How to Tell Your Client That His “Expert” is an Idiot

It’s a danger for any consultant, and for most inter-departmental internal project staff: To get the work done, you need to work with someone else who supplies expertise you lack. But when the “expert” turns out to be the wrong person… how do you tell the client (or boss) that you just can’t work with that individual? It’s possible to do so, but it does take a deft hand.

If you have been in business for any length of time, I’m sure you have encountered a situation like this. You’re brought into a project to provide a certain kind of expertise (landscaping design, theatrical costume construction, web development, whatever). The project is more than “just you,” however, and it requires you to work with another expert in a related knowledge domain (such as a tree surgeon, a stage manager, or user experience designer). Sometimes this is a one-on-one relationship; in other cases, it’s your team working with their team.

When this process works well, it’s among the best business experiences anyone can have. Few things are as rewarding as people working together on a project everyone believes in, when everyone involved contributes expertise, dedication, and innovation. I’ve been on several such projects – far more than I deserve! – and it’s a joy when each contributor adds information and knowledge that everybody can learn from.

But then there are those other projects. When the client tells you that he already chose the designer. Or when the boss informs you that your team has to work with the people from another department (perhaps for political reasons). Or the prototypical, “My niece is an expert in this, and I’m sure you’re going to love her!”

I began consulting in the 1980s, and sometimes I feel I have encountered every variation on this situation. The only thing worse than having to work with a bozo is needing to keep on your professional face when you deal with the client. We never want to tell a client directly that he made a foolish decision, after all, or his next foolish decision may be to tell you that your services are no longer needed. (The situation does happen for employees too, but the manager-worker relationship often is more open, and bosses are less reluctant to actually fire someone for what they see as a personal spat.)

Fortunately, I’ve found a few ways to deal with the situation. They aren’t perfect, but they may help you salvage a project.

Handle it early. It doesn’t get better.

We all want to get along with each other, both as human beings and as business people. Especially when the Other Expert comes highly recommended by someone we respect. (And we always respect our clients, right?)

As a result, we – or at least I – want things to work out, which sometimes encourages us to avoid criticism. “I’m sure that boo-boo wasn’t intentional,” I told myself at the beginning of the project. “We’re all new to this gig. Give it time before you complain.”

In my painful experience, it doesn’t get better on its own. If you see project warning signs early, address them immediately.

Identify the nature of the Other Expert’s failures, at least for yourself.

In all my business dealings, I work from the viewpoint that everyone wants to do a good job, and each of us wants to feel we are doing the right thing. That applies to incompetent people just as much as it does to true experts. Maybe more so, because they feel a need to prove themselves.

So, once I have recognized that the Other Expert is not pulling his weight, I do my best to identify the source of the problem. That helps me decide how to handle the relationship, which is always based on “How can I help this person be right?”

For example, is this someone who really is good at one area (which, alas, has nothing to do with this project) and is trying to expand her expertise? Is the Other Expert attracted to contribute outside his own competency because you have the fun, shiny, attractive bits? Is this someone who thinks he knows far more than he does – a legend in his own mind? And those are only a few of the possible sources of trouble.

Work hard to avoid telling the Other Expert he is wrong.

It’s frustrating and difficult to avoid telling someone he is wrong, because he is wrong. The thing is: None of us likes to be wrong. We hate being told we’re wrong even when it’s an accurate assessment. So it’s best to direct your Other Expert’s attention to fixing the situation by appealing to his enlightened self interest.

Be cheerful, courteous, kind, even when the Other Expert demonstrates absolute idiocy. It’s vital for the client to see you as calm and ready to work with the other party. The last thing you want is for the client to decide that the fault is with you and then accuse you of digging in your heels or being unwilling to work with other people.

This is where I pay attention to the motivations of the Other Expert. Let’s say your client brought in a graphic designer who’s created several brilliant book covers and product brochures – but she has never worked on a website before. As a result, the designs offered would make great brochures but fail utterly in regard to interactivity or other user interface issues. You don’t want to upset the client by telling him, “This designer is completely inexperienced!” so you have to find some way to work with her.

In this case, I treat the situation as a mentoring opportunity. I work on the (public) assumption that the designer is good at some things, just inexperienced here. And I take the time to offer suggestions that share my own hard-found wisdom. That starts with finding something to praise, no matter how hard you need to stretch to do so (“I see you put a lot of thought into this”). Then give advice, with an attitude of “Let me help you get even better at this…!” or “Here’s something I learned on a similar project.”

Sometimes, that’s all it takes to fully resolve the tension. The Other Expert may be freaking out quietly that she doesn’t know what she’s doing, and may be grateful for your help. It might even lead to more business referrals down the line.

On the other hand, if you misread the Other Expert’s intentions, she may see you as an interfering busybody who’s trying to teach grandma how to suck eggs. Even if that’s the case, however, it makes you look good in the eyes of the client. (Usually.)

Recognize that the other person may get credit for the work you do.

If nothing else, it takes a lot more time to be diplomatic with idiots than it does to work with competent colleagues. But it’s even more frustrating to know that when you do cover up for (or mentor, or fix) the work of the Other Expert, sometimes the nincompoop is treated as though the work had been done satisfactorily. You do more than 50% of the work, but get only half the money and half the glory.

It could be worse. Occasionally she may get all the credit, because her end of the project is more visible (you poured the foundation, she built the clubhouse on top of it). Perhaps the Other Expert is an extrovert who knows how to schmooze with the client, while you’re the person who prefers to keep his head down and concentrate on the project details. It can lead you to heavy drinking, I’m afraid.

Or, as in one situation I encountered, the client was considering dropping the project entirely; I did 95% of the work because it became evident that the well-meaning but incompetent-at-this-task Other Expert would drop the ball entirely. In that situation, I decided that I wanted the project to be done (less for financial reasons than other motivations) so I sucked it up and never complained publicly. Except after a lot of drinking. But I never said a word to the client.

Document the troubles.

Even when you believe you have the situation well in hand, make sure you have a paper trail; and always cc the client on all correspondence. In the best situation, this makes you look (to the client) as though you’re on top of the situation and dealing with any issues. (Why, look at how kind she is!) In the worst case, you can show everyone (including lawyers, though I hope that’s never necessary) that you had kept everyone apprised of the situation throughout the unfortunate events.

You really really want to avoid telling the client outright, “I can’t work with that idiot.” Ideally, you want to draw a picture of the situation – in front of the client – that helps the client come to the conclusion on her own that this situation isn’t working out. Then, if the Other Expert isn’t meeting deadlines, or the work has to be re-done, or that the Other Expert is delaying the schedule, the client is the one to call him on the carpet. Or at least the client will ask your advice about what to do. Then it’s your cue to say, with as much more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger as you can muster, “I just don’t think he’s the right person for this project.”

In all your e-mail messages, be as dispassionate as possible, and keep your attention on the facts (such as “You wrote on January 5th that this would be done by January 10th. It is mid-February and we are still waiting; we cannot move forward until you provide this data.”). I recognize this is difficult. You will write several e-mail messages that you must re-write before clicking on Send. You will bang your fist on your desk, and I expect you to complain bitterly to your spouse. Do not, however, let your temper get the best of you. (Not that I have personal experience from which to draw, you understand. I’m speaking for… a friend.)

Apply the lessons for next time.

Once you have encountered this sort of frustrating situation, you’ll know you don’t want to go through it again. One takeaway is likely to be, “Ensure that any contract I make with a client has a sign-off for me to choose or at least approve other experts that may contribute to the project.” You’ll still run into problems, because you’re likely to recommend someone who turns out to be an idiot too (we’re all human!). But it’s easier to tell the client you replaced a contributor than to beg him to get rid of the bozo he chose.

That’s what I’ve learned. What’s worked for you?














Esther Schindler

Esther Schindler has been writing about computers and business topics since the early 1990s. You’ve seen Esther’s byline in prominent IT publications, such as CIO.com, IT World, and IEEE Spectrum. Her name is on the cover of about a dozen books, including most recently The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Twitter Marketing. You can follow her on Twitter @estherschindler and circle her on Google+, where she will keep you up to date on software trends, her cats, and baseball shenanigans.

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  • jack_foobar

    At the end of the day, you will be blamed for the idiots F ups. Documenting what’s happened doesn’t matter when ego’s are involved. Because by extension, the client with the pet monkey looks as stupid as the pet monkey flinging feces all over the data center.

    So you go outside of the client to the person that holds the purse strings. Whoever is responsible for making sure money is earned and cash flow is secured is your ally. And they will be the first person to bitch slap the howler monkey and the client for being complicit in idiocy.

    [Reply]

    ShannonMcCoy Reply:

    The problem with the end run is that no one appreciates it when people jump the chain of command. This is often considered far worse than being an idiot, its being a back stabbing snitch. In the military its extremely looked down upon as illustrated in the Michael J. Fox, Vietnam saga “Casualties of war” where even his reporting of a rape and murder is seen as a betrayal by his superiors because he jumps the chain of command.

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    Outta There Reply:

    While film does imitate life it is not, in fact, life. Having paid someone to do some work myself I would much rather someone on the project come to me than deal with an incompetent manager or a con who claims they know how to do something they don’t. It costs me time and money and that is a fast track to ticking me off. If someone has the backbone and integrity to break the chain of command to actually look out for MY interests then I can’t really hate the messenger without being a hypocrite. I know what reputation means so if the person is sick of being blamed for the idiot’s shortcomings then I say go for it especially if you can get a feel for the person receiving the end product.

    I’ve grown to resent the chain of command because it protects incompetent people and hides those who know what they are doing. Holding people accountable for their specific contribution to a project makes more sense and helps you weed out the idiots sooner rather than later. Adding a claw back clause and pointing it out in negotiations is another excellent tool. If their people screw up (and accountability along with documentation can prove it) then you don’t owe them a penny. I say make the odds work in your favor by writing the rules and by keeping an open mind. Remain flexible and be the customer/boss that people can come to with a problem.

    [Reply]

    Outta There Reply:

    I got so mad that I was being badmouthed at a job that I jumped the command because the idiot manager didn’t care. I told the customer point blank what was happening then quit.

    You may need an impartial third party but if you go to the person holding the purse strings they’ll be more concerned about the purse. I learned that the moron employer was worthless and instead helped three employees jump ship – then I jumped ship. Everyone is talking about how horrible this company is and it seems they’ll finally go down in flames.

    Going to the client may also work but realistically just be prepared to leave no matter what. You can’t fix stupid and if people are going to be dumb enough to blame you then I say let them do the job. When they fall flat on their faces it’s their problem to deal with.

    [Reply]

  • David Bandel

    the way you randomly switched between masculine and feminine pronouns was asinine. it invalidates everything you said and relegates your opinions to the dumpster, permanently.

    [Reply]

    Anon Reply:

    Use one, they/their.

    [Reply]

    David Bandel Reply:

    exactly. or just use he/him/etc. masculine pronouns are so ingrained in our language that there’s no reason not to use them.

    [Reply]

    scott Reply:

    Except that people will then think I’m talking about a human like you.

    David Bandel Reply:

    that seems like it’s supposed to be some clever insult. but it fails on pretty much all levels.

    Barack Obama Reply:

    Hey David! You’re an ass, they are an ass (where you are they) and your ass is the place where their foot should go. Just saying…

    Nathan Myers Reply:

    I was just admiring how deftly the author flipped genders without ever causing confusion over who she was talking about.

    One area not addressed is how to handle it when the idiot expert is yourself. If you think this has never occurred, that only means it is happening frequently and you haven’t noticed.

    [Reply]

    David Bandel Reply:

    That’s a broad statement. Overly broad I think. I honestly think it may be true in your case though.

    [Reply]

  • Mark K

    Wow, I bet the author is a joy to work with, especially when things go wrong and she is looking for someone to blame.

    [Reply]

  • Maurice Engel

    If you want to tell that someone higher up is not fit for the work, just shut up or have such a strong argument that it will be almost blackmailing them. But always be ready to walk out the door when you do it….. that is my personal experience… You just cannot tell your boss that your manager is an idiot, cause that means that he is not managing his managers… which means they fucked up too! The case that you will find that the right thing happens will be slim to none!

    [Reply]

  • Grumpy Git

    Keep copies of emails exchanged, preferably with all headers.

    [Reply]

  • Hendrik

    I was in a similar situation a couple of months ago. I tried to steer, educate, coach, … as much as possible. But in the end it was beginning to affect my own productivity.

    Luckily my more senior colleague stepped in and we had a hearthy conversation with our client about the nincompoop. We were in a position where we could do that. And coincidentily, the client’s client had asked at the same for the person to be removed from the project.

    So it all worked out fine in the end.

    I’m not sure if your approach of “sucking it up” is necessarily the best one. Sometimes you have to call people out in order to save yourself or the project.

    [Reply]

  • http://quickbase.intuit.com/ Intuit QuickBase

    Thank you for the lively discussion all. Just keep it professional and clean.

    [Reply]

  • aaron bowersock

    Excellent read, and invaluable advice for any freelancer out there. No matter experience or career path.

    [Reply]

  • http://www.webmaisterpro.com/ Kaloyan Banev

    Many of my clients are so naive and the experts that they have hire usually are just salary collectors. Sad but true.

    [Reply]

  • Dan Wedin

    I would add one small tip and that’s when you’re writing the email to the client or your partner or anyone but the annoying individual, always write with the “To” line empty. Only when you’re ready to send should one fill in this portion of the email. I learned this painfully, twice. Once I wrote an email to a partner about how this was the single worst client we’d ever had and detailed why this was so. Then I sent it to the client who promptly asked that I never communicate with him again. I repeated this scenario again with a prospective client who was proving, in their dealings with another vendor they wanted me to intervene with, to be a skinflint nickel and dimer. In both cases I was glad to have been lifted of the burden but still. One should not have to learn these lessons twice. Word to the wise…

    [Reply]

  • Gordon Goodfellow

    This really resonates with me. A few years ago I was working as a specwriter for a market research company. One of the directors wanted to set up a project but instead of getting me to prepare the spec she got someone from a different department, who was unaware of the checks and balances I had built into my data prep.

    So, inevitably, data was missing, and this was not rectified until I became aware of it which was after several full data records had been collected. The director responsible for this mess then blamed me for not having the proper data even when I hadn’t written the spec, and even when I rectified the matter by including the data fields which had been necessary from the start but which had not been included originally.

    After several pointless summonses into the director’s office, during which I tried to explain that I could not magic data out of nothing and in which she spent most of the time calling me a f***ing idiot, I decided I would do the dignified thing and not tell the CEO, or anyone else, about this. After all, I had done nothing wrong; anyone could see what had happened here and that I had actually put the matter right when it was wrong to begin with.

    Mistake. I ended up being the one who got fired, though I hadn’t done anything wrong. Strange: I tried to maintain a dignified expression when I heard that the company had been put into administration due to senior management incompetence. But I couldn’t.

    The moral of this: if the idiot in question is a director and you are in middle management, you may as well head for the door immediately: nothing is going to save you and nobody in the company is going to learn from this.

    Self-employment is so sweet!

    [Reply]

  • ShannonMcCoy

    I have had this problem too many times to list to varying extents over the years and I have found a few techniques that work most of the time. I have honed them down over the years from bitter experience to a somewhat general escalating procedure.

    Step 1. Assessment
    It generally doesn’t take more than a couple of meetings to identify what you are dealing with, which can help you decide how quickly to escalate your response to this individual or sometimes even individuals. We have all seen the entrenched “expert” who has made sure to have a minion or two already on their side before you even arrive. The most important thing at this stage is to LISTEN, See how other who have worked with this person behave. Do they seen to respect the Other Expert? Do they seem to simply tolerate them? Does the Other Expert listen to others or are they constantly cutting them off and talk down to them in absolutes? You can learn a lot by simply being hyper-observant in your first couple of meetings. If you ask the Other Expert questions make sure they are not pointed or too revealing of their lack of knowledge; keep it light.

    Step 2. Evaluation
    Determine a strategy for dealing with the Other Expert and select a set of tactics to employ from your arsenal. Do you use diplomacy, do you use a sniper or do you go nuclear on them. There is a wide array of choices in between and selecting the right tactics will be critical to successfully dealing with your adversary.
    Generally I start by trying to empathize with the Other Expert and see what motivates them, what they seem to want to achieve and whether I can help them along that path first. Most people do want to do a good job and even more so they don’t want to me made to look foolish or incompetent. The Other Expert may have been the big fish in the small pond for a while and be very protective of their little pond. What is the best way to set them at ease?

    Step 3. Act
    Once you have decided on a strategy, begin employing it and while sticking to the plan don’t be afraid to change it as the situation dictates. Be flexible.
    I generally start by commiserating with the Other Expert when they allude to problems they have seen before, I pull in tight to their side as a fellow veteran of many a similar experience as they relate what they have done or seen. I try and put them at ease and try to differentiate myself from them as little as possible. Then I start asking them if how they dealt with common problems in our field of expertise. I take this as an opportunity no only to learn how they solve problems but where my knowledge might be able to help them. I ask “Hey have you ever used such-and-such tool?” or “I have found such-and-such website to be extremely helpful”. I try and let them see that I am no here to threaten them,( I am temporary after all ) and maybe I can help them look good in front of their colleagues. If I am such an expert at this field and this Other Expert is an idiot, I should be able to make that abundantly clear with relative ease and that has a great potential to threaten the Other Expert, but if I can first convince them that we are both on the same side they often will start deferring to me and pull in behind me to follow my lead. I try to make the situation win/win.
    If win/win doesn’t work, then I will usually prey on their fear of looking stupid a little bit. In a meeting I will wait until a question comes up about our field of expertise, wait until the Other Expert has put in their two cents (often correctly enough to the uninitiated) and then add on to the answer and quickly dive into “expert speak” I will refer to the yadda-yadda principal and Yardleys Law of quackit- quack and make it very evident that I not only agree with the answer but know WHY the answer is correct. I will then quickly hop to three or four disciplines by buzzword, all the time offering the same degree of certainty of authoritative knowledge about each discipline and then circle quickly back to my support of the Other Expert’s answer. I make sure that they are associated disciplines that the Other Expert wont have a clue about but I act as if any moron in our field would obviously know all about them. Everyone in the room should be completely lost on what I just said and that is the intent. Why do that? Everyone in the room forgives themselves and each other for not knowing what I was talking about except… The Other Expert. Everyone expects the Other Expert to full understand what I said and to be just as knowledgeable about it as I am. The Other Expert has just realized that they are now in the middle of a “looking stupid” minefield. The were right that time but what happens if they give the wrong answer or say something stupid next time. That last thing they want is to look stupid in front of there colleagues and if done correctly you will find that they offer less and less input as the meeting goes on. They are happy to defer to me on the subject as I have made them and equal and further answers by them simply serve as a chance to have that illusion shattered. I actually used to have sales people who would bring me into meetings because there was a single technical guy who kept derailing the meetings by asking random impertinent questions. The sales guy out give me a prearranged sign and I would “Tech Hammer” the meeting wrecker. It worked every time.

    There are of course many more techniques and I have jabbered on long enough here but I find the main thing is to follow Teddy Roosevelt’s advice “Speak softly but carry a big stick” Do everything in your power to help the Other Expert first and only when you have tried every avenue of positive feedback should you start preying on their fears and go negative. Always go for the win/win first. (my apologies to Stephen Covey).

    4. Don’t be afraid to walk away.
    Your job as an expert is to offer an expert opinion. If you can’t do that then get a safer job. Sometimes you have to simply tell the customer that this project is going to fail and why and that you can’t ethically charge them good money knowing full well that they are doomed to fail. Be polite and courteous and give them some free advice on the danger signs to watch out for as they go forward without you, “Here be dragons” kind of advice. Wish them the best of luck and find something else to do. When things do go sideways they will remember who warned them and don’t be surprised if you get a call from them in a panic when things have good haywire to come back and help them. You won’t have a problem with the Other Expert the second time around. Doing this successfully is the stuff that legends are made of.

    [Reply]

  • http://www.webmastersun.com/ Webmaster Sun

    Good article!

    [Reply]

  • Outta There

    I find that you can dump the work on the idiot and let them fall flat on their face. I’ve gotten into the habit of NEVER showing the full extent of my knowledge or expertise in anything because employers are scumbags that want you to do as many jobs as they want without paying you a good wage for one job. If gender is an issue it’s generally figured out up front with a know-it-all Idiot guy claiming he knows more than the woman with an actual degree and portfolio to back it up.

    Personally through my experience I find that you have to distance yourself, document your work and make sure both parties know at the very beginning who is accountable for what. It’s insane to see people having the lion’s share of the work dumped on them

    while the creep taking credit for their work tries to blame them for what goes wrong. I have no pity for the people they scam anymore.

    If an employer is too dumb to just look up how something is supposed to be done then it’s more than amusing to see some know-it-all try to BS their way through a process they obviously know nothing about. This speaks volume about said employer too. If you don’t want to pay for a job to be done right and think it’s a good idea to hire someone who sounds like they know what they are doing for what you feel is right, it means you probably have no idea what you’re doing either.

    I made the leap to freelance and work part time in an area of interest because of this kind of repetitive crap. Someone thinks they can make a quick buck creating a “business” they know nothing about and hire someone without testing them. Their work looks like crap and clients aren’t happy. If more people stood their ground and refused to flat out work with these people then it would be harder for these parasites to pull off a scam. I think that if you really want to avoid working with idiots call them out on it and let them (and their employers) trip and fall on their faces.

    You can be nice and play well with others for only so long until your own reputation starts to suffer. It doesn’t matter what industry it is, just make sure you cover your butt and get ready to leave the project. There’s no point in arguing or defending yourself to idiots who claim they know more than you obviously do. I left and haven’t looked back. It’s nice to be able to choose who you work with and make sure you can protect your reputation. Good luck to those in the horrible situations pointed out above.

    [Reply]

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  • Sonder Twyful

    Sorry, but I disagree with most of these plans. Your advice sort of takes the “kill them with kindness” approach when you’re really just being both passive and passive-aggressive. Your advice will work when the Other Expert is mildly-to-moderately incompetent, but the real problem is dealing with someone who is so incredibly and completely wrong that the entire project is at risk. That kind of Other Expert needs to be removed just as soon as possible.

    I have been consulting since the mid-80s as well and have had to work my share of idiots. I’ve found that the best way to handle this is to find the Other Expert another job as quickly as possible … even if that means that the Other Expert has to leave in the middle of the project.

    Give the Other Expert’s resume to every head-hunter you can find and talk him up. Tell the headhunters what a fabulous find he is. The Other Expert’s ego will explode. He will also be so sure that it was his talent that caused this sudden interest in him. He will also become his own worst enemy. He will become such a pain in the ass to deal with that even the most myopic bosses will see it. He will also get so disgusted with the idiots (you) that he has to work with that he will quit to take another job very quickly.

    In the meantime
    * don’t cover up for him, but
    * do make sure that the project doesn’t become mortally wounded.
    * Be diplomatic, but not a floor mat.
    * Don’t completely bad-mouth him to the bosses, but
    * do (nicely) question why he was chosen.
    * If you know other experts, ask if they have worked with him and what their assessment of him is.
    * Look for white papers, talks, PPT presentations (whatever) that you can use as evidence of the “expert’s* failings.

    Don’t make it look like you’re doing this just to get his job; that you’re interests are in what’s best for the team/company.

    In short – go on an all-out offensive action. You want to be a ninja assassin; not a murderous thug. Good luck!

    [Reply]

  • noname

    I’d tell my boss and her boss whatever I felt like saying. Because, 1, they already know some of the people in other departments that we have to work with are challenged, and 2, I already turned in my resignation once so far this year. While I have nothing saved and no backup plan and no other job, I literally don’t give a care anymore. Every time my boss pulls some stupid stunt like telling me -no, ordering me to do a big project and then telling me my time spent on it would not count for anything and my numbers sucked, or this week where we had to beg and plead and escalated to get another department to answer a simple question for a huge client, my boss intervenes and tells them and everybody no, we don’t need help from other department at all, Ms. Noname will handle ALL of it. FUCK! IDIOT! MORON!

    I don’t care any more what they think of me. I don’t intend to burn bridges on the way out. They’d expect torpedoes in the water and an annihilation engine left on my desk. No, I intend to just walk the hell out one afternoon and never go back. They’d never expect that.

    [Reply]

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