Several months ago I was participating in a forum discussion on what could be done to improve contracting. Most of the typical suggestions pertained to stuff like software, technology, and salesmanship. I pointed out that a huge amount of effort is poured into trying to convert prospects into contracts without much concern as to whether the client is someone you should work for. I wrote that in some cases the risk created by a bad client can be so significant that there's no way for the contractors to protect their interests without massively overbidding the work.
One gent took me to task about that as he felt that there's no such thing as a "bad" client. In his view, the client provides the opportunity that all contractors need to maintain their business. Without clients, there's no work, which means there's no contractors. He also went on about how whatever I might list as "bad" client attributes, might be seen as perfectly reasonable to another contractor.
Now I've thought about this quite a bit because I firmly believe that there are some universal characteristics of a "bad" client. The problem I encountered when I set about listing them, was that most of the definitive elements were things you might only see after it was too late to avoid them. For example, I think everyone would agree that a customer who doesn't pay their bills is a "bad" client. Clients who dither over a critical decision until they've robbed the contractor of time to complete the work are another obvious example.
A couple of days ago I attended a pre-bid walk for a project where the clients behavior was a pitch-perfect example of everything that constitutes a "bad" client. I have a unique insight into this situation because I was involved in the preliminary design work. More on that in a moment.
We have been given two weeks to bid this job which is 30% less time than average for a project of this size. The project is a church expansion/ remodel. The plans are at 50% which means that most of the core/crucial elements are included in the plans, but specific details about those elements are not. For example, they will have a lighting plan that shows fixtures in the church, but they won't have specific make, model, and finish specifications for the fixtures. Graphically speaking it's like you can see a car, but you don't know if it's a Kia or a Rolls Royce, however the expectation is that you'll include whatever is necessary for the dollar amount on your bid.
During the walk, the client spoke at great length about everything except the actual construction project. When he asked if there were any questions, I inquired as to whether they'd need their stage temporarily relocated during construction. This would allow them to continue services further into the construction project.
He spoke for five minutes going on about the importance of their services and obliquely referred to the income these services provided. Eventually he wound down and concluded by asking me if that had answered my question. A room of 30 contractors laughed because he never actually answered my yes or no question. I politely repeated my question which brought on another five minutes of speaking without answering the question.
From there, the client led everyone outside. A few of the other contractors asked pointed and significant questions. In every single case, the replies avoided anything that would communicate intent, accountability, or direction. Listening to this man speak, it was impressive how committed he was to preserving uncertainty, risk, and confusion. Whenever basic information was missing in his design, he would refuse to ask his design team to answer the question. He acted as though the design team was unreachable for our petty nonsense.
Towards the end, the client brought everyone into a conference room and made his final comments. It was noteworthy that he specifically said that contract award was not strictly dependent on price, completeness, or competency. He said that he expected to receive all the contractors bids whereupon he would request that everyone submit their best ideas for how to improve the project or lower the cost. Once he'd gone through all of that, he would direct his design team to incorporate the changes and he'd contract with whoever the church selected to actually build the thing. He said he expected the project to start in three weeks and to conclude in time for Christmas.
Now for the background. Roughly this time last year, I received a call from an Architect asking me if I'd be interested in helping them to do a design-build project for the church. I did the preliminary pricing and layout work on the electrical to help get the team hired to fully design the project. We hired an Electrical Engineer to flesh out my layouts for the work. When I initially reached out to the engineer, he told me that he'd done similar work on the same church for a competitor a year before. Apparently neither the contractor nor the engineer were ever paid.
We took great pains to make sure we were under contract before we did any design work. The project seemed to be on track, and we received payment after we hit the 50% stage of the drawings. At this point, the church decided to halt everything. The decision-maker was on sabbatical and the church felt the budget needed to come down substantially. The Architect paid us for the work completed to date and nobody said or did anything for nine months. This kind of thing happens all the time so we shelved it and moved on to other things.
I didn't know anything was happening with this job until I received an invitation to bid on it from a General Contractor.
The plans that have been put out to bid aren't actually the most current version. Details and specifications that were included in the versions I submitted have been removed. If an item is difficult to price or understand without more information, the specification was removed. This is a direct and malicious attempt to trap contractors by making them guess at what things are worth.
We built a church with this same client and Architect several years ago. From the date of my first bid, to the day the job actually started was more than six months. I repriced that job eighteen separate times because they'd constantly change the plans via addenda. The Addenda wouldn't include a narrative describing the changes. The Architect abandoned the industry practice of putting "bubbles" around whatever changed on a drawing. Instead, they'd replace the entire 250 page drawing set so every contractor had to painstakingly go through each page looking for changes that mostly weren't there.
One of the most pernicious of these changes related to chandeliers. Over the course of no less than five separate addenda the Architect would reveal more and more details about a few chandeliers. It wasn't until the fifth addenda that we finally got enough information to find the company who sold them, to get a quote for them. These chandeliers looked like broken pallet wood with fifty scrap lamp holders dangling from cords that were stapled in place by a pale, dystopian, toddler. I wish I was kidding when I say they were $10,000 per each.
Every time I submitted a price for Addenda 1-4, the client was angry that I'd excluded the unspecified chandelier. After Addendum 5, they pouted about the price for two weeks before admitting that it was exactly what they'd asked for.
So what are the identifiable and universal characteristics that define a "bad" client? For starters, I think talking a lot without answering the question is as good a place as any to start. Anyone who specifically refuses to facilitate or enforce a fair and competitive bid is doing it to leave room for chicanery. Likewise, sincere clients will pay to develop their plans so they can actually build off of them. This guy is trying to "refine by bid" his way into the cheapest and best design. He's exploiting the contractor market by providing false hope of a contract award. This was done with malice and aforethought. Finally, there's the pressure he's creating. He's intentionally shortened the deadline to leave less time to figure things out. He's also leaving the contract award dangling so he can continue to demand competitive pricing revisions from everyone for as long as it suits him. He's willfully blocking communication with the design team in hopes that someone will make a mistake he can capitalize on.
At no point did he speak to his congregations ability to fund the project (they can't), or the fact that they've been kicking this around for years. He's pretending that his design team can complete the plans in one month, knowing full well that it took them five months to get to 50%. When we were brought in on the original design effort, the church said they wanted a contractor on board who would look out for their interests. I provided a design and an estimate that was within their original budget. They in turn, halved the budget and spent triple that amount on specialty Audio/Visual equipment.
I don't think this is incompetence, or rampant enthusiasm, or even the kind of morass frequently encountered when things are designed by committee. I suspect this client is a sociopath. He knows perfectly well that what he's doing is wrong, he just doesn't care. He wants to be in the limelight while the whole thing falls apart. If things actually do proceed to construction, he'll obstruct, delay, and blame his way through the job to stay in the limelight.
Now I realize this might seem like an extreme one-off example, but I can think of dozens of clients in my market who do this sort of thing. One of them works for a major grocery store chain that is notorious for putting contractors out of business on their jobs. Many of them are Architects who specialize in "50% burnout" drawings. They are paid hourly so they avoid any kind of constructive efforts to align the design with the budget until the client finally throws in the towel. Actually building stuff isn't part of their business strategy.
All the online discussions about the declining quality of construction drawings are making a huge assumption. They think the poor quality is incidental, and assume that everyone earnestly wants the project to be successful. I'm afraid the truth is less altruistic. I think there's a whole lot of terrible work that is intentional. Terrible clients see poor plan quality as a feature, not a bug.