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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. 9: The Undead

In the software world, there are many kinds of Undead, with varying appearances and deleterious abilities. Some seem like normal, even charming people, then suddenly turn on you when you're vulnerable and suck the lifeblood out of you or your work. Others are nebulous, noncorporeal entities that pass through walls and other barriers, haunting your project and scaring your developers. No matter what form they take, Undead clients are particularly frightening because they are relentless, unstoppable, and worst of all: No one believes you when you talk about them.

Mythological undead can be defeated by different means depending on their kind — a stake through the heart for a vampire, an exorcism for an evil spirit, removing the head of a zombie, and so on — but in the tech world, the safest recourse is to fire them and find new paying work.

Nightmare client No. 10: The Troll

Trolls lurk in isolated places and spring up on the unsuspecting to attack them. Anyone who has spent anytime in a comments section on the Internet is familiar with the tech world equivalent.

As a client, a Troll takes offense at everything you say, no matter how you say it, even if you are quoting their own words and agreeing with them. The Troll delights in extended email conversations, hijacking the original intent into netherworlds of pedantically misconstrued arguments — because they think it's fun or because they have a technical hobbyhorse they can't get past.

You can't get anywhere with a Troll. You cannot trick them into the light of your wisdom as an experienced tech pro and consultant. You must do as the wisdom of the Internet tells you: Don't feed the Trolls; ignore them.

If the Troll is your client, fire them. If the Troll simply works for your client, exclude them from conversations. Cite their disruptive behavior to your client, and inform the client that the Troll will henceforth be excluded from all conversations.

It's not pretty, but if you're not careful, the Troll may try to eat you.

Nightmare client No. 11: The Siren

Sirens are known for their beauty and enthralling songs, leading sailors off-course to be dashed against the rocks and reefs. It is rare to have a client that is an actual Siren, but it is not so rare for them to sing Siren songs — with much the same effect. (Developers are also known to do this to themselves, by getting distracted by shiny new tech instead of finishing the job at hand.)

A Siren client may offer irresistible temptations, typically the promise of a lot more work in the future in exchange for something "simple" done today, for free. Chances are, the things they want today for free are not simple, and the future work will never materialize. Do not be tempted; instead, plug your ears and avert your eyes, and stay on course!


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