Who Is Your Client?

Who do you answer to when you’re an independant consultant? Herman Holtz offers suggestions, experiences, and a few tips to help you get through projects smoothly.

Someone has made a cogent point in one of today’s postings about consulting, a point that I have never seen made in public before, although I have myself raised that point in some of my own writings. The point is simply this: When you hire out to serve a client as a consultant or contractor of any kind, do you know who your client is? No, not the organization, but the individual in the organization. The purchase order or other contract that authorizes your work is issued by a large organization and signed by someone, but who is your true client? It is not always obvious, and it is not always easy to find out. Is it the individual who has approval or disapproval of your work? Or is it the individual who decided to hire you and had the authority to authorize it (along with the authority to terminate it.). Or a sales and marketing executive who never heard of you?

On an assignment at IBM in Kingston, New York (the location of IBM’s Federal Systems Division at the time), I found a low-level supervisor reviewing my work and ordering changes, although the work was exactly what I had proposed and was the basis on which I had been hired. Still, the supervisor insisted that it was “my way or the highway” and I yielded to his pressure. That brought me to confrontation by the executive who had interviewed and retained me, and he was not kind in condemning my poor judgment and, especially, lack of integrity, when he learned why I had failed to deliver what I had originally promised. He made me ashamed that I had failed to stick by my guns as I should have. (I resolved that I would never be guilty of that again, as I repaired the job!)

In another case, doing a job for the FAA, I discovered that I had 20 clients! All members of the entire safety engineering staff had approval/disapproval authority over what I was writing, and it proved to be impossible to get them to agree on any item. After many frustrations, the contracting officer appealed to me to help him find a means to get the job completed. Fortunately, we were able to do so.

Helping Remington Rand UNIVAC turn out manuals for the LARC computer of years ago, I ran across great hostility from the head writer of the company’s in-house technical writing team. He was not the client, but he was influential enough to make life unpleasant for a hired gun such as me. In his case, I shmoozed him until we became friends, and that settled any differences we might have had, real or fancied. That is a little different kind of case. It’s a case calling for diplomacy.

I had a most unpleasant experience when I was invited to sit in on a special meeting of the Northeast-Midwest Coalition in Washington, meeting to discuss federal purchasing and procurement. A woman from Massachusetts had also been invited to testify, and she sat directly across the table from me, glaring daggers and leaping frantically to beat me to an answer whenever anyone of the Coalition raised a question. I never learned the reason for her hostility, but it seemed to me that she feared me as a competitor gaining recognition from a powerful political organization. Unfortunately, independent consultants often run into hostility, especially from in-house people, employees, who fear that management does not have enough faith in them, and hired guns will make them look bad. Try to be prepared for this.

I learned, from such experiences, to make it my business to learn up front, at the beginning of the work, who the client is, just as I had once had to learn, at the beginning of a contract, what the procedure was to get paid at the conclusion of the contract. But I also had to learn how to keep my profile to the minimum to minimize the reasons in-house people could find to resent my presence on the premises.

[Editor’s Note: Herman Holtz, the consultant’s consultant, wrote something like 80 books and inspired me long before I encountered him online. Though we never met in person, we had a six-year e-mail friendship. This piece was one of the last of Herm’s Occasional Newsletters. I wrote for permission to reuse it on February 14, 2001. Herm graciously granted permission, but died about two weeks later–before I could show him the edited manuscript or find out what link he would have liked.]