Monday Consulting Questions: The Bus Test and “I Could Do This Myself, But…”

By Christopher Hawkins •  Updated: 10/15/07 •  5 min read

Q.  How do you handle your workload when your key man is out/unavailable?

A. Cogeian Systems is basically my vision of how software development ought to be done, implemented by my team.  In some ways, I am the key man.  In other ways, my team members – every one of them – are the key men.  In a small firm, you don’t have the ability to pull in an anonymous dev from another department to cover a staffing shortfall in your own.  We are a small team; we thrive together and we suffer together.

That said, in any firm there’s always at least one project going on that is significantly more vital to the firm than any other project.  Whoever is leading that project is the key man.  I lost a developer to a bigger firm around this time last year, and it definitely qualified as a key man issue – I had him developing a lot of long-term stuff and although coverage was decent, it was still a blow to have a primary producer leave.  To be honest, we’re still feeling the crunch; business has increased but the team has shrunk.  This has forced us to become even more effective than before.

I make sure that at least 2 devs are familiar with every project.  I make sure that at least 2 devs are known to every client, so that if someone has to step in, they’re not completely foreign to the client.  I make sure that all my project management notes are accessible to every dev.  I make sure, in short, that there are no secrets regarding what has been promised, what is being built, what is broken, or who is responsible for what.  In a small shop that’s about all you can do.

Q.  I have a client who wants me to do some really dumb things with their web app.  They keep pulling out the “we could do this ourselves” argument, like I should be thankful to be here.  What do I do?

A.WARNING:  Client trash-talk ahead.  If you are a Cogeian Systems client who has given me a hard time recently, I am about to talk about you.  Don’t worry, I still love you.

First off, you should be thankful for their business.  However, that doesn’t mean you should be a pushover and allow the client to disregard your expertise.  We do a lot of business with small businesses, and almost to a person we have found that small business owners fall into the “just do what I say” camp at first, showing little interest in allowing us to exercise the expertise that led them to hire us in the first place.  It’s a huge issue, and it threatens to badly derail a lot of projects before they get started.

The software remediation clients tend to be the worst in this regard – they’ve already been burned by another dev firm, they’ve probably already expended their anticipated budget, they’re aggravated and suspicious, and they try to soothe themselves by being very draconian with us.  This never helps the project.  About half of our small business clients give us this type of attitude – “just do it, I already know what needs to be done.”  We’ve also heard the “I could do this myself, but. . .” argument.  They’re completely wrong a lot of the time, and we try hard to educate, lead and reason with them.

I run a small business too, so I understand their fears – every dollar spent on software/web work is a dollar that could have gone into the business owner’s pocket.  Now, you could argue that this is a short-sighted view, given that good software or web work will more than pay for itself quickly, but that is human nature.  People – especially people coming to us after being hosed by another firm – are often afraid of what might go wrong if they hand over a big sweaty wad of cash and everything goes wrong.  I get that, and I try to talk to clients on an owner-to-owner basis whenever possible to make it clear that we’re on the same page.

Ultimately, the sad truth is that if a client is not willing to get past their own fear or suspicion in order to play ball, we refund the deposit and suggest some other local service providers.  As I’ve written before, being a professional means saying “no” to your client sometimes.  Of course, the upside is that the clients we tend to retain are the ones who either get it right away, or who come around after initially being resistant to letting us be the expert.  This is a beautiful thing, because it means we have great client relationships, even if they start out shaky.

I look at it this way – I didn’t build this firm so I could help my clients to do the wrong thing, and thankfully there is plenty of business out there, so when a project is clearly not a fit for whatever reason, I don’t feel bad about walking them.

Do Your Clients Ever Make You Furious?

If so, I offer a free 10-day e-mail course that can help you resolve exactly the kind of conflict that’s outlined in the article above.  Paying late, not responding to emails, arguing about art direction…enough is enough.  Sign up for Conquering Client Conflict today and learn to make more money & get more respect by squashing these conflicts.