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 © 2022 David A. Fields, all rights reserved.