Things Clients Say… and What They Truly Mean

Working with clients at all levels can be more challenging than the projects they’re hiring you for.  As a consultant, you are on the front-line of a war between you, your client, your client’s department head, and sometimes your client’s client.

Over the past twelve years I’ve had clients say lots of things, and the ability to read between the lines has become an essential skill.

1. “We designed it ourselves and just need you to…”

When a client says this in their first inquiry about your services and then asks for a quote, they’re really saying, “I know enough to have an opinion about your profession and I don’t really think your skills are that hard to do.  I just don’t have time to do it, or I don’t have the small amount of time it takes to learn it. Knowing all this, I won’t be paying you much for this project as it shouldn’t take all that long…and I’ve already done most of the hard work.”

2. “Can you do it now for $XYZ and when we get to the next stage we’ll make up the difference?”

This one is easy.  What they’re really saying is “I have the money to pay you fully for the project, but I’m going to try to get away with paying you less. After all, you seem like an easy-going person pushover.  I don’t really plan on paying you more when/if we become more successful because your work isn’t really what made us successful, so why would we feel obliged to pay more months after the project is over?”

3. “I don’t agree with your contract terms. Please remove paragraph 4b…”

BIG RED FLAG!  The majority of consulting firms have fair and honest contracts. There’s seldom a valid reason for a client to question any of the terms in a typical contract, so when a client requests changes to the wording of an agreement, this is a serious warning sign.  By rejecting some of your terms, depending on what they are, the client is really telling you, “I don’t really trust you or your company that much, so I’m going to make sure this contract is much more favorable for me before I sign it.  And since I don’t really trust you that much, this project is going to be a struggle to get completed, and I will blame you for the delays, even though I missed all the turn-arounds because I was fighting you for the power in this project, and I definitely don’t want to give you any sort of control or power.”

4. “We need a new website that will grow our business. My niece built our current site but she went back to France…”

What this client is really saying is “My niece is an art student who has Photoshop and took a web design class and put the site together using FrontPage.  We really like this site and want something similar.”   Unless the niece is actually an experienced web designer, the website is probably terrible.  When a client says they like the site she created, it very likely means they don’t understand the difference between an electronic business card and a marketing website that can increase sales.  If they don’t understand the quality difference, why would they pay you $7,500 when someone down the street quoted $1000?  They will get the $1000 website and will be happy with it… until they day arrives when they realize their site isn’t producing leads or bringing in sales.

5. “We’ve never hired a consultant so I’m not sure about this whole process, but you’re the expert…”

Try not to fall over and restrain yourself from kissing them. What this client is really saying is “I honestly believe you are the expert and understand that I know absolutely nothing about the skills that you have.  I can’t imagine trying to do this myself; it would be like trying to build my own car.  I will be an excellent client to work with because I value your expertise and trust that you are trying to help me succeed.  You do this every day and have been for over a decade, so you must know what you’re doing.”

Bottom line on handling clients…

Most clients are great to work with, but there will always be those that make your life more difficult.  With plenty of solid education and lots patience, you can turn even the most high-maintenance clients into profitable ones.

Client management is an important element of consulting, and successful consultants are able to handle every level of client sophistication with patience, tact, and diplomacy.


  1. Jonathan Weiss says

    Thanks much DK. Number three on your list has been killing me and I’ve caved in too many times. Never again!

    • D.K. says

      Learning how to turn the 1-4s into #5s is one of the keys to long term success. It’s not as hard as you might think, just takes lots of patience.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *