How to Avoid Working With Consulting Clients From Hell.

Those of us working as business advisors, management consultants or business coaches, need to exercise care when selecting clients to work with. It is not always easy at the pre-engagement stage, to spot clients that don’t fit with your style, your business ethics, or your way of working. This often results in engaging with clients from hell, wherein you just cannot wait for the assignment to finish or you may end up worrying about your own reputation because of your association with the client.

You might say that “this will never happen to me” but we all get caught occasionally, particularly if we don’t have a decent pre-screening protocol in place, which gives us early warning signals of impending problems. It is simply not enough to just listen to your gut, but it helps to do so. A feeling of unease at the beginning can be your intuition telling you to walk away.

So what kinds of things should we be looking out for?

  • Evidence of law breaking
    • State
    • Local
    • Environmental
    • Regulatory
    • Compliance
    • Employment
    • Taxation
  • Financial irregularities or theft
  • Unethical behaviors
  • Flashy lifestyles that don’t match the business
  • Anti-competitive practices
  • Collusion with others
  • Conflicts of interest
  • Evidence of bullying or shoddy HR practices
  • Nickel and diming you on what they are prepared to pay you for your expertise and commitment
  • Attempts to sweet-talk you into accepting the assignment even though your gut is telling you that you don’t want to work with the person or firm.
  • Anything that might compromise you as a business advisor/consultant

This list is just a taste of some of the things that you need to be watching out for. So what is the best way to avoid working with clients with these problems or behaviors?

Start by providing a legally binding non-disclosure agreement that offers protection for both you and the client, and make sure that it is signed before discussions begin.

Develop a standard question set that will alert you to possible problems. Then ask the questions and make sure you get satisfactory answers to them. Check the potential client out online. It is rare to find a business owner without some online profile – good or bad. Next establish boundaries with the potential client that will remain in force for the duration of any assignment.

Make sure your contract documentation gives you the ability to walk away if there are any breaches of the terms of your contract, or if you find the potential client stepping over set boundaries at any stage of the project, and most particularly during the initial stage.

However, even with all of this checking, the reality is that you may only find out about problems after you have been engaged, and you are actively working on the project. The very worst clients can often be the most charming and the very best deceivers.

Build your assignments into stages with breakpoints and project reviews. Good clients will welcome this just as much as you do. This will give you the opportunity to get feedback on your own performance as well as to raise any issues or concerns you might have.

Ensure that there are regular project meetings with the project sponsor and any other key executives involved in the project. This should happen at least weekly. Establish a mechanism for tabling issues for discussion or raising issues that are of concern to you.

Make sure that you agree a regular billing cycle into your contract documentation and ensure that payment frequencies and amounts are in keeping with the contract. Slow payers always signal deeper-rooted problems.

This is not to say that you will often encounter many of the difficulties discussed here, but at least you will be prepared to screen clients diligently and you will have a systematic mechanism to exit the assignment at various breakpoints, should Lucifer present himself.

Niall Strickland