Consulting Blues – The Expensive Customer

Recently I put a bid forward on a “Request For Quotation” (RFQ) as part of my telecom consulting job.  Unfortunately, the potential customer’s RFQ was essentially “go watch this YouTube video, and build something like that.  It should be easy, so I only want to pay $200”.

The video was essentially someone talking about a proof-of-concept project they had done.  None of the back-end infrastructure was discussed; it was apparently Asterisk based, and used a database of some kind to hold the relevant data.  Nor did the potential customer give any indication if they even owned their own phone system or what database technology they wanted used.

I sent in a “back-of-the-envelope” price tag based on the notion that I’d have to do everything from scratch, and asked a series of questions to ascertain the infrastructure that the customer either had, or expected to be included.

So today I received the following response to the series of questions I sent:

“Your questions are irrelevant to my project. I have a feeling this was like a canned response you send out to many projects without reading the requirements. If you take the time and read what I want, we may be able to communicate about this…”

This is a clear signal of what I have come to call “The Expensive Customer”.  They do not know how to build the project themselves, but are qualified to tell you that it is “easy”, how much time it should take, what your effort should cost them, and that a proven series of “discovery questions” are irrelevant to the process.

The problem with the Expensive Customer is that almost invariably, they do not want anything stated clearly, other than a low price.  This almost invariably leads to a severe case of “feature creep”, where the scope of expectation keeps expanding to include provision of things that should have been the responsibility of the Customer.

It is not always malice.  Sometimes, it is a genuine lack of familiarity of how the IT consulting process works.  However, regardless of motivation, the Expensive Customer can rapidly turn a small, modest profit project into a never-ending tragedy that results in negative feedback and a write-off of many hours of work.

In my reply to the Customer, I included the following paragraph:

“… It must be understood from the outset that good communications founded around a strong dialog with clear questions for goal discovery is absolutely essential in ensuring that you, the customer, receive what it is you want to pay for.”

If, as a consultant, you fail to get a clear statement of work with easily identifiable and quantifiable responsibilities for the customer, and milestones for yourself, you are leaving yourself open to loosing your shirt.

As I have said in a prior post, your reputation is your currency reserve in this new economy.  You literally cannot afford to have a customer that is not thrilled with the work you have done for them.  The key to that is ensuring that you understand exactly what it is they want, why they want it, and what resources they will need to have it.

The Expensive Customer runs the risk of costing you dearly twice;  once now on the new project, and a couple of times in the future due to a negative review on social media or personal blog.

My solution is straightforward:  if they will not answer the discovery questions and will not commit to milestones and responsibilities, then I will not do business with them.  It is more cost effective to spend the time doing a little something extra for an existing customer, even if you just give it to them as a good-will gift.