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It's ironic that dealing with clients is one of the most frustrating aspects of development -- ironic because, but for the clients, there would be no development!

I've often noted that taking on a client shares similarities with raising a child. Those parents reading this will acknowledge that the first, sine qua non responsibility of a parent is to love their child. If my son knows that I love him, then all the other responsibilities of a parent are possible, if not easy. But without that love, something like discipline is seen simply as displeasure.

Perhaps "love" is too strong a word for our relationship with clients, but I'm not sure. I know that my most successful engagement with clients has been when, despite the possible negative consequences to me, I put my clients interest first. That doesn't always mean doing what the client wants me to.

Two recent occurrences got me thinking about this. A prospective new client and I had spoken about a job they wishes done. We were both excited about it -- right up to the point where I gave them the price. I'll call the client "M"; here's how the discussion went.

M: Hal, we're excited to move ahead on this project.
H: I am too.
M: Just one thing. I'd like to negotiate a bit on price.
H: I'm just guessing here -- but am I right in thinking you're not trying to get me to accept more than I quoted?
M: Ha! You guessed right. Um...how did you come up with that figure?
H: I did it based on my experience and the goals and features you have for the application.
M: Right. Well, could I see a spreadsheet of hours and rates and such?
H: Hmmm....M, let me explain how I view this. My goal is to have a partnership of interests between me and you. Call it a win-win if you'd like, but my goal is for you to succeed. That needs to be my complete focus. Now, if you and I start "negotiating", we're going to turn this into an adversarial relationship in which we struggle for control. The relationship ceases to be about partnership and turns into one about power. That's not the business I'm in. I completely understand if you'd like to get a bid from someone else, but the price I've given you is the price I charge.
M: Well, can't I see how you came up with that price?
H: No, I'm sorry: that's proprietary and, more importantly, contrary to my goal of building partnerships with my clients.

So, that was it. M was a bit miffed and I assumed that was an opportunity that wouldn't come to fruition. Which is why I was surprised two days later to get a call from M's boss. "OK, Hal, we want you to do the project. Tell me how to wire you the money."

I suspect that M felt it was her responsibility to "beat me up" on pricing. That's often the way business is done: one side wrestling with the other for the upper hand. But it doesn't have to be. We can be respectful of ourselves and our clients without giving things away.

Clients may feel that "negotiating" is their responsibility. It's mine to make them feel safe that they can partner with me without fear that I'll take advantage of them. If I can do this, I know the project will be a success. If I can't, no amount of written specifications or legal verbiage will protect me from a project that, from the beginning, was so badly derailed.

Next post: Putting a client in "time out"

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Comment by Michael Evangelista on January 5, 2009 at 0:45
Excellent points. There are so many among our ranks who are skilled at development, design, etc but horrible at customer relations. Some who are simply not a 'people person' and others - much more apt to fail imho - who seem to think the top goal is following the client's every whim and fancy , no matter what.

As a parent and a person with little free time (and lots of responsibilities both time and financial), I have had similar discussions, with similar results. The customer is NOT always right, and it doesn't do anybody any good to let things slide into adversarial or resentful positioning. Doing the work is tedious enough in itself!


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