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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.

You ask another question, and another person is brought in to help ... then another and another, each with more requests and suggestions and conflicts, generating more questions, and calling in more people. Before you know it, everyone is squawking conflicting, impossible requirements at once, and you're starting to feel agoraphobic.

Limit the number of people brought in to "help" in a conversation to only a few, especially if each person adds more confusion instead of answering your questions. At the point where you start to feel threatened, fake a phone call and exit — before the trautonium music starts.

Nightmare client No. 3: The Hydra

The Hydra is a pernicious little nightmare of a client: Cut off one of its multiple heads, and two more grow back. The only way to defeat it is to cut off all its heads at once.

Hydras make themselves known in one of two ways: as a never-ending stream of request and conditions before commitment, if you're lucky, or a never-ending stream of also-must-haves and changes on a fixed-bid contract with insufficient boundaries for completion.

Cauterizing each head after you sever it is the key to preventing more from growing back. While I cannot condone carrying a torch into a business meeting, the next best thing is a contract with specific deliverables and a precise process for handling changes.

Nightmare client No. 4: The Minotaur

Half-man, half-bull, and hidden at the center of a complex labyrinth, the Minotaur is a powerful executive who remains behind the scenes, unknown, until you are close to commitment, then suddenly appears to throw the entire project into disarray.

There is no known defense against this creature, which is often armed by a pathological ego that cannot be assuaged, but you may be tipped off to its existence by oblique references made by others: "That won't get past Jim," or "Let's wait to loop in Jim before he puts the project off track." Any attempts on your part to involve "Jim" early the process will be met with terrified stares.

If "Jim" signs the checks, pull the plug on the project; you are doomed.

Nightmare client No. 5: The Dragon

This may come as a surprise, but Dragons do not make good clients. They hoard their gold, burn consultants to a crisp on a whim, and are generally disagreeable. And if you're looking for a knight in shining armor to slay them — you're on your own. Dragons are quite vain and may be susceptible to flattery, but they are also treacherous and unlikely to keep any promises they make. It's much easier for them to devour you.

You can recognize a Dragon by its unreasonable demands, by the way it is never satisfied, by its reluctance to pay, by the fire that spews forth from its mouth and the terrible rending of its claws when it is upset. You most likely will not have to end a contract with a Dragon; the Dragon will fire you.


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