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5 Types of Bad Consulting Clients and What To Do About Them

By Michael Zipursky

We’ve all had bad consulting clients. It’s part of being in business. What’s most important is that you know how to identify the situation as quickly as possible, and resolve it.

Here are 5 types of bad clients consultants encounter:

1) The Line Crosser Client:

You know the one. The client that believes since they are paying you that they own all your time. They call you at all hours of the day and night and send you a barrage of emails and expect a response as soon as they’ve hit ‘send’.

Solution: Set clear boundaries from the outset. Let the client know what they can expect of you and what you expect from them to make the project a success. Establish a relationship as a trusted advisor, not servant at their beck and call. If you’ve failed to do this from the get go, let your client know that everything as agreed is moving forward with their project and that they don’t need to worry. And let them know that you have other clients and a business to run as well. Clarify the expectations.

One meeting they are thrilled with the work you’re doing and everything is going great in their business. The next time you walk into their office they act like the walls are falling down.

2) The Spellchecker Client:

These types of clients are such a nuisance. They are typically small minded and don’t see the bigger picture. They spend all of their time looking for the negative in every situation. They often mean well, their issue is that they are simply focusing on the wrong things.

Solution: If a client makes a comment, thank them for it, and let them know that you’re glad that 99% is where it needs to be and that both of you should stay focused on the most critical areas of the project. Because at the end of the day, a better result will be seen when everyone is focusing on the areas where the greatest value can be created. Not on small edge cases that don’t impact the project in any significant way.

3) The Mood Swing Client:

These kinds of clients are often uncomfortable to be around. You never know what they are going to say or do. One meeting they are thrilled with the work you’re doing and everything is going great in their business. The next time you walk into their office they act like the walls are falling down. These are the same type of clients that will say one thing and then do another. They make it hard to complete a project successfully, not for your lack of skill, rather because of their lack of focus and consistency.

Solution: It’s not always easy, though I’ve found the best course of action to take with these types of clients, and I’ve only had a few like this, is to sit down and be open about what’s going on. Let them know how you feel and that you’re concerned about the success of the project due to A, B, C. Don’t come out swinging, rather show genuine concern for the project and them. Ask them “how are you doing recently?” or “you seem like you’ve had a lot going on…” You’ll find that some clients, like people won’t change. They may have personality or behavioral disorders that can’t be fixed in the short term. So when you encounter this, it’s best to speak honestly with your client and confront it, rather than hope it goes away (especially if you see it happening more than once).

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4) The Forgetful Client:

You’ve just wrapped up a great meeting. Your client is all excited about the next steps. They’ve agreed to do X and Y. The problem is, they never get done. You check in a week later and get some lousy excuse. The same two weeks after that. Well my friend, you’re dealing with the forgetful client. These clients don’t want to put off taking action, rather they have so much going on (in their minds or reality or both) that they fail to take the actions that you need them to take to see success with the project.

Support and encourage them to be the leader that they are.

Solution: Find ways to help your client remember. Have their assistant schedule reminders. Increase your own follow up to the client. Explain the dangers of not taking action and what will happen (will they lose money, market share, publicity, etc)? Can you establish a system or process they can follow that will help?

5) The Indecisive Client:

This client drags things to a halt. They are so unsure of themselves that they want to get permission and acceptance from everyone around them at every step of the way. They are worried of what others will think of them. Especially if a project or initiative were to fail. The trouble is that they are steering the project off course because of their lack of confidence and inaction.

Solution: Empower them. Show them why they need to make the decision. Support and encourage them to be the leader that they are. Tell them that you understand they want to include as many opinions as possible, but that there are dangers that come with that as well. Decide which areas of the project require the input of others, and which would benefit from the client (the leader) taking swift and decisive action.

Have you dealt with these types of clients? Encountered any other types I didn’t cover? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments below.

24 thoughts on “5 Types of Bad Consulting Clients and What To Do About Them

  1. There is a sixth, the slow payer, the one that thinks 90 days or more is OK… No-one should ever have to wait longer to be paid than their staff do. Solution: sort out clear payment arrangements at the beginning and stick to them. If they have a payment cycle for a specific date each month get your invoices timed for that cycle.

  2. Daniel Freschi says:

    What about the Silent Client? The one that never communicates with you despite all of your attempts to. Perhaps it’s a combination of the Indecisive and Forgetful. Fearful to make a decision or commitment, but has too much to do and takes on too much.

    • That’s also a great one to add Daniel. Clearly there are more than 5 🙂

      • Terry says:

        Chances are the “silent client” is studying you; watching to see if you are decisive and professional enough to get the job done. So you better know how to ask the right questions and when. Just sayin’. 🙂

        • That’s a positive thought Terry! Would be nice if that was the case…often it’s not.

  3. Can we try this for a seventh… the client who does not work with you to identify the real problem, and closes their mind to causes
    Solution: gradual persuasion. But do include some time for this

  4. And Number 8
    The Cost cutter who thinks that the work only merits a less experienced and cheaper consultant, and also ignores the overheads involved for any independent consultants: risk, marketing, pensions, insurance, training, sickness periods, training, hardware, software.

    These are the people who aim to pay a salary-equivalent but without the salary overheads.
    Solution: negotiate, explain and convince; know when to say No.

    • David Schofield says:

      Fantastic Barry! This is so succinct! It’s maybe in a different category from the others because they are project-activity oriented, but often I’ll have the Sr. Engineer I’m working with who’s #5 and the Director/VP signing the check who’s this one, #8!

      • It is the person who sets out the requirement at the beginning, possibly worried that the rate to the consultant or interim manager will look too much compared with the people they employ. I have found that many of the people in the stakeholder groups might turn out to be No. 5 from time to time.

    • Communicate value to them. Show them not only what they stand to gain from working with you, but also what the danger is of going with a lesser choice.

  5. Virginia Nicols says:

    Here’s a #10 (or 11, or 12). It’s the client who meets, interviews and hires you and then puts his wife (or nephew) in charge of the project!

  6. CeeJay Young says:

    What you think about the Not serious uncomitted client? This person says he will attend all meeting and when the appointed day arrives they just do not show up and when u call them they will be there but the same things continues

    • That’s a sign of someone that doesn’t respect you or simply is too busy and hasn’t made it a priority. Keep them in your follow up sequence if they are a good prospect and spend more time on better prospects.

  7. Sam Ako says:

    The clients who think you are the expert so they don’t have to do anything. When you ask for information, they tell you to do what’s best without giving you answers.
    You end spending more time than needed with such clients and the quality of your work suffers

    • If they know everything they don’t need a consultant. But if they really know everything, they wouldn’t be having the problem they have.

  8. Siddharth says:

    As Barry mentioned in his first 3 statements, unfortunately i have experienced all of these with single client.
    And other situation could be like this, everything has been discussed with a coordinator from payment details to terms and conditions and agreed upon that commitment, but at the time of final signing the contract or payment delivery, then everything changes and some new authority comes in picture. Again the same cycle repeats. Any solution for this?

  9. May says:

    What about the client who calls you an expert, yet refuses to heed your recommendations and suggestions toward accomplishing the goal. I am working with people who completely do whatever they want to do. What is the point of me? Why am I even here? Serious questions.

    • Sounds like you’d benefit from tightening up who you accept as an ideal client. Say no to the wrong clients so you have the time to say yes to the right ones.

  10. Christie says:

    How about the client that ends up trying to compete with your ideas by going outside of you to research more info to throw at you once you give them research-backed info where they paid for your help to gather initiatlly?? Yeah, that client.

    • Have you sat down with your client to talk with them about the issue and how you can work together in a way that provides the greatest benefit to both parties?

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