Thursday, January 26, 2012

Clients Who Give You Grief

I have worked with more than one hundred clients in my years as a consultant and trainer, including corporations both in the United States and abroad, government agencies at the federal, state, and local levels, and individuals. I've sold my products to hundreds more customers worldwide. Nearly all of these clients and customers have been easy and trouble-free to work with. But a few have caused headaches. In this post, I relate some of the kinds of problems I've encountered so you can be alert for those in your own consulting work. Please share your own client horror stories by commenting on this post.

Getting Stiffed: I know several consultants who have been stiffed by one or two of their clients—they simply never paid the consultant for services rendered. Fortunately, this has not yet happened to me. I've come close a couple of times, though. For instance, I once did a two-week European seminar tour at the request of a tool vendor. Afterward, I could not get them to pay me. It wasn't a trivial amount of money, either. Finally, I received a check. The check required the signatures of not one but two of the company's managers, yet no one had signed the check! I'd had it. I called the company’s president, and a new check for the full amount—signed, no less—arrived the next day. It just shouldn't be that hard to get paid for work you've done.

On two occasions, people did not pay for products they had ordered from me. They ignored the invoice and would not respond to my e-mails. As it happens, both of these customers were outside the United States. As a result of those experiences, I changed my billing policy. I will no longer ship a product to a purchaser outside the US along with an invoice. Instead, I must receive payment before shipping the product. It's a shame that a very few people make life more difficult for everyone through their actions.

Firing a Client: When I worked at Kodak before I went independent, I helped plan our annual software engineering conference one year. We had a particular speaker in mind for a keynote presentation, a very well known figure in a particular area of software development. However, one of the planning committee members reported that that consultant had had some bad experience with Kodak, and he was no longer willing to work at the company. No one knew exactly what the details of the problem were.

At the time, my reaction was, “How arrogant!” When I became a consultant myself, though, I realized that some clients simply aren’t worth the trouble. I’ve had a very few clients that I won’t work for any more for various reasons: sluggish payment policies; too many problems encountered with contracting or invoicing (like invoices that disappear simply because one particular individual changed jobs); incredibly slow or erratic decision-making; or other reasons. Obviously, if you need the income and the opportunity presents itself, you’ll probably just bite your tongue and tolerate difficult clients. But if you have the luxury of having enough work, sometimes it makes sense to say, “Thanks, but no thanks” when certain clients call.

One of my consultant friends tried for nearly eighteen months to receive a payment from a very large technology company, to no avail. Ultimately, they offered to pay him a discounted rate within 30 days, or the entire balance at some indeterminate future date. Totally fed up, my friend contacted the office of the president of this huge company. Amazingly, they paid him right away! Wouldn’t have been easier just to pay the bill as promised? My friend refused to do any further work with that client. Ironically, I’ve had so many problems with that same household-name company that years ago I decided not to sell them any more of my services or even products. They just aren’t worth it.

Problems with clients sometimes lead to changes in your business processes. When I encountered a couple of clients who took far longer than was reasonable to pay me, I established a new policy for new clients. Rather than invoicing a client after a training seminar for the speaking fee plus travel and lodging expenses, I began quoting an all-inclusive fee, sending an invoice in advance, and requesting that payment be delivered at the time of the seminar. Nearly all of my clients accepted this policy. I relax the policy when I have a sustained and successful relationship with a client or in other special circumstances, like when I wish to defer income into the next calendar year. Otherwise, though, the seminar begins when I have my check.

Some other consultants request payment of a portion of their fee in advance, which they retain if the client cancels the event. I've never done that, although I do include a cancellation fee in my speaking agreement. I've only had to invoice clients for the cancellation fee about four times. Ironically, those invoices have always been paid more promptly than my regular invoices. Go figure.

Questionable Ethics: I use a simple consulting agreement to outline the specifics of each client engagement. A prospective client once asked me to state in the agreement that I would be performing a certain kind of work, because that’s what they had funding for. In reality, though, I would be doing something different after I arrived on site. My client told me that if the agreement stated what I would really be doing, his management wouldn’t approve it.

This struck me as unethical. What if a senior manager discovered that I was doing something other than what had been approved and funded? Not only would I probably not get paid, I wouldn’t be hired by that company again, and my professional reputation could be damaged. I suppose I could even get sued. So I declined this invitation and never dealt with that company again. There are a lot of gray areas when it comes to integrity. But if someone clearly asks you to lie about work that you do, that’s pretty black-and-white.

A Poor Fit: The notion of being scrupulously ethical in professional dealings applies to consultants as well as to clients, of course. While I was at Kodak early in my software development career, my team needed to bring in a database consultant from a major vendor for some short-term help. I spoke to the prospective consultant and asked how much experience he had in the particular area that was giving us headaches. "I haven't done that before," he replied, "but I can learn along with you." No, I'm sorry, that answer is incorrect, but thanks for playing. It seemed unethical for him to request that we pay $1200 a day for him to learn alongside us. We found a different consultant.

As a consultant, it's important to know your capabilities and limitations. Once in a while, I receive an inquiry from a prospective client who is looking for help in an area in which I lack expertise. I never offer a proposal in such a case because I know there are better people available. I'm always happy to refer a client to another consultant who’s a better fit for their needs, and I'm grateful when other consultants point clients towards me. Incidentally, I neither ask nor pay finder’s fees for these sorts of referrals. I figure that if everybody is willing to help match up prospective clients with the right consultants, then everybody's back gets scratched; it all averages out in the end.

Clients Who Go Dark: I once had a client who brought me in twice, both to deliver some training classes and to do some consulting. The events all went well, the manager who brought me in seemed happy with the results, and he wanted to set up another engagement soon. After I returned home, I sent him a speaking agreement for the dates he had requested. No reply. I e-mailed him several more times to follow up. No answer. I phoned and left voice mails. No response. This client literally never contacted me again. I don’t know what the problem was, but I would have appreciated it had he simply told me they were no longer interested in my services. This would have saved me the time and trouble of repeatedly attempting to contact him, which I was doing at his request, after all. Weird.

Actually, I did “hear” from him a few years later. I received a flood of virus e-mails apparently coming from his e-mail address. Somehow, that seemed fitting.

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

OMG, What Have I Done?! Anticipating Risks When Working with Others (contributed by Vicki James)

Vicki James (www.project-pro.us) is an independent consultant in Olympia, WA. She holds Project Management Professional (PMP) and Certified Business Analysis Professional (CBAP) certifications. Active in developing IT projects both as a business analyst and project manager since 1999,Vicki is passionate about learning and sharing best practices in project management, business analysis, communications, leadership, and organizational improvement.

I quit my public service project management job about a year and half ago to enter the world of independent consulting. I thrive on change and the idea of bringing new and better ideas, processes, and tools to as many people and organizations as possible. Only I made a mistake along the way. This mistake could occur with a variety of working relationships, including corporate employment, project collaborations, consulting for clients, and business partnerships.

The story begins about six weeks after I had left my civil service position, where I had been a business analyst and project manager for eleven years. I had started talking with one of the owners of a local technology company about subcontracting opportunities in both business analysis and project management. Instead, they offered me a job as a salaried employee. Great! I could earn a salary doing what I wanted, consulting with different clients while helping the company expand their business opportunities. The difference is that my work would be through an established company rather than my own startup. What did I have to lose? I was prepared to postpone establishing my own consulting business for one year as a worst-case scenario. This company hired me without even an interview, which seemed at the time like a vote of confidence and sure sign of success. In hindsight, I went to work for them with too little information, and I paid the price.

Interviews are a funny thing. Most of us fear them. What questions will they ask? Will they like me? Will I sound knowledgeable? Do I have spinach in my teeth? I often counsel others who are considering a change that the interview is a chance for them to find out about the prospective employer and judge how well it might align with the candidate’s professional goals and expectations. Too bad I did not listen to my own advice. I did not take the opportunity to explore how the company would help—or hinder—my own professional aspirations. Instead, I envisioned a world in which they would leverage my expertise to expand their own business, both in terms of client projects I took on, but also relying on my experience and tendency to act to bring better process to my own work environment.

The management structure of the company includes four officers: three investors and a hired operations manager. By one officer’s own admission, there is not a single decision manager. Instead, the company philosophy is management by consensus. This approach did not allow for serious consideration of my ideas for process improvement within the company. I felt as if my expertise and experience were not valued because of this. Initially, I chalked it up to being the new girl on the block. Eventually, though, the reality became clear that adding another perspective to their dynamic would confuse things more than they already were in their leaderless decision-making processes.

Things began to unravel almost a year into the position, when they assigned me to manage a troubled project. I had been working directly with various clients on contract away from the central office and bosses until this time. It was when working with the bosses on managing a high-profile client that I began to recognize the extent of the differences in our business philosophies and professional ethics. Here are a few examples of the struggles I encountered:
  1. Management often questioned and criticized my actions, decisions, and communications because we did not share the same client- and team-management principles. I am generally forthright and candid; I communicate everything to all. They prefer to hold information close to the vest. Rarely did a week go by that I was not “counseled” by one of the bosses. Often, this was after I previously had discussed some strategy with another boss. They did not have a shared philosophy amongst themselves, and I often paid the price for their lack of continuity.
  2. I am an analytical and process-oriented individual. In this fast-moving technology company, I always feel that projects are in chaos. The managers believe that process slows down development and therefore billing; I don’t agree.
  3. The management team as a whole does not buy into the value of project management. One or more bosses will often ignore or overturn my recommendations and actions in relation to project process, clients, and team development. On at least two occasions, the Chief Technology Officer has made derogatory comments to me about “you project management types.”
This is clearly a clash of working styles and values. I now realize that an interview and more exploration up front might have kept me from taking a job at a company where I would not be happy. I might have avoided the position altogether or been able to propose conditions of employment. Because I leapt at this appealing opportunity without performing due diligence, I missed an important opportunity to identify and manage some of the risks of working with other people. Instead, I spent fourteen months in a position that was not satisfying.

Different professional relationships come with different risks. I now see how important risk analysis is when I consider this from the perspective of an independent consultant and the opportunities that might come along. Let me give you some examples.

Clients


Some clients will come with a cost greater than the benefit you hope to receive. It may be that there is too little or no money if the client does not pay as agreed and you end up in the hole. There may be other financial impacts to the company, such as the cost of employee turnover or the company’s reputation if things go badly. Get to know your clients and document all agreements (financial and working) before beginning work. You always have the option to turn the work down. This should be a serious consideration when the risk is high.

Business Partners


Taking on a business partner is much like a marriage in the sense of financial and legal obligations. The unfortunate ending in either case is called “dissolution” and can be very damaging. You should understand your future business partner to be able to identify the risks and benefits of working together.

Collaborators


You will need to rely on your collaborators to uphold their end of the bargain and treat you fairly when joining forces to complete a project. Get to know them. If you need to, check references either formally or informally. Discuss and document all agreements up front to avoid misunderstandings. I recently began collaborating with a colleague on a writing project. This time I much more carefully considered what could go wrong and how likely it would be to happen.

Whether you’re exploring a client–vendor relationship, an employee–employer relationship, or partnering with someone in a business or a project, consider the following questions to begin recognizing the potential risks:
  • Do you share a common vision for the business or project?
  • Do you know and accept each other’s work ethics, dedication, and commitment?
  • Do your skills complement each other? For instance, do you have a skill your client lacks, or does one partner have a strategic, big-picture outlook for the company, while the other can focus on the details?
  • Is there mutual respect for each other’s expertise? That is, can you be confident that your ideas will be fairly considered, or does your client or partner believe that she already has all the answers?
Once you’ve acquired more information, you can ponder further. What are the likely benefits of the collaboration? What can you imagine possibly going wrong? What impact could those outcomes have on you mentally, financially, or professionally? What is the likelihood of each of those risks materializing into an actual problem? Do the benefits outweigh the risks?

This is where I failed in my own situation. While I had considered the worst-case outcome of employment as deferring my move into independent consulting for a year, I did not take the time to adequately explore the range and likelihood of other potential unpleasant outcomes from taking this position. I hope you will gain some valuable insight from this experience so we can all learn from my mistake.

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Four Eyes Are Better Than Two: Editing What You Write

No matter how brilliant a writer you think you are, a good editor will make you look better. Even when I write something that seems clean and focused to my eye, editors always find small mistakes and ways to improve the delivery. In this post I'll discuss some typical editing experiences you might have as an author.

Copy Editing


If you're writing articles for print or online magazines, you'll be dealing with one or more editors. The copy editor's job is to improve the spelling, grammatical correctness, consistency, and clarity of expression of your work. The copy editor may ensure that your piece conforms to the magazine's house style standards for formatting and other conventions. The copy editor probably won't make substantial content adjustments or suggest structural changes, although a general editor might. The definitive reference for many editors is The Chicago Manual of Style. I keep a copy handy and refer to it when I'm not certain how to express something. For example, if you're referring to a time in the morning, which abbreviation do you use: AM, A.M., am, a.m., or something else? Should "20" be written as "20" or "twenty"? Chicago will tell you.

When writing a book, a commercial publisher generally will engage either an in-house or freelance copy editor (possibly along with an artist, a compositor, and an indexer). It's a good idea to build a collaborative relationship with your editor. You really have to learn to respect the editing process. Conversely, the editor needs to understand your preferences, respect your style, and deal thoughtfully with your hot buttons. A good editor will preserve your "voice" even as she hones your message. You're not obligated to accept every change the editor suggests. Nonetheless, you should look at each proposed change and consider it. Most of them are no-brainers: accept the change. Ultimately, though, the author’s name, not the editor's, goes on the byline, so you are the final authority on what gets published.

Good editing makes a big difference in how a sharp-eyed reader perceives a publication. For some reason, I'm very good at spotting typographical and word usage errors. When I find these in a published book, they annoy me. When I was writing my first book years ago and starting to think about finding a publisher, I realized that several computer books I had read from one publisher were replete with errors. Although that publisher offered me a contract for my book, I declined it for that very reason. One of the most common mistakes I’ve see in books in recent years is the incorrect use of homophones, words that sound alike but are spelled differently: write, right, rite. Whether these errors originate with the author or later in the production process doesn't matter to the reader. A published book with such mistakes is an indication of sloppy editing.

Development Editing


Your publisher might have a development editor work with you, particularly if you're not an experienced author. A development editor will propose more radical changes than will a copy editor. This is particularly helpful if your manuscript is not well structured or well organized, or if the manuscript has technical shortcomings that need to be addressed before it's ready to release.

The editors for my first book, Creating a Software Engineering Culture, added enormous value by performing two stages of editing. First, development editing helped me transform a poorly structured, flabby manuscript into a much more effective vehicle for telling my story. Second, copy editing greatly cleaned up and tightened my prose and presentation. I lost 20,000 words of text along the way—words I had spent many hours crafting to the best of my ability—but it was a far better book after the surgery. This experience gave me a better appreciation of the phrase "cutting-room floor."

With both magazine and book editors, be sure to read the edited version carefully to make sure that editing did not introduce inadvertent changes. This happens all the time. On one of my very earliest articles, more than thirty years ago, I was surprised to see an error in the published article that wasn’t in my manuscript. That opened my eyes to the realization that sometimes when you think the author has made a mistake, an editor actually introduced the mistake. For this reason, I always request to do a proofread of the final copy before it goes to press. Just as in software debugging, making corrections in text has the possibility of introducing additional errors.

My worst editing experience took place on a magazine article of about 4,000 words. The freelance copy editor told me he did a "light" edit. However, his modifications changed the meaning of what I was trying to say in no fewer than twenty-six places! For instance, I was presenting a case study, and I wrote, "We did A and then we did B." The editor thought it read more smoothly as, "We did B and then we did A." But it was a case study! That wasn't what we did. You have to proofread very carefully to catch those kinds of errors. The editor is not an expert in your domain—you are. So sometimes it's not obvious to the editor that a small change can radically alter the meaning of your message.

Rarely, you might find that you and the copy editor just aren't clicking. I experienced that problem on one of my books. The editor was introducing too many errors, changing my voice too much, and generally not adding much value. After giving it enough time to be sure I wasn’t overreacting, I shared my frustration with the overall project editor. He then took over the copy editing responsibility himself and did a great job. Nearly all of the editors I've worked with have been fine, though, and I’m grateful for the countless improvements they made in my writing.

A friend who's a highly experienced editor offered the following wisdom: "For new or first-time writers, working with any editor on staff can be touchy. If they don't like the editor and want him removed, they will need to be very tactful with the editor's supervisor. Another tip: be really nice to anyone you work with on the publishing team. Lowly copy editors sometimes become acquisitions editors and project editors, or they move on to bigger publishing houses and websites. Forming a good relationship with your editors can work to your advantage." This is excellent advice. When I met this editor, she had just started as a copy editor at a magazine. Within a few years, she had risen to the top position on the masthead, Editor in Chief. We worked together very well.

Proofreading


Editing isn't the end of the pre-publication process. You still need to proofread the final copy. This is a different type of activity than editing. You're not looking to further improve the piece, but rather to make sure it's in final form, free from errors, and ready to inflict on your loyal readers. Ideally, the proofreader and the editor will be different people. I always proofread the final copy myself, but of course, I'm already very close to it. The closer you are to the material, the harder it is to spot errors. If possible, try to line up an independent proofreader with a sharp eye, in addition to scrutinizing the piece yourself.

People use a variety of techniques to proofread their own text carefully. As I suggested in my previous post, setting it aside for a few days helps. You can read the copy line by line, turning off your brain and looking just at the words. Some people use a piece of paper to cover all of the text except for the one line they're proofreading. Some people read the copy backwards word by word or sentence by sentence. Others read it out loud. Find a trick that works for you. You'll be surprised how many errors you spot.

For years, I've done nearly all of my writing by voice, using Dragon NaturallySpeaking speech recognition software. This software does quite a good job of recognizing what I say and typing it out for me. Once I got the hang of writing verbally, I found it to be much faster than typing. It's also easier on my wrists and forearms, so I no longer suffer from repetitive motion injuries attributable to keyboarding. Speech recognition software will never make a typographical error. However, it will sometimes misinterpret what I say, which results in text other than what I intended. Therefore, I need to proofread anything I write by voice more carefully than usual because spell check doesn't do me any good.

When It's Your Responsibility


If you elect to self-publish a book or write an eBook, you're on your own for copy editing and proofreading. Don't think you can do this yourself or just hand it over to a friend—professional editors are much better than us amateurs. My latest book, a memoir of life lessons titled Pearls from Sand , was not self-published, but the publisher didn't provide editing or proofreading services. I was responsible for supplying the publisher with the final manuscript, ready to print. Therefore, I had to line up a copy editor and proofreader to make my manuscript as good as possible.

I began by hiring my old friend Barbara Hanscome, barbara_hanscome@yahoo.com. I worked with Barbara on many articles while she was an editor at Software Development magazine. Now she does freelance editing. Barbara is the best editor I've ever worked with. As I expected, she did a great job on my book manuscript. I also hired a local Portland firm called The Mighty Pen to do some of the copy editing and all of the proofreading. They, too, did an excellent job. I'd recommend both Barbara and The Mighty Pen to anyone who's in need of first-rate copy editing or proofreading services at a reasonable price. They were worth every penny.

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Four Eyes Are Better Than Two: Reviewing What You Write

One of the most powerful tools available to help you become a better writer is peer review. I cannot overstress the importance of having people carefully review and critique your writing before you inflict it on an unsuspecting world. As I tried to remember how I learned how to write, I realized that I learned a great deal from a few professors in college and graduate school who took the time to give me detailed critical feedback on papers I had written. By studying that feedback, I learned how to write better papers the next time.

Preparing a piece for publication involves at least four steps: your own review, peer review, editing, and proofreading. I’ll explore the first two activities in this post and the last two in my next post.

Take a Look Yourself


The first quality improvement round is your own critical review. After I've written a new article, book chapter, or blog post, I set it aside for at least a full day before I review it. Longer is better. If you review something immediately after writing it, you don't really review it: you mentally recite it. I like to let my memory of the piece decay for a while so I can look at it with fresh, less biased eyes. Sometimes I will then see sentences that make me wonder what in the world I was thinking when I wrote them.

When I'm looking over my writing, Occasionally I hear a little nagging voice. It says, "That part doesn't work; redo it or cut it out." I used to reply to myself, "Let's see how the reviewers feel about it." The reviewers invariably hated that section. I've learned to trust that little voice and to fix the issue right away. The voice hasn't been wrong yet.

Being naturally wordy, I use a little technique to help me tighten my writing. Each time I review an article or a chapter of a few thousand words in length, I try to remove one hundred words. I don't always achieve that goal. However, focusing on tightening the writing helps me deliver the maximum value per sentence to the reader.

Enlisting Other Eyes


Once the piece is in good shape to your own eyes, it's time for peer reviews. The peer review process varies depending on what kind of work you're writing. Obviously, if you're writing blog entries, it's entirely your choice whether to have someone else look at your work before you post it. Still, even if the piece is informal, I recommend asking at least one other person to review it. You'd certainly rather have a friend find an error or a silly statement than have a website visitor or prospective customer spot it. It's always a little embarrassing when someone finds a mistake in my work. But when a friendly reviewer spots it first, I consider that a "good catch."

Tough peer reviews are the most useful kind. They aren't much fun to read, but they sure help improve whatever you write. I've been fortunate in this regard. For each of my books, I have had one or two—never more than two—reviewers who just didn't let me get away with anything. Once I figure out who those reviewers will be on a particular writing project, I always dread receiving their feedback. I know that I'll feel like an idiot, and that I'll have to spend a lot of time processing their comments and reworking the piece. However, I also know that their input will greatly improve my work. Other reviewers just rubberstamp what I send them or point out minor typos. While I appreciate their time and the positive feedback, this kind of input just isn't very helpful.

I've observed that reviewing tends to make a document longer, whereas editing makes it shorter. Reviewers often suggest that I add more content, another example, or a figure to illustrate a point. By the time I've addressed all the reviewer input, the piece is perhaps ten to twenty percent longer than the original version. So then it's time to go back to my remove-100-words philosophy to tighten it up again, particularly if I'm writing against a length limit. Professional copy editing also will fix wordiness and redundancy problems.

Peer review is painful. You write the best piece you possibly can, you're proud of it, and you want to share it with others. It hurts when some of those other people don't respond as you hope and recommend major revisions. You have to learn to accept the critical input in the spirit in which it's intended. Quite naturally, authors get a lot of their ego tied up with their writing. As an author, you need to set your ego aside enough to be receptive to the input. Reviewers must set their egos aside, too. A good reviewer will show respect for the work and the energy the author put into the piece and will provide thoughtful, constructive feedback. The comment "This sucks," even if true, is not helpful. I've been passionate about peer reviews for a long time, even to the extent of writing a book titled Peer Reviews in Software: A Practical Guide.

In the next post, I'll talk about the editing and proofreading steps, which follow the review process.

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)