Tips on vetting prospective clients

Chip Camden discusses three areas in which consultants might be able to do more homework about prospective clients before accepting an engagement.

In the never-ending search for new consulting work, we sometimes forget that not all business is good business. If you manage to sink a ton of hours into a client who doesn't pay, then you've not only failed to make your efforts productive -- you've probably also missed better opportunities because you were too busy worrying over that deadbeat. Whenever this has happened to me, I've thought to myself, "If I had known they were going to put me through this, I'd have never agreed to work for them at all!" Bad business is far worse than no business.

The consultant probably has at least as much at stake in the relationship as the client does. So why don't we consultants do more vetting of clients before we agree to the engagement? Here are three areas in which we might be able to do more homework:

The interview. While the prospect is grilling you about your experience and qualifications, remember that the interview should be a two-way street. You should be just as concerned as they are to insure that this is a good fit. Ask probing questions not only about their expectations and work flow, but also about how they handle Accounts Payable and expense reimbursement. If they volunteer information about why they "got rid of" the last consultant, listen carefully and ask clarifying questions to make sure you understand their role in the failure of that relationship. Be particularly keen to detect assumptions on their part about what they expected from the consultant, and why they were disappointed. Reference checks. I've never asked a client for references, but that might not be a bad idea. I have on occasion asked a friend or a colleague who had worked with the client before about their experiences. Of course, you always have to evaluate this sort of information objectively -- you can never rule out that your source may have some need to justify their own part in the outcome. The web. Check the Better Business Bureau site for complaints. You probably won't find anything there, which is good. Google the business name, combining it with the words "complaint," "mistreatment," and "sucks" to find the most emotional negative reviews. Chances are, none of those will be former consultants, but if the company abuses customers or employees, you can bet they'll mistreat a consultant as well.

Whatever you find, take it under consideration, but don't make it your sole factor in deciding whether or not to take the engagement. I've had a couple of clients, each of whom I was warned about, who turned out just fine. Some people have odd personality traits or hot-button issues that have to be handled a certain way or they feel cheated. As long as you're OK with that, and establish the right expectations up front, the relationship can work out splendidly. In fact, you might become their darling because you're the only person who seems to understand how business ought to be carried on.

How do you vet prospective clients?

What tactics do you employ to find out information about prospective clients? Do you come right out and ask for references? If so, what is a typical reaction to that request?

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...