Good Client, Bad Client — What’s the difference?

Alexander Weekes
Weekes Global Consulting
6 min readMay 2, 2024

One of the things that has become increasingly apparent when working on innovative projects, is the role that the client plays in project success. For anyone who has worked with external clients or internal product owners, you will know that at their best they are a conduit to getting great things done. At their worst, they are the main obstacle. So in the spirit of developing good habits for product success, I’d like to take you through the main differences between great clients (who ended up with great project outcomes) and not-so-great clients (who cause ore problems than they solve).

As you will know from the Project Success Pyramid (read here), alignment is one of the critical success factors and that starts with the client. The client owns the definition of success, whether they have expressed it to the project team or not. If they think the project has gone badly, then it has. And that is more likely to happen by accident than vice versa. The client will own the final decisions on business outputs. For example, do they want to capture people’s email and telephone numbers when they sign up? That will likely depend on how they want to communicate with their customers. This is a small example of something insignificant but when decisions this granular rely on the client’s input and decision-making capability, you can see why it’s important that they know “how” to be a great client.

So whether you’re reading this as a client or as a project leader, the insights gathered through over 20,000 hours of project work will help create alignment for more effective collaboration — and better clients.

Photo by Julien L on Unsplash

1. Great Clients are Anecdotal During Discovery

One of the most powerful tools in the early stages of project development is storytelling. By sharing experiences and scenarios related to your project or industry, you can uncover insights that might not surface through traditional questioning or discussion. These anecdotes provide your project team with a deeper understanding of your needs and the challenges you face, leading to solutions that are more aligned with your actual requirements.

Bad clients only provide factual problems or worse, prescribe a solution. Either of these inputs is so confined that the project team never grasps the full context of what is being built and can’t meaningfully contribute to the overall desired business outcomes.

2. Great Clients Read What is Sent to Them

It may seem basic, but it’s crucial. By thoroughly reviewing the documents, proposals, and communications sent by the project team, the client ensures that they are fully informed about the project’s progress, challenges, and needs. This habit prevents misunderstandings and keeps them engaged in the project’s development at every stage. The bi-product of this is more responsiveness when things need to deviate from the plan and a closer-knit feeling of “one team” rather than “us and them”.

Bad clients do not read things. This isn’t theoretical. I’m speaking from experience here. Release notes, change orders, reports or even just general communication. All go out to the client and nothing comes back. Things get missed, the client blames the project team, the project team retorts with the same and the bottom line is: things don’t get done.

3. Great Clients Confirm Assumptions

Assumption is the mother of all mistakes. Assumptions silently kill so many projects. By assuming that the project team knows everything you’re thinking or expecting, you are creating unnecessary and hidden problems. Nothing is obvious and great clients know that. They know what they know because of their many years of expertise or experience, which has put them in the position to be the client driving this project. It is impossible that a diverse team will have all of that knowledge as well. Clarify and confirm assumptions regularly to ensure everyone is on the same page. Agree on nomenclature. Document industry or market details that the project team should understand (they will read this!). This practice not only avoids misalignments but also fosters a culture of open communication.

Bad clients assume that some things are “obvious”. And this also applies to non-expert areas. To use an earlier example, they may say something like “of course we always wanted to get the user email and telephone number, we just assumed you’d know that”. Don’t be that client.

4. Great Clients Align Internally Before Presenting Decisions

Of course, the need for some decisions is derived from conversations with the project team. No one is expecting the client to pre-empt every question or consideration that the team presents. But great clients do their homework in between sessions of discovery and during implementation which includes coordinating decisions prior to meetings with the project team. I have sat in far too many meetings where two or more misaligned clients have spent 30+mins going back and forth on whether something should be on the top right or the top left. Before they bring decisions or feedback to the project team, great clients make sure these are aligned with their internal stakeholders.

Bad clients work out their internal differences in front of the project team. There is no problem with being authentic and having disagreements with the team involved. But the team must be involved! If the project team are spectators while client #1 and client #2 thrash out details that nobody can confirm apart from them, you are wasting time and I can guarantee that there will be a boat load of rework.

5. Great Clients Listen to Our Expertise, and Share Theirs

I had a great client. There were two of them. Completely in sync with each other, read everything we sent them and were completely candid with everything they knew. They were surgeons who collectively had over 40 years of experience, building an AR product for surgery. What they didn’t know about orthopaedic surgery, wasn’t worth knowing. But they had no idea about designing and building a tech product. But they were aware of that. When it came to creating designs, choosing tech stacks, shipping working product and all of the rest of it, they listened intently, asked questions pertaining to the problem that they were experts in and always said “we will go with your recommendation”. When it came to details that fell within their field of expertise, they were completely open and clear, providing us with everything needed. They also didn’t mince their words regarding a non-negotiable requirement. They knew their field. They also knew we knew ours. And the relationship was symbiotic. Great clients like these, respect the mutual exchange of expertise and know that it enriches the solution.

Bad clients are obtuse with details and information, or worse fight project team members with relevant expertise on best practices. This not only disempowers the project team but often results in a sub-standard outcome, which this type of client will likely blame on the project team. Don’t get in each other’s way. Respect your counterpart’s expertise.

6. Great Clients are Decisive

When a decision from the client is required, project teams respect speed and single-mindedness. A great client will make a decision and stand by it. When a project team feels they can rely on a decision being “final” they are more likely to follow through and have the confidence that the matter is settled. Of course, as situations change or more information is available, everyone reserves the right to change their mind. But dilly-dallying on decisions or even worse — flip-flopping, will erode confidence and derail timelines. Great clients are decisive and trust the insights and information gathered through collaboration with the project team.

Bad clients drag their feet, don’t respond to follow-up questions, change their minds with no rhyme or reason and are a bottleneck for progress. Project teams don’t feel they can rely on any decision and will perform every task with a hedge in case they need to undo what they just did.

Conclusion

Great clients are partners. They have respect for the project team and inspire respect in return. The role of a client has to be taken seriously when trying to achieve new outcomes. Without the proper alignment, both parties end up frustrated, behind on time, out of scope and most importantly never achieving the business objectives that inspired the project. Follow these steps. Be a great client.

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Alexander Weekes
Weekes Global Consulting

Digital Strategy consultant and lecturer helping senior project executives build systems & processes to remove the stress from delivering innovative projects.