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What constitutes a "bad" client

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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.

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To your specific example, I was involved in a build for a church, two in fact, one the construction of a new kindergarten at the back of the church and another a large renovation expansion of another church.Both jobs in the order of 250,000 dollars some 10 and 15 years ago. 

Both turned out into a nightmare scenario for very obvious reasons unfortunately. Churches are run by amateurs. People who volunteer and others who get paid, but they are all amateurs and act accordingly.

When it comes to contracting work that the local volunteers can not do in a working bee day, the contractor is an outsider, a quasi enemy that needs to be tolerated for a short period of time. Don't expect a professional or even logical behaviour because you will not find it. Add to your list of bad clients anyone that makes religion a business.    

There are many kinds of bad clients in the building industry, some are professional crooks that know exactly how to hurt you and how to get work for free. Others and I think this are the worst, are pretend professionals, people entrusted with a job that is too big for them. Incompetent and arrogant that believe to be above you and that you owe them something just for considering you to be worthy. Walk away. Plenty of fish in the sea.

Was it you that posted the Dunning-Kruger effect? Apply with prejudice :)

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A while ago a friend linked a Ted Talk to me by Mike Rowe a GREAT Ted Talk but not my point, once finished a bunch more appeared in the menu on the right side. I skimmed the titles and thought the following might be interesting. I've watched it several times and more on the same subject come up. I've watched a number but I like Pamela. https://www.ted.com/talks/pamela_meyer_how_to_spot_a_liar

How this applies to the Esquire's post is in the how to spot them, this post lines out examples of behaviors and cues described in the Ted Talk above.

Deception is deception and often a person is only trying to hide the fact they're out of their depth. It doesn't make them bad people but it sure can make them a bad customer/client. I've had my share and I'm not now nor ever was a contractor but I've been bitten too many times doing some little project for someone. 

Happily I've gotten to a point in my life I don't have to worry about some things so if someone deflects rather than answers a question my next question is "what are you trying to hide?" Emphasis on trying. It doesn't come up very often but I relish the look of panic on a fraud's face when called on it.

Frosty The Lucky.

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The largest job I have ever taken on was 10,000.00..   It went very well as the client gave me the base line drawings and then suggested modifications which would enhance what they wanted.. They were fantastic.. 

On that same note, Honesty vs dishonesty or what makes a bad client can be a tough subject.. Namely because I believe most clients try to be as honest as they can be.. 

As a professional I was expected to have all the answers or be able to find them in a timely fashion..  On really large jobs where there are multiples of contractors it can be really tough to get on the same page and if you are paid for a certain time frame/ dead line and a contractor messes that up the Owner is usually happy because it can mean not meeting a deadline and they think it's the world for them even if the fault is someone else.. Had a few of those.. 

I don't miss these kinds of jobs.. It can be very frustrating..    To have to go over 200pages of revised plans is crazy..  1 time sure, 2 times maybe for revisions..  

So, for me it comes down to Merit..   Do I need the paycheck? Do I need to keep X employee's employed?  Is there another way to handle the situation?  General Manager? 

I personally got fed up with it all and the reason I quite.. It was a slow death and it was my own fault.. Business was good but my attitude started getting really bad..  I was burnt out.

I've worked for some great engineers and architects over the years and it was wonderful..  Plans, payment schedule, correct measurements..  Just perfect.. 

One guy did 5 revisions.. I'd just get it done and get another revision though I would call him and let him know it was finished.. 

The guys who said they are all potential clients is correct.. I also think part of the job is educating the client slightly.. I started requesting preliminary drawings before I even arrived on scene.. 

Lots of times the client was allowed 1 revision and then it cost extra..  If it was a bidding job it came down to how badly I wanted to job and what profit margin was acceptable and what location?   Big question " Will this job get me another in a location I want to be"? 

Maybe I went about it the wrong way as I gave it up.. 

So,  look forwards to hear how this plays out.. 

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On ‎3‎/‎17‎/‎2017 at 5:37 PM, Marc1 said:

To your specific example, I was involved in a build for a church, two in fact, one the construction of a new kindergarten at the back of the church and another a large renovation expansion of another church.Both jobs in the order of 250,000 dollars some 10 and 15 years ago. 

Both turned out into a nightmare scenario for very obvious reasons unfortunately. Churches are run by amateurs. People who volunteer and others who get paid, but they are all amateurs and act accordingly.

When it comes to contracting work that the local volunteers can not do in a working bee day, the contractor is an outsider, a quasi enemy that needs to be tolerated for a short period of time. Don't expect a professional or even logical behaviour because you will not find it. Add to your list of bad clients anyone that makes religion a business.    

There are many kinds of bad clients in the building industry, some are professional crooks that know exactly how to hurt you and how to get work for free. Others and I think this are the worst, are pretend professionals, people entrusted with a job that is too big for them. Incompetent and arrogant that believe to be above you and that you owe them something just for considering you to be worthy. Walk away. Plenty of fish in the sea.

Was it you that posted the Dunning-Kruger effect? Apply with prejudice :)

here here on the amateur comment.

 

My real job is vp of engineering for a gc.  yes there are bad clients, the may not be not dishonest or bad people, just unreasonable bad clients.  its a matter of how bad, and can you predict how bad.  in our case if we sense this, we add a modifier to the total management cost to deal with them.  if we get the job, we at least have enough in the budget to have a project mgr babysit the project. and document document document.  make sure you document and have provisions for the sure to come change orders.  were in a slightly better market now and can cherry pick our clients vs fighting in the open bid market.

at any rate how can you supply a fixture they havent even speced?? major red flag stuff.  or when you as one of the bidding contractors are put to the task of value engineering ..run!!!  with 30 contractors bidding the winner is usually the one who left out or overlooked the most in their bid. 

good luck

 

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Marc,

It's been my experience that clients that are "run by committee" tend to be horrible no matter what associations they have.  Wherever the "client" seeks a diverse range of inputs from people who aren't vested in the project's success, the people involved will generally work against the project.  I see this all the time on construction projects for engineering universities.  All the faculty will weigh in on what they see, interjecting doubt and delays into the project.  I think there's something to your point about being an outsider to a congregation.  We've built quite a few churches and it's impressive how often we'll see shade-tree electrical modifications on the building when we conduct our one-year warranty walk with the client. 

Frosty,

I watched that video, it's very good but I think I'll be haunted by the murderess in the "dupers delight" example.  The point about how dangerous contempt is, was particularly interesting.  There's a lot of awful behavior tied to feelings of supremacy.  While I agree with out about catching people practicing deceit, I have to say it hasn't been very satisfying.  On the plus side, I think refusing to cooperate with a deception tends to shift the working dynamic towards a mutual discord. I'd rather not feign friendship with someone who's cheating me.

JLP,

Unfortunately I think burnout is a common outcome of my profession.  I encounter a lot of "senior" estimators who just grind away at bids without thinking.  Nothing matters to them so they tend to disconnect from anyone who is concerned about a project.  These are the people who never answer their phone, never seem to win a job, and never stop sending invitations to bid. "Winning" a job with one of these people all but guarantee's that their errors, omissions, and general lack of professionalism will be made up by a good dose of hysterical screaming from whoever manages the construction.  If the estimator sounds like Eyore, you can expect the superintendent to sound like the Tazmanian Devil!

 

J

You are right that "bad" is a feature that comes in measures and degrees.  Confused, inexperienced, or overly optimistic clients are tough to work for, even if they're very honest.  Calculating the risk of doing business with them is certainly part of the estimators craft.  I think however, that there's a Machiavellian/ Sociopath personality that tries to feign confusion in the hopes that contractors will make a mistake that benefits them.  The half-done plans with a big hurry to build combination is virtually never due to an honest or sincere client.   I've encountered many situations where the projects  final decision-maker isn't actually the client.  Honest-but-stupid clients may rush their half-completed plans out to bid complete with claims that the job starts right away.  The Loan officer at the bank may be doing nothing more than using the bid price as an excuse to decline the loan, or to prolong the approval process.  There never was a "reasonable" estimated cost for the project, no matter what the meaningless "pre-approved" amount is.

 

 

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