ben vandgrift · on living the dream

A Field Guide To Clients (Part 1)

When you're part of a consultancy, your business revolves around your clients; your bread and butter depends on finding the right clients and helping them solve their problems. Turning that initial lead into a working relationship can be rewarding, entertaining, interesting, and also trying, stressful, and infuriating, depending on the client. My experience primarily involves the development of systems and software, so most of this will be from that point of view, but the principles remain the same across all types of consultation.

The first thing you need to know about your client is 'what problem are they trying to solve?'. The answer to this question determines what solution to put into play. The second thing you need to know is what type of client they are. Realizing this will characterize your approach to the solution, and how you manage the relationship.

Let's talk about a few types of clients, and how they tend to communicate:

The Enthusiastic Client

The enthusiastic client wants everything, and wants it now. They're excited about their idea, and want you to know it. They provide a deluge of information: ideas, thinking, notions, all underscored by their excitement. From this flood, you have to suss out what features they actually want and their relative importance. You can throw these into a scoped timeline and get to the work, but all the while, your client adds new ideas, new thinking, new directions. The volume of information can be distracting.

It's likely that this kind of client wants your buy-in. They're stoked, and they want to know that you're stoked too. They want a conspirator, someone who sees and shares their vision with the same level of vim that they're experiencing, who's in it to win it because they believe in what they're doing. That has to be you, and it has to be genuine. You can't (and shouldn't) fake enthusiasm about your client's business. At the same time, you have to tease out a trail of progress from the wild forest of their mind. Plot a course, define waypoints, and gently, gently help keep their eyes focused on the next hilltop.

What to look for: Their ideas swirl, they coalesce, the dissipate. They'll wander off the trail sometimes, want you to think about this semi-related idea, toss out some estimates or give them your thoughts. This is all good. You'll find, however, that all of these ramblings and musings share some core ideas. In the heat map of their mind, there are hotspots. Your challenge is to find a way to thread these hotspots into a string of pearls that you can actually realize, then keep moving toward these goals unerringly.

The Panicked Client

The panicked client needs you because Something Terrible is About To Happen. They're behind schedule. They have a promised feature that doesn't work, and someone's about to notice. Their division needs to show some value or get axed. They are frantic to solve their problem, and they're bringing their terror and fear to your door because they have been led to believe that you Get Shit Done.

Before anything else, you need to figure out whether or not you can actually help them. It possible they're just Doomed, and you'd be an asshat to prey upon their fear and take their money knowing full well that their doom was unavoidable. You don't always have to be Nice, but you should always be Good.

Also, understand that no meaningful communication can occur in a panic. From the second you decide to wade in, you have to be the rock to which they can make fast. Calm them down, get them to talk about the problem and the reasons their problem is so urgent. Figure out the consequences and exactly what's needed to avoid them. Then shape a plan to do just that.

The thing to understand about the panicked client: they have lost their moorings. They are adrift. Your job is to anchor them. If you can pull that off, their panic will abate. If you can then solve their problem and avoid disaster, they will send you Christmas cards.

The Burned Client

The burned client fired their last development team, because they let them down hard. Consequently, they are going to be twice shy about depending on you, but they have things they need done, things with (often overdue) deadlines. They may or may not still be angry, but they definitely have trust issues.

In some ways this is the easiest kind of client to deal with; you get to be the hero, and they're actively looking for a hero. Before that can happen though, you have to re-establish trust. If you don't tackle this problem right out of the gate, they'll hound you every step of the way. You should engage this client on two fronts:

On the technical side, your work should that of the consummate professional. Communicate progress often, set their expectations to within a millimeter, and don't oversell your successes. Let your work speak for itself, setting small initial goals to give it a voice. Build a foundation of trust one stone at a time. Once you have that trust again, don't break it. This will be a high-touch engagement; don't leave them hanging or give them an excuse to compare you to their last development team save for positively.

On the personal side, you have to buddy up. Be the sympathetic ear into which they can vent their previous frustrations. Get to know them, their family, their favorite sports team. If you can establish a personal relationship, it can serve as a slight buffer against any perceived professional shortcomings, because you've established that you're as human and fallible as they are. They're more likely to cut their friend some slack than they are their consultancy—this is necessary because after their last experience, they're looking for any excuse to cut and run, to get angry, to validate their unspoken, subconscious belief that This Is All Crap, and You Are All Crooks.

As in everything else, this should be genuine. If you can't be there for them for realsies, then don't try.

For both the burned and panicked client, a personal relationship will also prevent a different, and more fundamental problem: there's a fine line between Hero and Savior. If you're their hero, pulling their nuts out of the fire, that's one thing. Heroes are still human. If you somehow stumble into being their Savior, you are in a minefield. There are no small disappointments. They've put you on a pedestal, but are secretly itching to crucify you.

The Distracted Client

The distracted client has a lot on their plate, and you are one of the side dishes. They are juggling thirty other projects and an operations team, giving you the impression that this project isn't a priority. You can't get them in a conversation or a meeting, and they generally expect that you know what you're doing. See you next quarter.

With a distracted client, your information feed needs a buffer. At the beginning of the project, make sure you can sit down with them and get as much information as possible. Resist the urge to do any real work until you have a crystal clear picture of the client's problem. Make sure you have enough material to take you through the next time you're likely to get time with them, otherwise you'll be stuck until they can work you into their schedule.

Additionally, the feedback loop is critical; in particular, when you're creating estimates, you have to figure in the feedback delay. Consider: phase one is four weeks, phase two will take three weeks beginning after phase one has been accepted.

One more thing to watch for is surprise. Problems arise whenever your understanding and your clients' are out of sync. This gets magnified by however long you've gone without client feedback. In their mind, all that elapsed time represents waste, and they're largely correct. Mitigate this with constant communication, regular demonstrations, and incremental approval and your client won't (or at least shouldn't) be surprised.

Once again, a strong personal connection can pay off. If you meet them for drinks outside of the office, you might be able to talk about the project a little without being subject to their Outlook calendar. If you're on more casual terms, a message via SMS or a quick text chat will yield a faster response.

A Word About Engagement

Sure, everyone who communicates with a client is responsible for engagement. Everyone who communicates with the client. Your project managers and sales team should understand this, but so should the billing department, the office manager, the person routing their calls, and of course, the developers.

That's right, the developers. Each one should be able to talk to the client with understanding to be found on both sides.

It's not just the people: every billing statement, phone call, email, diagram, and line of source code should be legible and intelligible to the client. This means speaking to them in their voice, checking your opinions, repeating their needs to them and getting confirmation, and, most importantly, doing your level best to understand and sympathize with their situation.

More than anything else, though: be real. Be a person, and understand that your client is also a person. Your client's customers? Also people. Don't forget it.

The taxonomy of clients–to be continued.

written: Jul 10 2013