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How Your Consulting Firm Should Deal with Clients that Cross the Line

When you, your consulting team and your client all stay on task and positive, consulting is a fun, challenging and rewarding profession. When consulting work veers off the rails, though, how should you respond?

Lines are confusing.

Let’s say you want to engage in outreach to your prospects. Rupert, SVP of Everything is next in line. So, you drop him a line. He answers and asks you to hold the line. (Didn’t you just drop it?)

Ugh, you’re on hold, but business is on the line. Two minutes of elevator music. That’s where you draw the line. Is it the end of the line for Rupert? Hard to know—it’s a fine line.

When a client crosses over the line, though, that’s not fun and it shouldn’t be overly befuddling.

Generally, consulting clients are well-meaning and their intentions are good. However, humans being fallible, sometimes a client or a team member wanders into territory that is unhelpful, inappropriate or even harmful.

There are myriad ways to characterize your consulting firm’s boundaries, and the quadrant chart below shows just two distinctions: tasks vs. behaviors (i.e., project-related requests vs. personal actions) and building up vs. tearing down.

The chart labels areas that are over-the-line, and those that aren’t over-the-line.

Knowing what’s not over-the-line helps you recognize whether what you’re facing is acceptable and benign or unacceptable.

In addition, if your client’s defense is that their actions aren’t over-the-line and are meant to be beneficial (e.g., a compliment), your labels help you acknowledge that you’ve carefully considered their beneficial interpretation.

Those two axes aren’t the only way to define your consulting firm’s boundaries, of course. In fact, here’s a template for you to draw your own:

No matter how you define your boundaries and what you consider over-the-line, the question is:

How do you deal with an unacceptable, over-the-line situation?

  1. Ask yourself: “Has someone else’s behaviors crossed the line? Or, is what they’re asking me to do over-the-line?”

  1. Be as clear as possible: Has the situation moved from okay to inappropriate or harmful?

Important note: Crossing the line then “going back,” doesn’t make crossing the line okay.

  1. Gather input; e.g., has anyone else noticed this behavior or request? What are others’ observations and views?

  1. Address the situation with your client dispassionately, if possible. That’s part of why the consulting-ish quadrant chart is there. To wrap an emotional subject in an analytical frame.
    You can name a behavior and put it on the chart. People might argue with you, but they’re less likely to argue with the chart.

  1. If appropriate, invoke a higher authority at your client.

  1. If necessary, leave the relationship. If over-the-line behavior is repetitive or egregious, then drop the client. Immediately.

Have you experienced over-the-line clients (or colleagues)? How did you draw the line and how did you handle it?

  1. Kerry
    October 30, 2019 at 10:16 am Reply

    I run a veterinary logo design website primarily as a lead generator for creative services and consulting work. I used to offer a “Try Three and See” option for those having trouble narrowing their choice to one design concept. As the name implies, I would customize their choice of three logos instead of just one and then finalize their choice of the three. A woman ordered and I customized three logos with the practice name. She responded with a jpeg of a completely different logo from who knows where, saying her husband–the practice owner, as it turns out–liked that one better. I refunded her money.

    • David A. Fields
      October 30, 2019 at 10:20 am Reply

      You’re modeling excellent ethics and fairness, Kerry. In this case you’ve created boundaries for what’s acceptable (and valuable) in your own work, and lived up to them. Whether or not that work-for-free model is ideal, is a different question, of course. Either way, your dedication to putting the client’s interests first is admirable.

      Thank you for submitting the case study of ethics in action, Kerry.

      • Kerry
        October 30, 2019 at 10:53 am Reply

        I love manipulating type in Illustrator and am lightening fast after decades of practice, so I was only out less than an hour of time. On a practical level, it would have taken longer to argue the point than to refund her money, and she’d have ended up unhappy. We all know how unhappy customers like to share their experiences! So in addition to being ethical, it was a sound business move.

        • David A. Fields
          October 30, 2019 at 11:42 am

          Exactly right, Kerry. You kept the big picture in mind, and it served you well. Nice work!

  2. Irv Urken
    October 30, 2019 at 10:51 am Reply

    I find that either after a call like your example or before calling sending a short email saying “are you still interested in discussing your XXXXXXXX ? This to the point message, short and sweet, gets answered most of the time and lets you decide to keep trying or not waste your time

    • David A. Fields
      October 30, 2019 at 11:42 am Reply

      Interestingly, a client and I were just discussing a formal test of initiating outreach to old contacts via email vs. email-then-phone vs. phone. If we get the test up and running, I’ll report out the results. You’re right, Irv, that short messages are effective for getting prospects on the line.

  3. Marissa
    October 30, 2019 at 12:19 pm Reply

    Thank you for this approach! It makes sense to me for the 3 out of the 4 quadrants in your example. The compliment vs. harassment however, does get a little trickier and is more complex to address. I have never tried to use a chart for harassment situations, but maybe it would help to literally draw a line. I have no issues with walking away from clients that don’t respect us as people – however I think they and their superiors need to be told exactly what the issue is, otherwise they continue to think their behavior is acceptable.

    • David A. Fields
      October 30, 2019 at 12:41 pm Reply

      Well said, Marissa. Unless we address the issues overtly, we can’t assume that our clients know their behavior is over-the-line. You’re also right that the compliment/harassment line is the trickiest. (That’s one of the reasons I included it in this article–to prompt some thought and discussion about a tricky issue.)

      I appreciate you weighing in, Marissa.

  4. Donald Garvett
    October 31, 2019 at 1:06 am Reply

    Often, there are pre-engagement clues as to where the client may fit on the awesome-to-irksome spectrum. That can be helpful in knowing whether an engagement should be pursued.

    • David A. Fields
      October 31, 2019 at 8:05 am Reply

      Good point, Don. Shame on us if we take on a client after wading through a parade of red flags during the discovery process.

      Occasionally, Prince Charming the prospect turns out to be Insufferable Knave as a client. That’s hard to foresee.

      But most poisonous toads remain poisonous toads, and we’re silly to keep kissing them.

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