I’ve commented in my book and in this blog about working with difficult clients (see The Client Jerk). One concern I’ve had about focusing on this topic too much is that readers – especially those who are just considering a career in consulting – will walk away with the impression that all clients are bullies who only hire consultants to use as scapegoat to generally mistreat.
The truth is that most clients and their employees are kind, rational human beings. They welcome consultants into their place of business and appreciate the expertise the consultant brings to the table to help them achieve their objectives.
Some client employees can be standoffish or tentative with new consultants, because that’s how they are with any new people. Some folks just want to make sure you pass the creep-test before getting too close (why jump into a quick friendship only to find out that the new guy is a complete creep).
Abuse by clients
Client employees that do tend to abuse consultants are usually not all that difficult to deal with. Every once in a while you run into someone who hates consultants due to a bad experience, or maybe they’re a corporate bully who can’t get away with mistreating employees but finds consultants to be fair game.
Sometimes, the abuse has been well-earned by the consultant. I’ve seen consultants that have let their specialty knowledge and expertise go to their head. They treat the client and the client’s employees with arrogance and are condescending in their communications. That’s not a way to develop trust and rapport with clients. I’ve had to overcome initial distrust from clients who have dealt with this type of consultant in the past.
In many of my writings, I’ve tried to provide advice on how to deal with a client’s distrust, dislike or absolute hatred of consultants. It’s not always easy. Although it’s rare, they can be unprofessional and rude.
That’s no excuse for a consultant to stoop to that level.
Professionalism in consulting
If a consultant resorts to the same tactics, they risk two consequences. First, replying to a client in the same nasty way is a good way to get kicked off a project. Like it or not, there is a double standard. They’re the customer and you’re the vendor. The abusing person’s manager may not like the way they talked to you and may discipline them privately. But clients won’t tolerate a consultant being rude to one of their own employees for any reason.
Secondly, by responding in kind to a bad-mannered client, in effect, validates that behavior. From that point forward it begins to escalate and will eventually get out of hand. There is nothing to be gained by seeking revenge and putting a client employee in his or her place.
Additionally, as you network, you will continue to run into the same people over the years. If the client has one employee that completely pisses you off, the client’s other employees will observe how you handle it. If you lose your cool and tell off the offending client, the other employees may empathize with you. But three years down the road, when one of those who witnessed your tirade is at another client deciding whether to hire you as a consultant, they may only remember your short fuse and take a pass.
This may be the most important reason to keep your cool and take the high road. If you blow up at a client, no matter how justified you feel it may be, is that how you want to be remembered? Your reputation is your personal brand and it can follow you for a long time. You can work for years to develop your personal brand and have one moment of weakness destroy it.
Regardless of whether the client employee gets away with it – or whether you can get away with it, if it’s bad behavior for the client, it’s bad behavior for you.
Walk away from those situations with professionalism and class and chances are, that’s what you will be remembered for.
If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com
As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms. I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts and discussion items.