Them old consulting blues
September 24, 2014 11:40 AM   Subscribe

Solutions to work problems that are not, strictly speaking, happening in a "workplace" framework? Weird details inside.

I could give many fanciful titles to my work—developer, designer—but really I'm a consultant. Our small company has been working with a larger agency for almost two years now. We've done several projects together and it's been really lucrative and productive for both sides. I'm familiar with nearly everyone in the company, we're friendly and they do really good work. However—and this is the best part—they understand that I'm a consultant. Their risk and mine are not the same. They keep the late night phone calls and emails to a minimum, and they make sure the work is highly structured, on budget, and in scope.

A few months ago I was approached by a new employee at the agency to bid on a new, large project. I did and we were awarded the contract. It seemed like any other project. But soon after starting the scope began to change under the direction of "B"; I get the idea that B is from an agency background and may have been an art director. As a developer and former art director myself, I know how to manage this personality type pretty well. However, I'm pretty stymied in my attempts to do that here for some reason. It seems as though B is positioning themselves to the management of this company as a real hard charger. In our interactions, this manifests itself as lots of "URGENT" emails and requests for me to be on site (which is something this company knew I would be willing to do, but which I was seldom asked to do since we always worked well as a telecommuting team). Worst of all, B is throwing their weight around now by lowballing me on another project offer, something no one would have considered before.

The issue, in a nutshell, is I'm being micromanaged as an employee—as a bad, recalcitrant employee who needs hand-holding—when I am none of those things. The level of difficulty is that while I've met the partners at this company a handful of times I feel awkward going to them about this. Firstly, because it weakens my position and forces me to frame the conversation in a way that makes me seem like I'm an employee; and secondly because it seems absurd to have to go through this at all, or to be so stumped about how adults would deal with such an issue.

There is a trusted project manager I've thought about going to, but doesn't that seem like I'm going behind B's back? Part of me doesn't care, but a larger part of me wants out of all the politics and nonsense of the situation by any means necessary. I like being a consultant because I don't care about people's baggage and "management styles". Help?

In case you want to get really in depth about it, throwaway email is
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (4 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
A request for you to be on-site is just that. A request. You can decline it.

A lowball offer is just that. An offer. You can decline it.

I think this all comes down to one question: are you concerned that if you don't play by B's rules, you'll lose your business with this company?

Let's say you start declining B's requests and holding B at arm's length, and B does start working with a different vendor. Are you confident that your work will be higher in quality/timelier/etc? Will B's superiors will notice the difference? If so, the problem has a decent chance of sorting itself out. If not, maybe B is actually doing better by the company, painful as that may be to contemplate.

Can you engineer a happy hour or other non-work social situation where B and other people from the company will be present? That might be an opportunity to get them to sing your praises to B and let B know that you have some standing in the company.
posted by adamrice at 11:56 AM on September 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Don't worry about going behind anyone's back. You're not an employee, remember? You don't necessarily have to obey the hierarchy of the company (unless of course your agreement says 'contractor can only speak to B'). I don't think it would be out of bounds to have some sort of meeting with B about how to best work/communicate together. I would try that before speaking to the other manager.

I've worked with a lot of contractors/consultants. When I've sent emails and things marked URGENT to consultants, they simply continued to get back to me on their own time, at their own pace, unless it truly was urgent. Some of them would take the time to make us aware of their other projects and give reasons or polite excuses as to the delay. One guy asked if we begin calling when something was really urgent, rather than sending the usual email. Basically, when they were cool about it, my company was cool about it; when one guy was a dick about it, we terminated his contract.
posted by ElectricGoat at 11:56 AM on September 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think that as a consultant, it's not generally appropriate for you to go to someone else at the company and discuss your issues with this problematic person. Unless it is seriously dire - i.e. they are abusive and would result in your removing yourself completely from all projects associated with the company. I think you have to start to think of this as the new normal of interacting with this company, or at least this person within the company.

When I work with different people/groups at a company, I think of each PERSON as my client, not necessarily the company.

If you were an employee, it would be another matter - if you're having trouble working with someone, it would be your responsibility to improve your interactions with them, whether by working something out with them directly, or by seeking guidance from your manager / their manager / HR.

If I were in your position, I would do the following:

1. Sit down and be honest with myself about my interactions with this new person. They are frustrating because:
PERSONAL - I have a rapport and cachet with this company that this new person doesn't seem to respect. I feel insulted and belittled.
FINANCIAL - Their style requires actual client management time and effort that I have not previously needed to take into account in my quotes.
PROFESSIONAL - This person is causing tangible faults in the resulting product that are not up to my professional standards.

2. Formulate a strategy for each situation. If the frustrations are:

- Find strategies for myself to manage my own feelings of being belittled. Complain it out, laugh it out, and take back some control:
- Vent to a friend
- Laugh about it with a partner
- If you get an annoying "URGENT" email (and it is not actually urgent), take 10 deep breaths, watch a corgi video on YouTube, then respond 2 hours later
- If this person is frustrating you with micromanagement, kill 'em with kindness: "Thanks for this helpful feedback! This is giving me some good ideas to think about. I'll be in touch with changes by EOD tomorrow!"

- Start building in a client management buffer into your quotes. Track your time carefully - are you spending 5 extra hours per project on emails? Build that into your quote.
- Communicate a new strategy for pricing both on-site needs and rush needs. On-site visits are an extra XXX each or whatever. Rush needs outside of your suggested timeline result in a XX% increase to the total project cost.

- Push back on requests that result in actual product problems
- Suggest better solutions
- Communicate your needs - "I appreciate that you guys are under a time crunch! However, I suggest we keep in mind the following X, Y, Z to make sure we reach a good result."
- Provide all your contacts at the company with a Service Level Agreement. Formulate concrete timelines, assets needed, etc. Include items like your needs for on-site visits - "On-site requests will need to be submitted 1 week in advance and will be $XXX per visit. Please keep in mind that we will do our best to be available for any on-site needs, but may not always be able to fulfill that request."
posted by Uncle Glendinning at 12:30 PM on September 24, 2014 [7 favorites]

I'm hoping that others can give more positive, helpful feedback, because mine is pretty negative scorched-earth stuff.

I've been a consultant for 4 years, and I like being a consultant because I periodically leave clients behind. My departure usually coincides with the time that we consultants are starting to be treated as employees - bossed around, pulled into useless meetings, dragged in to office politics. For me that's usually around the 8-12 month mark, which is how long our projects tend to last. The nature of consulting - actually, the nature of all business - is that conditions change and you have to be ready to move ahead in a positive way instead of clinging to the past.

It sounds like you've had a good relationship with this larger agency for 2 years. That's great. In the end you may have to accept that if they have enabled this unproductive person, that good relationship has come and gone and it's time to start working with a company that values you and your company's work.

Start by discussing the problems with others at your company. I don't know if you are responsible for getting your own contracts or if that's someone else's job, but start talking with people about how to solve this issue. It may be that your company has a way to discuss these issues with the agency so "B" is reined in. Or someone else at your company might have a different contract coming up that you can work on if nothing can be done to fix "B"'s behavior. If you have to get your own contracts, start discussing it so your company understands that the reason you aren't pursuing the client is they are becoming unreasonable and lowballing your projects. Lowballing and demanding more of your time than is reasonable hurts your company's bottom line, so as long as you can communicate why this is hurting not only you but your company hopefully they'll support you in looking for other opportunities.

Regarding the lowball offer: DON'T DO IT. This is ridiculous game-playing and it has no place in a professional environment. Tell the agency what your work costs and if they won't pay it, walk away. Let them learn the hard way that good work costs an appropriate amount of money. Let some other consultant either a) disappoint the client or b) learn the hard way that lowball offers are unprofitable.

As for travel requests: always put your max travel in the contract. Maybe I'm lucky to have this flexibility, but I don't sign a contract that doesn't state the maximum number of times per month that I will travel (for me, once/month max, for you it might be once every 8 weeks or something like that). My salesperson once suggested that I go work for the client first, then negotiate down once they are comfortable with me. I told him I'd rather pass on the contract and be out of work for a while than just wing it and leave my family behind. The contract is there to prevent either the client or you from being taken advantage of; get it in writing or expect people to take advantage. Of course, the first step is to assertively tell B that you can't be there when an unreasonable request is made, or to suggest a shorter trip, and explain that you will be fully engaged while working remotely as usual. They might stop pushing if you stop giving in. Also, if they are lowballing you, maybe you can come back with a contract that offers little or no travel as a cost-saving measure?

Going to the trusted PM: I assume you have already tried discussing the sudden unnecessary demands with "B" and found them to be unresponsive. If B cannot be worked with then talking with someone else is fine. B sounds like one of those people who is inevitably going to get worked up about something, so you might as well behave normally and let the chips fall. The issue with going to the PM is that one person's "talking with my friend" is another person's "going behind my back" - you doing it is reasonable, and B may get worked up anyway, and there's no way around that. So have a chat with the PM about what's going on and things you could do to improve the situation, chatting is perfectly fine and you may find some solutions. As long as you remain professional, don't slander B, and don't try to get B in trouble with their superiors, talking through the problem is normal.

For "Urgent" emails, I tailor my responses to how urgent they actually are. If they are urgent, I try to get an answer immediately. If they are not truly urgent, I give whatever partial answer I have on hand already (even if it's nearly nothing) and a reasonable timeline for when I can have the full answer. This tends to placate people with the sense that they got what they wanted without forcing me to work an 80-hour week on an issue that really could wait until next month. Really you should probably be doing this for both urgent and not-urgent requests: tell them what you have now and when you could deliver the rest. If they insist on getting it all earlier, tell them why that's not possible or why it's not in their best interest: it could cause quality problems, it could delay other parts of the project that you are working on now, etc. If they still insist or throw a fit, start looking for a new agency to work with.

But at the end of the day, you may be stuck between being micromanaged and walking away from this client. Start discussing it internally to see if your company has your back. If so, start looking to apply your valuable skills elsewhere. If not, start wondering if you are really at the right company. But I'd bet your company will understand if the relationship with the client has changed dramatically and suddenly this isn't a good, profitable relationship. After that, start looking for other clients who will actually respect your valuable skills.
posted by Tehhund at 12:32 PM on September 24, 2014 [5 favorites]

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