Spotting a Problem Client Before It’s Too Late

Overly challenging clients can be the bane of the existence of any consultant regardless of whether they’re relatively new to the solo life or a highly seasoned pro who’s been in business for decades. Difficult clients are not only unpleasant but can hinder your ability to get the job done and successfully accomplish what you were originally hired to do in the first place.

Initial working relationship signals

There can be early warning signs in the preliminary stages of getting to know a prospect or client, if you’ve already signed on the dotted line. With every working relationship, find out what happened to the last person. Have they gone through a slew of consultants prior to you coming on the scene? If so, question what happened and why. Did they fire the consultant legitimately for incompetence or substandard work or did the consultant pick up sticks and leave of their own volition because it was an untenable situation? Some red flags regarding the potential nature of the working relationship include:

  • Micromanagement – do they get caught up in the minutia or need to control all aspects of the work, including the initial proposal? Do they show a propensity towards repeatedly revising documents and continually reworking something unnecessarily?
  • Poor communication – do they not ask any questions or give a straightforward answer when they’re questioned? Are they vague and/or withhold information from you?
  • Imposing – they make unreasonable demands (e.g., expecting immediate turnarounds within seeming impossible timelines). Do they also start making requests and adding on activities (here and there) that go beyond the scope of the original contract?
  • Overestimate their competence and expertise – they believe they are Pulitzer Prize caliber when it comes to writing and know everything there is to know about all facets of public relations and marketing – and could easily do your job, but are too busy.
  • Unrealistic expectations – this often involves a client with a lack of budget for accomplishing what they want, as well as those with unreasonable demands around securing media coverage, particularly in big name outlets and national publications.

Toxic organizational culture and dynamics

Similarly troublesome for consultants is a dysfunctional organization and work environment. Working collaboratively – and constructively – with the client team of a company you’ve signed on is imperative for your success. Your ability to get the work done and accomplish your aims hinges on this. When an organization’s internal dynamics are unhealthy and counterproductive, it can wreak havoc on not only your work with them in the short-term but also carries the risk of harming your reputation in the long-run (e.g., as the potential scapegoat).

Dysfunctional organizations can exhibit the following symptoms:

  • Disorganized and chaotic – the company seems to be in constant crisis mode with a never-ending parade of fires springing up from one department to the next. Everything seems to be in a state of urgency and high pressure with rush jobs and budget overruns.
  • Poor leadership – there is no discernible reporting structure, and there are no clearly defined roles and responsibilities. Management, particularly at the upper level, seem shut-off from reality, evade open communication and are intransigent to change.
  • Lack of accountability and transparency – certain aspects of work or company practices are shrouded in secrecy and lines of communication throughout the organization are disjointed and in some cases non-existent. There’s an overall reluctance to share information (both within the organization and with you as a consultant). And there are no mechanisms in place for ensuring accountability or outlining policies and guidelines for behavior. This can provide fertile ground for ethical – and legal – issues to possibly arise. It goes without saying that you should avoid working with a company that engages in any type of illegal or unethical activity, as this could have serious ramifications for your own reputation.
  • Employee dissatisfaction – there are unfavorable working conditions and the corporate culture is permeated with a sense of hyper aggression and competitiveness, with a high level of employee turnover and low staff satisfaction overall.

Managing difficult clients is a skill honed over time with experience, and something every consultant needs to master. Whether the contract is already signed and you’re working in the trenches with the client – and contemplating resigning from them – or needing to pre-emptively fire a prospective client, it’s critical to recognize when it’s time to bow out.

Equally crucial is the ability to discern ahead of time who is potentially a ‘bad’ client before you sign on the dotted line, and avert them altogether. If you get a foreboding feeling about someone or a situation, pay attention and take heed. Always trust your gut and instincts – they’ll never lead you astray, and are the most important warning signs of all.

Have you had any interesting – and enlightening – experiences with prospects or clients where you saw the initial warning signs or had a bad feeling where you were eventually proved right? Please feel free to share those with us in the comments section below.

 

Image courtesy of Free Digital Photos | Stuart Miles

  • J.W. Arnold

    Excellent points. After 17 years as a solo pro, I have to say that I generally get a gut feeling about a prospective client and have only had problems when I ignored that feeling.

  • Exceptional checklist of the red flags we should all look for – and heed when they are being waved in our faces. In addition to poor communication in general terms, otherwise good clients can become bad clients when they fail to provide feedback, answers, approvals, or materials in a timely manner. I’ve had several clients who are otherwise a pleasure to work with who force me to repeatedly contact them for input so I can move forward. Frequently it results in missed opportunities, and it’s taking up my time and attention to keep tabs of the non-responsive client.

  • John McIsaac

    This is fabulous reflection and an honest look at what we all face on at least a semi-regular basis.

  • Michelle Guglielmo Gilliam

    This is great! Thank you! Great advice.