There are politics in every organization, but one thing I love about consulting is that you are always one step removed from them. As an expert outsider, you are often above the fray. When you give advice it is usually seen as neutral and professional – after all, that is what they are paying you for. But some clients are more difficult than others, and avoiding politics with them can be very difficult, if not impossible.
Over my many years of consulting, I have found that most consultant/client relationships fall into three broad categories. Whenever possible, it is best to position yourself in the top category:
You are seen as a recognized expert and treated well. You are allowed to work autonomously. Your client appreciates and respects you, and good work is lauded. Personally I thrive in this kind of environment. I want to deliver success to these clients. I will go the extra mile for clients that respect me. It is a win-win relationship.
Consultant as JAE (Just Another Employee)
You are seen as one of the crowd. Depending on the managerial staff, you may be micromanaged. Other employees may resent you. Any “favouritism” shown to you will be a grievance to the others (larger workspace, better equipment, a window etc.). The only way out of this trap is to prove your worth by excelling beyond their expectations. If you can, you could graduate to Guru status.
Consultant as the Enemy
For any number of possible reasons, your client is not happy and is directing its collective wrath at you. Marketing may have over-promised and your client’s expectations may be sky-high. Negative past experience with other consultants may make them prejudice against you. Maybe the project is being shoved down their throats by upper management. Maybe they are unhappy that the software package they just purchased also requires tens of thousands of dollars in development time. In any case, they are quietly or openly hostile. You are resented as a “huge” expense. Sometimes your client even wants the project to fail for political reasons. Sometimes they want someone to blame. Pulling this one out of the fire will be very hard, if not impossible. This is the worst case scenario. These will be the hardest clients. They will demand the most and thank you the least. Avoid these situations whenever possible.
You may find that any one client may be a mix of these, depending on the circumstances. You may even find individuals within an organization scatter all over this scale. To position yourself well, you need to manage expectations as early as you can and strive to exceed them. Prove your worth as you are able. But while you do, bear in mind the adage “there is no pleasing some people.” Sometimes bad clients are not worth the trouble.