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14 nightmare clients -- and how to defang them

Steven A. Lowe | Jan. 21, 2015
The key to survival in a client-based profession like software development is recognizing the signals of a project heading south despite your best efforts. Here, difficult clients can be a clear impediment to your success.

Nightmare client No. 12: The Ogre

Ogre clients have the unfortunate habit of killing ideas and projects out of reflex. They can't help themselves! Whether they are allergic to new ideas, are secretly committed to failure, or simply hate you, it doesn't matter — you won't get anywhere with an Ogre.

If your client is behaving like an Ogre, preventing progress or constantly killing your fledgling efforts in favor of new directions, your only option may be to call for assistance from above. This may be done with a move as simple as sending a positively worded sent to the Ogre and the Ogre's boss, outlining some of your proposals or endeavors that have been devoured (don't say "devoured" in your email — ogres are notoriously bad-tempered) and asking for help in understanding what they really want to achieve and how. Otherwise, you're wasting your time and theirs on a fairy tale.

Don't be surprised if the Ogre fires you; they're touchy like that.

Nightmare client No. 13: The Will-o-Wisp

Will-o-wisps offer a guiding light through the foggy marsh when you need it most. But as you approach it, the light seems to move away, as if beckoning you to follow. Thinking you are saved, under the spell of a Will-o-Wisp you wander further into the marsh, straight to your doom.

Ever have a client like this? First, they create the fog: conflicting, vague requirements; multiple bosses and sign-offs; a series of free RFPs (requests for proposals) or low-paying POC (proof-of-concept) projects. But you never get a firm commitment, never a clear target. The end result is a slow, struggling death in a dark marsh.

Most clients don't intend to be Will-o-Wisps, but they end up that way, largely because they are unable to commit to or declare a goal or path. Many are rendered timid by technology. Others are simply wandering around in a fog themselves, so bound by their own bureaucracy that they cannot escape. But you don't have to join them on their death march! Whatever you do, don't get dragged into the muck and fog with them.

Intentional Will-o-Wisps are more nefarious. Often they simply use you for information because they already have another vendor in mind or are window-shopping. The way to escape is to escalate. Recognize you are talking with the wrong person, and you need be referred to the person who has actual authority, vision, and purpose in the organization. Chances are it is not this person's boss, but the boss's boss's boss, maybe even higher up the chain. It's OK if your contact is unwilling to go with you on your escalation; you must climb a tree, get above the fog, and find firm ground, or you will both fail. Do nothing, and you both stay lost.


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