Scaring the shit out of clients

It was Oscar Wilde or G B Shaw or — oh, somebody interesting — who, when accused of shocking people, replied to the effect that people should be shocked a good deal more often. Or offended. Anyway, I can’t find the right quote so here’s a different one.

I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.

That’s Wilde.

Yesterday we ruffled a client’s feathers. We were invited to tender for a web development project. Our response was, in essence, “Yeah we’re interested — but not if you’re going to do it that way. We don’t think that’ll work because [reasons]. We strongly recommend doing it [some other way]. Before we go any further, is it cool for us to tender that way, knowing that’s not what you asked for? Oh, and here’s the keys to our intranet, so you can see the dialog which led to this conclusion.”


Someone’s worldview was gunned down ruthlessly! Politely, but we did use phrases like “high-risk death march”.

Now I should say that one of us worked with this client for almost a decade and the other has worked with them on two projects in the last year. So our comments were based on some knowledge of the organisation and its needs as well as our own professional opinions. Nevertheless, what we said was shocking.

I’ve always wondered why clear, direct communication is so rare in business.
People seem almost afraid to say what they mean. “Don’t upset the client!” So a recommendation like “Process A is dangerous and you should change that immediately or risk almost certain failure” becomes a mealy-mouthed “Is everyone happy with the assumptions relating to Process A?”

All urgency is drained away. The project continues flying serenely towards the looming mountain.

But don’t upset the client.

If your recommendation is for major change, when do you broach the subject?
Sign up to the “wrong” concept of the project and then try to change it? Leave it until people have spent more time going down the wrong path, and the deadline is closer? No, something so important should be communicated as soon as possible.

Organisations aren’t used to people speaking quite so directly. When it happens, it’s like a splash of iced water into the face. And sometimes, that splash into alertness is precisely what’s needed.

5 Replies to “Scaring the shit out of clients”

  1. i don’t think what you said is scary or unusually direct at all. everyone i know in the business world speaks just like this. what ppl don’t like are those who try and make out that they’re better than others and that’s why sometimes terms are couched or phrases are made to be more diplomatic. remember, ppl can’t afford to sabotage relationships.

  2. @Fiona: You’re spot on when you say “what ppl don’t like are those who try and make out that they’re better than others”.

    My colleague and I re-read our message just now, and we didn’t attack any person or persons. It was all about the process and the project.

    In the unofficial responses we’ve received so far, people have said they were shocked. “We all found the tone of the email disconcerting,” said one. But no-one asked us to explain any of the issues we raised, and no-one logged into our intranet to read our notes.

  3. Looking back at this post almost three years later, I notice that I didn’t follow it up by saying how the client responded.

    They first told us informally that people had been “shocked” by the “tone” of our message. The “tone” was actually quite measured. We went to great lengths to avoid finger-pointing, using lots of softened phrases like “our concerns would be”. I think what they really meant by this was that they expected the usual suck-up response to a tender, explaining how wonderful we were and how easily their clearly impossible demands would be met anyway.

    They never responded to our invitation to ask questions.

    They never even looked at any of the supporting material we provided, let alone explore our discussions on our intranet.

    When a week had gone by and they hadn’t interacted with us, we politely told them we would not be tendering.

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