The Freelancers guide to Risky Projects: Questionable Clients

questionable-clientsSometimes the risky part of the project is the people involved

There are clients that just send off vibes, right? You know the kinds I'm talking about. They use the word “just” a lot. It's a pet peeve because nothing is ever “just” anything.

Or they talk as if they're experts in your own specialty – making you wonder why they need your help in the first place. But even though the right words are being used, the sentences don't line up well enough for you to trust them, right?

Maybe it's none of those things. Maybe it's that the money they're suggesting is too high, too low, or in a currency you don't normally accept (i.e. bitcoin).

Whatever it is, you're feeling a gnawing sense that the client won't be a good fit. I call them questionable clients.

Here's the problem.

I've met just as many questionable developers.

You know, the words are right but the sentences are wrong. They say everything is “easy” or use “just” too much. Their price is too good, or the way they want to get paid is strange.

The result is exactly what you'd expect – both sides of an engagement aren't sure if the person on the other side of the table is anything but questionable.

My Solution – Multiple Projects

I'll tell you the honest truth. For as good as I am judging people (quickly), I still get things wrong when evaluating clients on complex, expensive or multi-team projects. On those kinds of projects it seems like my antennae goes up quickly and I start questioning everything. I find everyone untrustworthy and everything a risk.

In short, on complex projects, I find everyone a questionable client – at first.

So I've had to develop a strategy that helps me figure out when to trust my gut and when to ignore it. Because the truth is that everyone isn't questionable, regardless of my initial worries.

My answer to all of this has been an approach that seems to work well often. It's to break a large or complex project into 2 or 3 projects, where the initial project is called a discovery project.

It's where we do a lot of analysis, discussion, scope articulation and research and development.

It's where I test out ideas for what plugins may work.

It's where I create small proofs of concept that we can look at and evaluate together, to use as a reference point to have further discussions.

And it's where I determine a really important thing…

Am I dealing with a questionable client?

I should point out that the discovery project is a paid project. The client is paying to do this discovery, with the goal of refining requirements, dealing with scope, mitigating risk, evaluating options and fine-tuning a budget for the second (or second and third) project(s).

In all this, the main thing I'm really evaluating in a discovery project is whether all my initial worries were true. I'm evaluating the client to see if they're risky, or simply the owner of a risky project – because those are two very different things.

And at the same time, I'm inviting the client to evaluate me. To determine if I know more than just the words. To see if I (or my team) can add the value they expect. To see if I'm truly the expert they hoped for (and were paying for).

They're trying to see if they're dealing with a questionable service provider while I'm trying to figure out if they're a questionable client.

But we're doing it in a real, live, actual paid project. And that's what changes everything.

  • It's why we test drive cars, right?
  • It's why we walk thru model homes, right?
  • It's why we take small tests of new ice cream flavors, right?

Ok, maybe there are other reasons for the last one, but you get the point. We test in small but real situations to see how things will go in big and real situations. And we create “break points” to make sure that things are going well.

A discovery project is nothing more. It's a simple way to come to the end of a phase with a deliverable (normally findings and a quote for further stages that is now pretty accurate) and determine if both sides want to keep working together.

I've stopped projects at that point.
I've had clients leave at that point.

And we've both walked away without losing our shirts, and with much more clarity going forward than had we simply embarked on a risky project while ignoring red flags.

What about you? What's your strategy for dealing with questionable clients?