Think hard before talking about clients on the Web

Chip Camden advises never post anything online about clients that you wouldn't say to their face. It could damage the client relationship beyond repair.

 IT consultants often find that social media provides a great way to build their reputation and their contacts in the industry. When you freely share your insights and experiences, you may be able to help other consultants avoid the same mistakes or benefit from the same wise (or lucky) choices. The more details you include, the better insights you provide -- and it makes for more entertaining reading. But consultants have to be careful about what we share out on the wide open Web to avoid damaging our clients or our relationship with them. Whether you're on Twitter, Facebook, your own blog, or even TechRepublic, here are some questions to ask yourself about your composition masterpiece before you hit Submit.

Does it breach confidentiality?

If you've signed an NDA with your client, its terms serve as a rulebook for what you cannot say; it usually includes anything that the client has revealed to you, but hasn't made available to the public. A broad interpretation of that could include things like a particularly humorous programming mistake, or even a political drama within the client's organization. To share the lessons you learned from these experiences, you would at least need to reframe them in general, hypothetical terms. If you don't have an NDA with your client, you still want to be sensitive to what information they would expect you to treat as confidential. Even though you may be under no legal obligation to keep quiet, the last thing you want to do is to betray your client's trust.

What is your motivation?

Why do you feel compelled to share this information? Is it just that you want to be helpful to others, or are you venting your emotions? Do you want your readership to rally behind you and vindicate you? Do you perhaps even secretly want your client to discover this post, along with all of the support you have for your view so they will repent of their wicked ways? You could get your wish, but what they end up being sorry for might be that they ever engaged you.

Could your client be identified?

Even if you don't name the client, the situation could give away their identity. If what you say about this unnamed party is not altogether glowing, that could sour your relationship. Even if nobody but your client could make the identification, you want to be very careful here. You might even talk about the situation hypothetically, but if your client can see distinct parallels with your shared experience, then you can bet they'll sift your discussion to find the tiniest grain of criticism. Not that criticism is bad, but if you tell the world what you didn't have the guts to tell your client directly that makes you a loose-lipped coward.

What would your client say?

If your client knew you were writing about your experiences with them, what would they think about it? Regardless of whether you think you can remain anonymous, you should never post anything online that you wouldn't want to have read by anyone, especially your client. As you write, assume that they will read it and that they will find out who wrote it. Better yet, if there's any question in your mind about the appropriateness of your missive, ask your client about it first.

Bottom line

In this new era of social media, we've become used to talking about anything and everything in front of the whole world. We enjoy getting things off our chest and expressing our anger and frustration through snarky comments sprinkled with LOLs and emoticons. While that may serve a therapeutic role for you personally, it could damage your relationship with your client beyond repair. Never say anything about your client that you wouldn't say to their face, in front of all of their customers. Because like it or not, that's where you are when you're on the Web.

Thanks to TechRepublic member AlexNagy (aka Joseph) for suggesting this topic.

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By Chip Camden

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...