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5 Consulting Clients to Steer Clear Of (Regardless of the Revenue)

Running a boutique consulting firm can feel like sailing the Drake Passage during a storm on a 30-foot sloop. Stomach-lurching ups and downs, and moments of panic interspersed with general exhilaration.

While most of your crew and passengers are helpful, if you spend enough time cruising the consulting seas, you’ll encounter at least a few individuals you wish you had left at the dock.

By and large, clients are great people, or at least tolerable. Plus, part of your consulting firm’s magic is being able to help less-than-perfect individuals and organizations achieve greater success.

However, some clients aren’t worth the trouble. Let the following folks charter some other consulting firm’s boat:

5 Consulting Clients to Steer Clear Of

Don Quixote

Your consulting firm’s purpose is to help your clients fulfill their aspirations. Some clients, though, pursue patently unattainable goals that translate into unrealistic expectations of your consulting project.

Any client who will heap disappointment on you or ding your consulting firm’s reputation if your engagement doesn’t deliver on their wildest dreams should be left ashore.

Success will come easily for your consulting firm when you pursue reasonable clients with reasonable objectives.

The Shirker

The best consulting engagements operate as collaborative partnerships between your consulting firm and your clients. Consulting works poorly when the client expects your consulting firm to carry them the whole way, tackling the entire project, including implementation, without them.

Consulting isn’t something you do to your clients, it’s a process you undergo with them.

Yet, certain clients forget they bear responsibility for their results too—after all, the results are for their company, not yours.

Jettison any client who’s a dead weight and won’t contribute to their own success.

Choose clients who enthusiastically engage with your consulting firm and embrace joint responsibility for achieving success.

The Pirate

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.

Ethics can be a bit fuzzy sometimes and clients who step over the line usually feel justified in their actions. However, a passage through murky ethical waters puts your consulting firm and your conscience at risk. Quickly escort those types of prospects and clients off your consulting firm’s deck.

Stick with ethical clients and you’ll always feel more confident about your consulting practice.

The Bully

Prospects who treat you or anyone on your team poorly before a consulting project starts, make terrible clients for your consulting firm.

Some bullies openly flaunt their heavy-handed approach; however, others mask their true nature behind senior executive charm.

If any prospect or client tries to shame you into an action, undermine you in an attempt to justify their own position, or verbally abuse or degrade you (or anyone on your team), heave them off the ship.

Your consulting firm will thrive when you only take on clients who respect you as a partner.

That Person

“Thou shalt work with any person” isn’t a consulting commandment.

There are people and personalities that just rub you the wrong way, for whatever reason. If your primary contact on the client side is That Person, and you can’t offload them to a crew mate, politely decline the engagement.

Collaborating with clients you like will make your consulting firm happier and more productive.

What other clients or prospects have you found to be not worth the revenue? Or, alternatively, who do you seek out as clients?

  1. Terry "Doc" Dockery, Ph.D.
    May 17, 2023 at 7:02 am Reply

    Hi David,
    I hope you’re enjoying your vacation! My experience is that this phenomenon is like dating–either there’s chemistry or there isn’t…
    All the best,

    • David A. Fields
      June 1, 2023 at 9:46 am Reply

      Fair point, Doc. For most consultants, there doesn’t have to be good “chemistry” to have a good engagement. There are plenty of vanilla, unmemorable, run-of-the-mill clients that fill most consulting firm’s rosters. That said, as you suggest, if the fit is bad, you know it and should refer the prospect elsewhere.
      Thanks for jumping into the conversation, Doc!

  2. William J. Ryan
    May 17, 2023 at 7:21 am Reply

    Greatest freedom felt when I chose this path was the ability to say “no”. The client who comes in knowing that “training” must be done and how it must be delivered and for how long were consistent people I had to deal with within an organization but now I can say “I might not be the best fit for you but I have a couple of referrals to share”. My production company partners love these folks as they get to train their new hire designers and let them practice multiple times until the client wises up and/or goes away. For them that’s a win, for me the peace is the gift!

    • David A. Fields
      June 1, 2023 at 9:49 am Reply

      Exactly right, Bill. The ability to say No to a prospect is tremendously powerful. It is also an important component to clearing the way for your firm to grow and become more productive.

      I appreciate your sharing your experience, Bill!

  3. Elaine
    May 17, 2023 at 8:00 am Reply

    Any client who asks for a discount ends up being a PITA.

    • David A. Fields
      June 1, 2023 at 9:52 am Reply

      That’s an interesting statement, Elaine. On the one hand, our experience has been that prospects who “nickel and dime” or repeatedly ask for discounts often turn out to be, as you suggest, poor clients. On the other hand, we’ve had many excellent clients who ask about a reduction in fees or a discount just because it’s a standard question for them. I don’t begrudge anyone asking if there’s a discount available–that’s a reasonable question and you don’t get what you don’t ask for. But the low-value, repeated requests are a bad sign.

      I’m glad you surfaced this idea, Elaine–it’s a good one for discussion.

  4. Michael
    May 17, 2023 at 8:07 am Reply

    Great article. We are very cautious when accepting clients into our organization. Those easy to opt-out of consulting are clients who are already underwater and have no intention of making the changes needed to overcome their negative situation.

    • David A. Fields
      June 1, 2023 at 9:54 am Reply

      Well said, Michael. Help-resistant clients aren’t worth the effort. They dismiss your advice, carry on with their ineffective behaviors then blame the consultant for the lack of progress!

      Excellent addition to the conversation, Michael.

  5. Eric Bakey
    May 17, 2023 at 8:17 am Reply

    Naming “bad behavior” is the best way to avoid and not reward it — seems like consulting has a lot in common with dog training. Unfortunately, the only way I’ve learned the painful lessons is by taking on these clients. Sure, “red flags” were there all along, but the experience to recognize them ahead of time was not. Great summary/caricature of engagements best avoided.

    • David A. Fields
      June 1, 2023 at 9:56 am Reply

      Eric, if the list can help you avoid “learning by doing” with even one bad client, then we can view it as a success! I agree that naming behaviors–good and bad–can be very helpful.

      Thanks for jumping into the conversation, Eric.

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