Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Dealing with Unethical Project Clients

There’s no question that we are in the IT consulting business to make money, right? We can’t feed our family on fun and professional growth. The dollars must keep coming in – otherwise we have to start looking for something else to do.

Given that, the thought of turning down business is a hard thing to fathom – especially in this economic climate. Recovery?? We’re truly not there yet. It could be years...who knows? So, in the mean time we all struggle to remain viable while trying to pick and choose our projects and our clients – if we have that luxury – to the best of our ability. We try to only take on customers who seem reasonable, ethical, and won’t drive us insane. Does this sound familiar to you?

Hooking up with the client

Through whatever process you choose, you’ve hooked up with a potential client. It may be a situation where they found you from a professional article or professional posting or possibly you found them when you contacted their organization offering your services. Or even better, maybe they found you through a referenceable customer of yours. However it happened, it happened. And now you’re face-to-face with this potential client discussing their needs, high-level requirements and business processes and trying to determine three things: 1) is this work I can do, 2) is this a project I want to take on, and 3) is this a client I want to work with. You may have even started to draft out a project plan with your online project management software tool at this point. #1 is should be fairly easy for you to answer after a brief discussion with the potential client. The harder questions to answer are #2 and #3. You don’t know much about their business and their employees yet and you don’t know much about your direct customer contact. You have no idea if they are going to be easy to work with or difficult to manage. And you can’t determine really at this point if they are ethical or unethical.

I will say this – if you have a gut feeling early on that they may be unethical or you feel uncomfortable with them…don’t move forward. I can attest to the fact that, without exception, every time I’ve had a discomfort level with a client or even a direct employer and then moved forward with them anyway, I’ve been sorry.

You’ve made the wrong choice

There will be times when you determine that you’ve made the wrong choice. You’ve decided to move forward with a client who is or is going to cause you lots of headaches. You’ve had to add so much planning and other extra time into your web-based project management software tool just to accommodate them and their headaches. They may be unethical. They may refuse to pay for services rendered even though you’ve delivered good work. They may continually try to push scope but balk at paying more. They may call you at all hours of the day and night. Whatever the problem or frustration, you’ve realized you made a poor decision to work with them.

I had one client who I had misgivings about early on. The reason why I decided to move forward with the work is mostly due to the fact that I had maintained a relationship with this potential customer for six months trying to get to the point where they needed my consulting. When it finally happened, I ignored all of my misgivings and moved ahead. Bad call. They brought in clients and lied to them. They took them out partying and then discussed the lurid details during face-to-face client sessions with them. Too much Las Vegas fun, not enough professional work – and that’s not my style. And in the end, they abruptly ended the consulting engagement owing me over $2,000 in consulting fees. Unethical? Yes. Stupid decision on my part? Yes….I take full responsibility.

The exit strategy

So, if you find yourself in a bad client situation, what do you do? My recommendation, in order to not start bad word of mouth about your services, is to not end anything abruptly. Look for an out – possibly a key deliverable coming up or the end of a phase or milestone in the project management software schedule. At that point, make sure you’re paid up to date, and then break it to the customer that you have another pressing engagement and you can’t move forward any further on the project.
Of course, you must first ensure that you’re not breaking something in the contract that may leave you facing legal action. If that’s the case you’ll have no choice but to continue with the project. But if you can find and out, take it. And to leave things on the best grounds possible, suggest another consulting contact as a possible replacement – even if they may be remotely located in another part of the country. At least you’ll go out offering a solution.

About the author:

Brad Egeland
Brad Egeland, IT/Project Management Consultant
Brad Egeland is an IT/Project Management consultant and author with over 25 years of software development, management, and project management experience leading initiatives in Manufacturing, Government Contracting, Gaming and Hospitality, Retail Operations, Aviation and Airline, Pharmaceutical, Start-ups, Healthcare, Higher Education, Non-profit, High-Tech, Engineering and general IT. Brad is a married, Christian father of 7 living in Las Vegas, NV. Visit Brad's site at

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