doesn't have "the long run" available.

Whenever you agree to a compromise like that, however, make sure that your client knows that it isn't your modus operandi. It's an exception. You'd do it differently if you didn't face certain constraints -- and that assertion needs to be more than mere talk. Outline for your client the approach you'd recommend in a perfect world, as well as the benefits that they'd experience if they were able to pursue that path instead.

The key, as in many things, is communicating the right expectation. You must make the rule clear, and the exception clearly exceptional. Make sure your client knows when you're going above and beyond your commitments in order to meet their needs, and that they should not expect this to become the status quo.

We hate to make exceptions because we're afraid of losing control. It's true that if you let others push you around, there will be plenty of people willing to oblige. But if you become too rigid and inflexible, you can fail to do right by your clients for the sake of awarding yourself a mental gold star.

Of course, there will be some things that you should never agree to do. Every rule has its exception, even this one.

Get weekly consulting tips in your inbox TechRepublic's IT Consultant newsletter, delivered each Monday, offers tips on how to attract customers, build your business, and increase your technical skills in order to get the job done. Automatically sign up today!