The half-baked semi-technical clients

Posted: April 28th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Development, Perspective | 8 Comments »


While taking client works, it’s not uncommon to have to deal with bad clients. There are of course many kinds of such: the ones that don’t pay, the ones that don’t care what you do, or the ones that never satisfied with your work…
However, even the good ones (pay in time, committed, respect your work, rational …) are problematic in their own sense. In this post I’ll share my experience about whom I call half-baked or semi-technical clients.

Who are they?
There is the kind of clients who doesn’t know anything about technology, very typical energetic business guy who have an idea and just want to get it done. This is good.
And then there’s the kind who is as enthusiastic, and think that they know what it takes to talk technical. I found this to be the most time-consuming kind of clients to serve.

It’s not easy to spot them, they often appear to be nice, understanding and excited about whatever you proposed … in the beginning. They might also keep what they know to themselves and you can easily mistaken them as the non tech-savvy client.

Until… the project started.

Clear requirement, messy execution
Again, things are ok with scope and requirement. Since most of the work is on high level, it isn’t exactly technical and their thoughts are aligned with yours and they agree with your architecture model, how modules are structured and how the APIs to be designed, etc.. At this point most likely you already received your first upfront pay-check. The project’s prospect is rosy and full of rainbow.

Here’s the turn of the story, it becomes real messy when they are involved in the execution! First they think that they are giving suggestions to save your time by sending you links to StackOverflow issues. Then they also do the research for you by giving you bunch of websites to look at and say “I want this here combine with that there”. What’s the real problem here is that those SO questions are usually irrelevant or outdated. The sites that they gave are the options that you already taken into consideration before proposing the final solution. Hence you find yourself spending too much time shooting email back and forth explaining to them your choices and why the others were not chosen.

It doesn’t end there yet. When they are not convinced of your approach, they try to twist their words differently to how they understand the technologies and then “confront” you with the new version. After a few times if you are good then their version will be actually the same as yours except it is phrased differently, more lengthy, more complicated… and they are happy because they think they “improved” your design.

So far, you have not actually done much work except writing emails and stretching your brain to try to justify the underlying technical choices. Naturally, you are behind your schedule.

Destined for failure
The moment you give in and accept their way of doings, you unknowingly gave them the power and credit to continue over-shadowing your decisions. From here, you can see how it goes badly: they would question your moves, debate “technically” with you the best way to solve a quirk, even give you “minor tweaks” to the architecture that would give your heart a little break; or if requirements changed inevitably, they want to help you to “smoothen” the transition by suggesting how you should code it (urghhh!!!).

Oops, you allowed the devil in your bed.

The point is …
In the last week, I have sadly classified two of my clients into this category, one of them is actually a long-time client. There were times I kept asking myself why it was so energy-draining to speak to them and couldn’t really get out of it. Now that I kind of “get it”, I’m hoping by leaving my general observation and share my rant here, it would do good to others who are in the same line of business.

Sounds familiar to anyone you know or a specific incident you have? Leave it in the comments.

  • JK

    I’ve seen this happen twice so far under the same circumstances. The client was given a title like “Website And Marketing Manager” or “Web and Social Media Manger.” Often it gets just lumped into their title and they are under the assumption or expectation that they know more than they do.

  • True story well told. Thanks for sharing.

    Those clients (the product owners, stakeholders and the CEO in my company) often think it’s cool for them to speak about technology and debate with you about what you know best. At the end of the days, clients are primarily concerned with results and so they should be. Understanding a bit of technology is definitely way worse than understanding nothing in this case.

  • Anh Ho

    Totally useful article! I myself experienced the that type of clients. It wasn’t easy to keep them satisfactory, even I kept my eyes closed and did whatever they wanted, only thing I did want is a good sleep after all :)). Thanks for sharing.

  • Scott Stawarz

    Interesting. I can not if I am the type of client that you are mentioning. This sounds similar to a client that is more technical and knowledgeable than the consultant.

    For example, I’ve had a consultant say to me, what I am asking for can’t be done. I then do some research, and find multiple github projects doing very closely what I want to do. So, What I’m really asking for is changes in scope, and if the consultant is not adept at handling scope changes, that’s where projects begin to expect.

    Another related challenge is, what I think the time it would take me to complete a task and what the time this less-skilled consultant will take to complete is different?

    A lot this comes down to managing expectations on both sides. As a client, I’ve got to do a better job communicating my expectations. As a consultant, that person has to do a better job communicating expectations.

    @Kent, same for you. If you have a long-term half-baked technical client, then you need to manage expectations communicate with this client: For example, you are paying me for my expertise. Please allow me to do my job. et…

    • I completely agree that managing expectation is very important. In fact that’s what I do day in and out now instead of actual coding.

      Looking at your profile I’d say you are not ‘half-baked’, you are very technical. My ‘half-baked’ definition wouldn’t include people who can and know how to find Github repos of open source libraries.

      • Scott Stawarz

        Thanks Kent for saying I’m not ‘half-baked’ tech guy. LOL.

        Sometimes, I forget what non-technical people know or don’t know.

        Good article by the way. It made me think enough to post a comment.

        • A classic example I always give is the concept of client-server. It’s so easy to take for granted that everyone knows what it is, since it is nearly subconscious in the mind of a developer. But try explain that to a marketing person, you will be surprised how much you knew.

  • Intuition and Science Project

    Ken your articles are great. To improve readibility , we ( five international Sc. students) suggest you get an English native proof reader go over it before publication. We for instance have difficulty staying focused because we get distracted by the grammatical mistakes. Not because we are snobs but for reasons that ESL readers need proper grammar to understand what is being communicated. More so than a native speaker who has more material to fill in the gap. Trusting it will happen somehow, we meanwhile ollow Ken. Keep trucking man. You’re on the right track.