Independent consulting can feel like a trip down class V rapids in a flimsy, eight-person raft. Turbulent ups and downs, and moments of panic interspersed with general exhilaration. While most of our raft-mates are helpful (or at least fun to watch scream), if you spend enough time rushing down the roiling river you’ll encounter at least a few individuals you’d like to push out of the boat.
Most clients are fabulous—or at least manageable—paddling companions. Frankly, it’s part of our job to learn how to deal with the less-than-perfect personalities and organizations that hire us. But some clients really aren’t worth the effort. Here’s a short list:
When a project starts with refrains like, “I’m not convinced this will work, but I’m willing to see what you can do,” or “The initial phase will be to prove your value, then we’ll sign on for the rest,” I know I’m going to be an unhappy rafter.
By and large, consulting isn’t something we do to our clients, it’s a process we undergo with them.
Choose clients who enthusiastically engage with you and embrace a joint responsibility for achieving success.
Oil & Water
There are certain personalities that just rub me the wrong way and make my rafting trip unpleasant. Other people interact with those same individuals smoothly and, if I were a bigger man I would address my internal issues that cause the friction.
Of course, if I were a bigger man I wouldn’t have snuck a Reese’s from my son’s Halloween stash. But I accept myself as imperfect and addicted to cocoa, and clients who viscerally bother me are tossed overboard.
“Thou shalt work with any person” isn’t a consulting commandment. If you don’t mesh with someone, it’s okay to opt not to work with them.
Collaborating with clients you like will make you a happier, more productive consultant.
I’m fortunate enough not to have taken on clients involved in felonious activities. (For the record, I wasn’t working directly with that CEO who ended up in jail.) On the other hand, it’s not unheard of for clients to want the truth bent, outcomes changed for their own, personal gain, or support in what amounts to cheating.
Crimes aside, ethics can be a bit fuzzy sometimes and clients who step over the line usually feel justified in their actions. But it’s not worth the aggravation. You have no need to feel like you’re in an awkward situation, and a strong need to sleep at night. Let those clients float downstream on some other consultant’s boat.
Stick with ethical clients and you’ll always feel more confident about your practice.
I’ve found that prospects who treated me poorly during the hiring process made terrible clients during the project. Sometimes bullies are obvious, but often they are charming, senior executives whose true nature isn’t immediately apparent.
Once a prospect (or client) tries to shame you into an action, undermines you in an attempt to justify their own position, or is verbally abusive or degrading, it’s time to give them the heave-ho and continue downriver without them.
You deserve to be in happy marriages with your clients and your firm will thrive when you only take on clients with a partnering attitude.
I had a half dozen other candidates on the “Thanks, but no thanks list” but I’d like to hear from you. What clients or prospects have you found to be not worth the revenue? Or, alternatively, who do you seek out as clients?
Update: Additions to the list are in the comments. They include Will-o-the-Wisps (from Liz Wainger), Spineless (from C.M. Brown), Teenagers With the House Keys (from Molly Langridge), Unrealistic (from Dan Janal), Flip-Floppers (from Gail Doby), Procurement (MD Rota), the Fatally Inept (from Alyson Abramowitz), Last Standers (from Darcy Bevelacqua) Lie-Lie-Liars (from Margery Ross), and Naive-While-Rigid (from Oscar Anderson).
Please add your thoughts in the comments section too.
Text and images are © 2023 David A. Fields, all rights reserved.
Another type of client is the one that says, we’re really committed to this project and now with your help we will finally be able to achieve what we have been struggling with. They hire you, they pay you and then they disappear. And you can’t get information and you can’t get anything done. You may have a check in call and they tell you they know they owe you info or review of something and then it doesn’t happen. And then after a few months, they wonder why nothing has happened and why they are paying you. I had a client like that that I had to let go. They knew they weren’t a good client and said so. What this really was about was that they weren’t ready or willing to do what they said they wanted to do. .
Ah, the will-o-the-wisp client; you keep chasing after them but somehow can never find them. Isn’t it amazing how difficult follow-through can be, even for a client who has paid you? Perhaps you could offer a high-fee add-on to your projects: “For $x/month, we’ll also help you live up to your commitments on this project.”
Much the same is the “spineless” client who will not advocate for the project. For whatever reason you’re hired, you start, and then approvals aren’t forthcoming. Milestones pass, and you realize the client will never provide what the project needs – resources, approvals – and the project languishes. Perhaps it wasn’t their idea but they got “stuck” with it, perhaps the project bucks prevailing headwinds at the company and the client won’t stand up to them, perhaps the client’s just lazy and expects the project to miraculously complete itself without effort…the net effect is you have someone you deal with regularly but they aren’t someone who will work with you to get things done.
Almost worse than the disappearing client!
Right you are. Spineless and will-o-the-wisp are both frustrating. For those clients, I’m developing the “Fortitude and Boldness Kit: Everything You Need to Take a Stand and Stick with It.” It will consist of erector set pieces you can affix to their backbones and quick-set cement.
If they still won’t support the project, at least the cement will make them sink when you throw them off your raft. What do you think?
Disorganized nice guys. Projects that seem to drag forever without any comment or resolution. Only beginnings but no ending.
So true, David. Some clients don’t know when the end is the end, do they? (Of course, they make very good prospects for a new project’s beginning.) Perhaps you can offer them a framework for providing comments and resolution… though, it rarely works if someone is truly disorganized. Instead it ends up like the bow-tie in most guys’ closets: spiffy and unused.
I have had all of the above types in my 26 years of healthcare consulting. I have not hesitated to “divorce” a client when I found them unethical or someone that had changed from charming to excruciatingly difficult to work with, providing them names of others who would take any client. Early on I read Alan Weiss’ “The Million Dollar Consultant” in which he asks, If you can’t say no, can you really say yes? to clients. Any time my gut was telling me that I shouldn’t take the client, and did because times were tough, I rued the day that I did it. Now I listen to my gut, as either divesting these clients or refusing to take them on leaves space for those that are more rewarding. While some may be challenging, if they are still great people to work with, it rewards me for taking the plunge years ago and going into consulting with both feet and staying there. People, all you have is your reputation in consulting. If projects go south for some of the reasons above, the consultant is the easy scapegoat. Only take on and keep those that will be great clients.
Susan, you are so right: one secret to success is choosing the right clients. And as independent consultants we get to choose our clients. Learning to trust our guts when we accept or decline projects is critically important. Thank you for sharing your experience with me and the community.
The client who actually isn’t authorized to do the project – they’re out there with their own agenda to prove something works or doesn’t work and somehow they’ve got the funds (but maybe only for the 1st half?!?!) but when you present your findings and recommendations, the PTB (Powers That Be) start to ask questions like, who authorized this? Where did you get these questions? How is this going to be used? and your client goes mute…
The Teenager with the House Keys! You’re at the party and having a great time… and then the parents show up. “What, Mr. Pomegranate? You didn’t know Molly was hosting the class luau?” Awkward!
Yeah, sticking with clients who don’t need permission slips is a good idea. Thanks for this one, Molly.