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When a Change Order (CO) won't work

What to do with a 'no commit' client

1:54 pm on Jan 23, 2005 (gmt 0)

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Admin Note: this thread was split from
The Mighty Neglected Change Order [webmasterworld.com]

This is an impressive thread, with an equally impressive first post!

But, in what is the real world for many of us, I am wondering how often a CO is used to change the specification of a project?

We are a small company, working with many SME's and also some large companies.

'Project creep' and the goalposts moving like they are on wheels seems to be the norm when working with some clients.

We are underway with a project at the moment, where each time the client adds more work, or changes the specification in a significant way, we issue a new proposal. They have not read any of these subsequent documents.

Almost weekly, we are receiving changes to things which have been 'approved' (generally after me becoming unpopular in insisting on an email to tell me something has been approved) or general project creep, where the client is either unaware of the level of work a seemingly simple change involves - or couldn't care.

I wring my hands daily in the office, actually feeling 'guilty' that I am becoming unpopular, and therefore jeopardising future business, by trying to impose some kind of disciplined project management on clients.

For this kind of situation, asking for a Change Order would receive something on a continuum from a 'belly laugh' to complete confusing from many of our clients.

Maybe its another thread, but I am wondering what techniques are used by others in similar situations to bring a client who will never committ themselves, or wants to continually 'hedge their bets'?

[edited by: tedster at 6:28 pm (utc) on Jan. 23, 2005]
[edit reason] split from earlier thread [/edit]

4:23 pm on Jan 23, 2005 (gmt 0)

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markd, I begin to wonder if your client from hell and mine are one and the same.

Yes, this probably needs its own thread....

5:14 pm on Jan 23, 2005 (gmt 0)

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Just lately the ALL seem to be like this!

Do you:

Strategy 1: Maintain professional project management, with dedicated phases for the project (with sign-off's to authorise the next stage). Danger is you are percieved by the inexperienced/unprofessional or client who want to hedge as 'difficult', inflexible etc. etc.

Strategy 2: Accommodate every significant change in spec, fly by the seat of your pants, run around like headless chicken etc. You are then percieved as the Agency who are great to work with, will accomodate any change without a word, and ultimately used as a doormat?

Maybe it's the ultimate Catch 22 which we all face in business...

7:12 pm on Jan 23, 2005 (gmt 0)

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I don't know what the key to success is, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.
-Bill Cosby

A ccouple of things;

Have the contract state that COs may necessitate a fee increase. Limit the number of changes that can be requested before renegotiating the contract is inevitable.

How open are your lines of communication with the client? Email mainly, phone sometimes? Phone mostly, email as a formality? How often do you speak with the client?
Quite a few surprises can be avoided by keeping the client busy thinking about your last conversation. Take the initiative.

Do you have anyone anticipating what changes may be requested? I know it's cliche, but trying to view the project through the client's eyes can help you foresee possible change requests.

Are the people dealing with the client educating the client as to the impact of the requested changes? Or simply saying yes? Either from fear of angering the client or simply not understanding the work involved in the request?

8:10 pm on Jan 23, 2005 (gmt 0)

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markd - with these folks, I'm doing my best to use your #1. It's not working all that well. I'm not getting the "unprofessional, inflexible" responses/feelings, but they're just NOT cooperating. Actually, I haven't even got the signed contract out of them yet. They were supposed to call me LAST Tuesday regarding "a few of the clauses in your contract", didn't - and didn't call yet at all. I left two messages later in the week, but I can't sit by the phone, and if they won't return THEIR messages.... *exasperated sigh*

They don't seem to understand the concept of "two-way street" in any degree. They email me wanting to know when they can expect the last info they sent to appear on the "test site" which is all they have an addy for (a fairly non-functional pretty vanilla-code site too! - just in case they might be planning to just rip the site before they pay me), however they haven't answered even ONE of the questions I've asked (now totalling about 20 that I really need answers for before proceeding), they haven't signed the contract MUCH LESS acknowledged that we will have to discuss the change order situation; AND they haven't even ADDRESSED paying me! (I asked for 50% up front....)

And no, I'm not waiting with bated breath for this contract, and I certainly don't need the money. These folks are a referral from an IT guy I know - but it does take a bit of my time replying to emails etc. - time I could use elsewhere to more benefit and better effect.

Oh well. I can always hope they just never bother me again I guess. Anyone want a referral to the clients from hell?

10:37 pm on Jan 23, 2005 (gmt 0)

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vkaryl - I think in many ways you have touched on a point which makes a consistent approach to these problems very difficult.

That is, any strategy or approached used in these circumstances depends very much on your own personal/company position.

If you are in a position where you don't need the money, the client is probably going to be a short-term, transactional relationship, then I think we know what you (and I) would do :)

The difficulty for us is that we have had a mediocre year, and the client is one of many potential contact points in the organisation. Under these circumstances, we are trying 'strategy 1', tempered with a bit of '2' - but with strict limits.

Digital: you also raise some very good points.

It is actually me working direct with this client, so I am very definitely making them aware of the implications of some of their seemingly 'small' changes. This particular project also comes with the bonus of an extremely tight deadline.

I am saying (in all sincerity) to them that their suggestions are possible - but only with an extension in the deadline and more budget. The deadline is immovable (and imposed from above), so there then begins a process of 'negotiation', where they say, 'well if can't do A, can we do B' - which is marginally less work, with largely the same response from me.

The other sticking point is this organisation is large enough to use many suppliers like us. So, we always have other companies waiting to take our place and say 'of course you can', with an inferior end result delivered. Couple this with an in-house designer (for whom they can always find time and wants to control the whole process) and you have a volatile mixture.

I am sure that plumbers, builders, etc. have these problems, but business seems to be full of these 'interpersonal' issues at present!

12:12 am on Jan 24, 2005 (gmt 0)

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The following is not to be construed as legal advice and even if valid in some jurisdictions may fail in others. Please consult a lawyer knowledgable in your locale and circumstance.

Almost every person over eighteen in the developed world is familiar with contracts: apartment lease, vehicle payments, credit cards, bank accounts - all involve contracts. That many people not only do not understand what they blindly sign on the dotted line, they do not even read them is no excuse for not using them and using them appropriately.

I will not address vkaryl's "getting a signed contract" except to say do not do anything for anyone without it. Retaining your professional dignity while they lose theirs is better than the converse.

Potential results of "flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants":

Here come the IFs (apologies to Kipling):
If there is no Changes Clause (and no alternate agreement) any and all work done other than that explicitly stated in the contract is by definition non-billable.
If the changes are such that one or more requirement is not completed as stated in the contract the client may well have a case for total default of payment and perhaps judgement under any Damages Clause.
If there is a Changes Clause any work done without full regard to its provisions is as previous disasters.
If possible get your company's lawyer to comment.

At the very least mention to your employer/other principals the potential abyss that is awaiting their Accounts Receivable.

Personally I would refuse to do anything out of contract without a signed Change Order unless your employer takes responsibility for potential disasters and requires you to do so. Note: if there is no Changes Clause a Change Order may not mean much - I have not run that variation past my law-type-person.

Therefore the answer is Strategy 1. To repeat from earlier: Retaining your professional dignity while they lose theirs is better than the converse. It is also less expensive.

That they are a large company likely means they know exactly what they are doing and will continue to do so for as long as you let them. One possibility is that the level of their management dealing with you is "doing-their-own-thing". A conversation with their senior management, especially if you can validate legal concerns (such as I outline) might be beneficial.

1:06 am on Jan 24, 2005 (gmt 0)

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iamlost and markd: you're both spot on. For me, this is just a transitory "contact by contamination". They're a small company which leases vehicles to other small companies - not one of which so far has a website or any interest in same (apparently up to and including my "non-client"). So I can in essence blow them off without doing any real damage to my current client base, and probably without much long-term damage to word-of-mouth referrals.

Except for the original referrer. I'll eventually let him know what really happened, and hopefully he won't think it's all MY fault (he's a card-carrying member of the local cultural "establishment", so some of his future referrals would be good.... note carefully, I did NOT say "good ol' boy network" though that's certainly a component thereof....)

But markd, you do have a situation basically between Scylla and Charybdis. You can't blow them off, because they are an "intermingled" client. And they are making it horribly difficult for you to simply BE professional.

What are the chances of laying this out matrix-wise for YOUR principals, so that they can see exactly what sort of time-bomb they have ticking?

4:59 am on Jan 24, 2005 (gmt 0)

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<< What are the chances of laying this out matrix-wise for YOUR principals, so that they can see exactly what sort of time-bomb they have ticking? >>

Another good suggestion.
In fact, I am presenting the next stage of the project to them on Tuesday, which is the final time I will point out the consequences for meeting the deadline and any further changes.

Another issue for us is do we try to outline a project methodology on our web site? If so, I think that there is a danger in 'cluttering' a web site designed to hit the nail on the head with 'who we are and what we do' with what could be percieved as 'procedure'. The counter argument to this is that it provides a point of differentiation from those who do 'fly by their pants'.

However, I feel that in our situation no end of 'laying it on the line' will focus our clients mind.

Woke up at 3.50am this morning - guess what stopped me getting back to sleep...? :)

5:10 am on Jan 24, 2005 (gmt 0)

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Yeah, and guess what lack of sleep is doing to the way you look and present yourself? Not being mean, just realistic.... hot milk or chamomile tea.... one glass of wine WITH DINNER, no more; and EXERCISE even if it's just a quick walk after lunch or dinner.... says mom....

I think in your company's shoes, I'd definitely consider a linked "procedurals" area of your site - AFTER y'all are done with THIS bozo. Right now is not the time to mess about with websites other than the one(s) you're trying to get live on time. But before the NEXT time-bomb lands? Definitely.... (There's ALWAYS another time-bomb. The larger a company you are, the more that's a truism.)

I don't of course have any idea what sort of relationship you have with your principals, but a meeting already on the books is a godsend: you NEED to lay it out in black and white. We only hope that your principals will take YOU as gold....

Let us know!

11:06 am on Jan 24, 2005 (gmt 0)

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<< Yeah, and guess what lack of sleep is doing to the way you look and present yourself? >>

You're right - I can do with all the help I can get in this department, even with plenty of healthy living :)

We are considering putting in place some kind of web based project sign off for each stage of a project (maybe even this one). Whilst this sounds like a no-brainer, we usually insist on emails or a physical sign-off on paper.

I think with these kind of people you can have multiple ways to twist their arm and commit, but at the end of the day they have to see the value in any of these mechanisms.

Will let you know what happens, but as you said 'business paranoia' sets in when you have only had a few hours sleep... :(

2:42 pm on Jan 24, 2005 (gmt 0)

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I had a similar situation with a client about 2 years ago. We wrote up a contract with specs of what would be done, timelines, benchmarks, payments shcedules and so on. After about 85% of the work was done, the client began asking us to make some small changes (these were usually completed in less then 2 hours). In an effort to keep the client happy we made the changes/additions at no extra change.

The only problem we had was that the changes and additions kept of comming. So after about 6 hours of "free" work, we informed the client that while we tried to be accomidating, these changes were not in the contract and and any aditional changes outside the scope of the contract would be billed at an hourly rate unless otherwise agreed upon.

The client understood this and we have both been happy since with many additional hours of work. Maybe that is the solutions to your clients COs as well.

8:16 pm on Jan 24, 2005 (gmt 0)

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A humble observation - I used to manage these sorts of projects for a small but growing software company.

Until we got formal in our job specification and change control, we bled time and money. Once we introduced formal job specifications and proper change control, the company took off.

Some of the clients who wanted an informal approach didn't like it - but they were the ones who were bleeding us in the first place. More professional clients respected the approach and appreciated the benefits of it.

Effective project management is essential if you want to move "off the back foot" and take charge of your own destiny.

6:58 pm on Jan 25, 2005 (gmt 0)

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For us - I email the client back when they say they did not see this or see that working / happening to apologize (maybe my programmer just skipped that step). I tell them I will review the orginal scope and send the item number over to the programmers to review.

Normally they email me and say it was not in the scope. :) If they do not, I just send them another email, stating that I cannot even find it and maybe they could help me out.


12:55 am on Jan 26, 2005 (gmt 0)

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The problem I see most is people will tend to treat you like an employee instead of a contractor. I had a couple of clients like your describes back in the early days which is why a signed contract with changes clause and a 50% deposit are required to start a project now.

I'm somewhat flexible if the change request comes BEFORE I've started working on that particular area, especially if the change doesn't require any additional work on my part, just a change in plans.

However, If it comes after work has commenced or completed on that area they may get billed twice for it. Additionally, I don't do the new work request if they don't sign off on the change in price, it stays as-is per contract.

Communication up front is best, if your client knows right up front that sporadic changes in areas worked on will result in higher cost, many of them will do more homework up front before you start. Those that still want play it by ear with will pay it dear.

When they ask "Why do I need to pay for this change?" my answer is always to the somewhat to the point without trying being rude "My time is my money, and changes not in the contract are taking my time and need to be paid for or I can't stay in business."

FYI, one other pitfall I used to run into was a customer dragged his heels paying with the site on his server. I had no control over it, so from that point on I only put the site in progress on my server and it requires final sign-off and payment before being transferred to their server - it's in the contract.

Worse case I lose 50% of the deal if it falls apart, but I'm not empty handed.

Just my $0.02 worth

2:40 am on Jan 26, 2005 (gmt 0)

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Minor update on my CFH: I left messages again yesterday and today, stating that while I was aware they were no doubt buried in year-end stuff, I REALLY needed contact to firm up various things (including a more or less subtle reminder that I wasn't yet under contract....)

They have still neither called me nor emailed me. Tomorrow I call them again, and this time I tell them I do not believe we can work together; and I follow this up with an emai and removing the test site link.

3:19 am on Jan 26, 2005 (gmt 0)

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How about a buyer's perspective here?...just to liven up the discussion:)

As a client I want to have a good project manager that understands and is flexble enough to handle changes both to scope and timing. If you are not in a position to accomplish this because of short term cash flow delays, then arrainge an upfront payment schedule, or a time based payment schedule. It is "our" purchase and we are not the experts, however changes are to be expected as we proceed. Yes we will have to pay for some but expect an explanation of these additional charges...upfront....not a bill at the end. One of the keys to this is dealing with the decision maker.

In reading this thread it seems apparent that the customer is having second thoughts about the need...price....or your companies capabilities...and has not reached a decision point yet. Sending them reminders that they have not signed a contract, for me as a customer...makes you as a salesperson sound demanding. Perhaps you might want to try a softer approach, perhaps asking if they understood what you proposed...need an additional meeting...or have changed their minds.

Neither party wants to do work without some sort of contract in place, however these are subject to negotiation. Your terms may not be flexible for us, or handcuffs us in a certain manner. If we cannot reach a satisfactory resolution to this we will move on...and same from your side.

Just a different point of view is all. Because you have generated a change order does not mean we have to agree with this...or don't take the time to check your quoted costs against standards or opinions. Many times as a customer we may complete the initial contract and subsource additional changes at a better rate.

Bottom line here as a customer we will not allow ourselves or our business to be "controlled" by a third party in the longterm.

4:17 pm on Jan 26, 2005 (gmt 0)

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Visi - I am sure you are being the devil's advocate here, but there are a few things to bear in mind even in the 'buyers/client' position.

First, you (you = client not you personally!) have to be, or should be, a 'professional'. Sure you are not an expert, so you employ experts to help you develop and realise your objectives to a budget and timescale.

If you change the scope and spec of a project at any time you must expect a change in the cost and timings proportionate to your changes. We all try (and often can and do) accommodate unforseen or unavoidable changes to requirements.

But when the changes are due purely to a lack of planning, lack of profesionalism, or plain incompetence by a client then they have to accept there are consequences for their project. Yes, they can go to a 'bigger and better' company, who will say 'yes' to anything, but this usually involves a far larger bill and a relationship based on the fear of the supplier loosing work, or the supplier leaving the client in the lurch then they say 'yes' to the next impossible assignment, rather than an honest and more 'strategic' arrangement based on honesty.

At the end of the day, if you ask any professional, any area of expertise, to undertake a certain amount of work, and then change the scope and range of the tasks and the timescales to complete the work (or the increased level of work) you will either get a bad job or will go through professionals like a hot knife through butter - thereby earning you and your company a reputation for incompetence.

Try employing a builder to build a garden wall in a week and, when he arrives on site, tell him it's now a two-bedroomed extension to be completed in 3 days. Seems ridiculous, but that it what routinely happens in our line of business.

It is high time that 'clients' ramped their level of professionalism. I feel I can comment a little on this, as I have held senior positions on 'the client-side' before I started my own business.

Guess how I treated my suppliers...

4:31 pm on Jan 26, 2005 (gmt 0)

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Now, for those who may be interested, a quick update on our own personal situation....

I went into the client to present the fist stage of the project.
During the presentation, I reiterated that due to the impossible deadline they had imposed on the project there would not be time for changes to the project which fundamentally changed the functionality or design template at this stage.

I did say that any errors, or small amends, would be completed FOC, with no impact on the deadline.

After saying this a couple of times, I was told... 'yes we are listening to what you are telling us - we do understand!''

The client liked the work, until they saw a complex section which had used copy supplied by them. Due to it's complexity, this section was previously visualised for design and functionality and signed off.

As this section was built, we noticed some 'anomolies' in the copy supplied by the client and queries them. Turned out they were errors, and the client corrected them as we built it.

I asked them to confirm, whilst the build was going on using their 'approved' info, that in fact all the information supplied was 'clean, approved and accurate'. They confirmed, slightly tetchily and offended that I had dared to even ask, that it was.

Imagine my suprise/disappointment/churning stomach when, at the presentation the client started saying they had used in fact supplied us with out of date copy!

I said that it was unlikely that if they changed the copy, complete with new additions, deletions, and amends, that we would not make the deadline.

Whilst they were very pleased with the work, there was an uneasy atmosphere when I left.

Cut to this morning, when I received an email saying that just couldn't live with using the out of date copy. It wasn't as though the info used was incorrect, it just needed to be the 'latest version'.

I received approx 2 day worth of work to make these changes!

I emailed a strong message, explaining that I had queried the copy approvals so many times before we started building, whilst we started building and they had said all was OK.

I said that my intention was not to be 'difficult to work with', but to manage every project professionally and efficiently - and they as our client and their projects would benefit from this approach. It also means that applying this methodology, we can stick to previously quoted amounts. Now I would have to re-quote to do the changes.

This was the first section of the project, and I said that if they made these level of changes, which are clearly the fault of the client, that we truly could not guarantee the deadline.

To their credit, my guys will be working with me to the early hours and weekends, to get all completed with no compromise to the quality of the work or to miss the deadline.

I do not hold out any hope that when they see further stages of this project they will not do it again. I have asked them to confirm that all other information, plus the direction they have signed off for the project, is current.

They have said it is.

What more can we do?