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Ask HN: Coping when your client is an asshole?
123 points by codinginhell 19 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 65 comments
I'm a project manager for a ~60 person software dev firm. One project I'm on is with a large American enterprise, and the product owner and his direct manager are absolute assholes.

I've got 8 developers that I try to shield from accusatory questions and extremely aggressive and borderline abusive behaviour. In the beginning we we all agreed not to take anything personally and to let it just roll off the back. We agreed to tighten up our processes and try to avoid confrontations by being super proactive with all our work, but we're coming close to the launch date, and it's getting worse as more pressure mounts.

Ordinarily, we would have dropped the client by now and refused to put up with the end-justifies-the-means tactics, but unfortunately our company could not survive without this and a handful of other projects we have with this client.

My company is actively looking for new clients so we are not beholden to this one, and my manager is apologetic and tries to run interference when she can, but I'm largely left to my own devices. This is a very high profile project that stands to disrupt its market. It's exciting for them and us. I have to maintain this relationship somehow.

How do you manage your clients who are completely unreasonable, rude, and treat you and your staff extremely poorly?




Firstly how are they assholes. Some people will smile and nod and gather evidence to get you fired.

Some will scream and yell all the time but when push comes to shove will act honorably and go to bat for you.

Others are just looking to pin as much stuff on you in order to the cya game.

Also figure out why they're assholes if possible. The solutions are very different if they're assholes because they're boss is an assholes (asshole by proxy). If they're assholes because they just care a lot about the project and are worried/anxious (asshole by circumstance). Or if they're just always an asshole (asshole by nature).

General advice though is document everything, dot every i, and cross every t because shit tends to go sideways when assholes are involved and you don't want to be the one to get screwed.


Hey, I love your asshole matrix! Should be taught at some kind of dark MBA school.


> Should be taught at some kind of dark MBA school.

Isn't that the bulk of them?


There's literally a whole book by a Stanford biz school professor about this exact subject.

One of my pet favorite tips: pretend you're a research psychologist observing a patient with a rare mental disorder (doesn't solve all of the problems, but at least helps to cope).

https://www.amazon.com/Asshole-Survival-Guide-People-Treat/d...


>One of my pet favorite tips: pretend you're a research psychologist observing a patient with a rare mental disorder

I do this a lot, and can vouch for the general approach.

A tip from the trenches. When faced with bizarre and disturbing behavior, clinical psychologists will often verbalize the behavior they're currently witnessing. It's a way of helping the patient realize that their behavior is abnormal without moralizing or recoiling in horror.

Hence the pro-tip. Instead of getting indignant, just say something like "You're suggesting I actively undermined the project" or "you're smearing your own excrement on the wall".


My partner works in a total cluster fuck of an office with some horrible people (she won't quit without another job even though I offered to cover her while she finds work) so I told her to treat her office like she was David Attenborough narrating a documentary.

"And here we find the Donna in its natural habitat, scientists where surprised to discover the Donna can eat its own weight in fried chicken every week" that kind of thing.

If she's have a bad week I send her narration to make her laugh.

It sucks watching someone you care about get ground down though.


Consider helping accelerate your partner’s job search. No one deserves a toxic job.


> pretend you're a research psychologist observing a patient with a rare mental disorder

Maybe more often truth than fiction. The mental disorders aren't so rare.

Today there is a thread on "burnout" being a "mental diagnosis." I suppose that covers many of us.

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20026378


Observe don't absorb.


I love this. I will be using this from now on.



Philosphers from Socrates to the Stoics have a variant of "forgive them Father, for they don't know what they are they are doing". A person who values wrong things is bound to act bad. And its a handicap worse than blindness or lameness and therefore deserve compassion.


direct to my to-read list. Thanks!


This probably isn't the immediate answer you're looking for, but I've found a lot of value in a book called Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss (no affiliation, just loved the book.) It provides practical guidance on the subject of negotiation. However, in reading it you'll find that a lot of these rules of negotiation apply to broader aspects of life. The author, Voss, was a former negotiator for the FBI and was involved in a number of high profile hostage negotiations. (You can't be much more of an asshole than a kidnapper!)

Anyway, he says you can look at most situations as a negotiation. Once you fully understand the needs of your counterpart, you can assess your ability to meet those needs, or work with them (using "tactical empathy" and other strategies) so that both parties understand what the realistic outcomes are. Once both parties truly understand what the other is ultimately capable of providing, they will see no use in demanding more than that.


I’m half way through that book now and so far it’s been a real eye opener. I think the challenge, which is assumed in most of the book, is being able to stay calm in these situations.

My guess is that the only way to get that is practice. Bring on the bad clients.


I'm suffering serious Frequency illusion with Chris Voss - I feel like his stuff is popping up everywhere around me (ended up watching two videos yesterday).

I find myself actively fighting the impulse to read the book. I can't decide if I'm a savvy, advertising-aware consumer; or maybe I'm just another sucker.


Research shows that advertising works even better on “smart and advertising savvy” consumers. So, probably both, just like me :)

Can’t source the research but I did skim an article at some point.


I cannot recommend this book enough!!!


I've been consulting for over twenty years at this point, and I've had my share of toxic clients (including one who actually sued me and was surprised when the judge wasn't amused by his suggestion I work for free either). You didn't say where you're from, where they're from (besides America), or what vertical you're working in, or what do you mean by "the end-justifies-the-means tactics" so I can only give the most general of advice here:

My experience is there are few VP who can stand up a project with an outsourcing firm without some risk of their own (either in their review, or in an extreme case: their career).

If that abuse is coming from people who report to your stakeholder, or from other people in the firm, a quick chat with the stakeholder would probably smooth things over. You might either find that obvious, or believe that it doesn't apply if you're getting abuse from multiple places, but it's not their money, just their job, so if you're not making your abusers' job harder in some way, your stakeholder will be in the best position to do something about personnel issues.

However if that abuse is coming from your stakeholder, you need to realise it's because they are receiving pressure, and you would do well to understand it because you might be able to help him/her with what they really need. Your stakeholder's job is to operate a P&L including your project against some revenue, or produce powerpoint slides for someone who does that job. Do those reports suggest this project is costing more than anyone expected? Try to attack the real problem here: Give your stakeholder some justification to go after the money, or to respond to the delay. This is what they really need.


> However if that abuse is coming from your stakeholder, you need to realise it's because they are receiving pressure

Some abusive people just believe that this is what makes them tough and effective. Has nothing to do with someone else pressuring them.

I used to give benefit of the doubt in these situations and think it is external, until I seen with such managers up close and it turned out it was them and only them begin source of their own assholery. The external parties were just enabling.


I'm going to second this. I've seen on more then one occasion that some people believe it's their job to do this on order to be most effective. I literally had PM tell me (as head of engineering) that they thought it was there job to set unrealistic expectations and adversarial environment in the hopes that it created an environment where the engineers worked longer.

I'm reality it creates a hostile work environment where burnout is high, morale is low, and projects take even longer to finish. It sacrifices all long term gains for short term results.


Maybe exercise the company expense card and start having dinners / drinks with these folks. They might be less assholish if you wine and dine them a little. Normally, I would say fire them but from the sounds of it you are too far gone. Drinks, breaking bread, and having a few laughs might smooth things over. At the very lease you can eat out at some fancy places and tell the folks at work you are smoothing things over. This could be tough if you hate them though.


Sounds like a good idea

Another one is, depending on how their team is behaving w.r.t. your team, start pushing some responsibility back

Were they delayed when they shouldn't have been? Is it something on their side that's causing issues?

This needs to be done with some care, but it works. Though your suggestion sounds good and could be used in combination.


Best suggestion of the thread.


My take on this is, often a problem is not itself: the symptom your client displays has a foundational problem elsewhere, which causes them to behave like this not only towards you but probably with most other people. So first, you need to be aware that it is not you, it is them and let them know it indirectly. How?

I read a great advice once that if you "dont react, you will not overreact". The flood gates of pent up emotion will cause severe problems for your business which will lead to outcomes unexpected even by you, and your team.

But suppressing negative emotions are proven to cause psychosomatic diseases, which is a boring way to say all this suppressed anger will kill you. What to do?

The problem begins to become a problem when you value the emotion more than it is worth. If you think this is making me angry, emotionally you will easily slide into feeling much more anger than is actually warranted. The reason for this is because our built up stresses want a release point, and when you feel angry, those release paths become known to your anger.

First, exercise in the morning, intense, fun like basketball and your team, so as to prevent daily stresses to seek release paths.

Then when the client starts to get on your nerves, your nerves will handle the client without becoming frazzled or excited. This calm will unnerve your client, and cause them to feel the futility of behaving like that towards you.

If it does not make you angry, they will not be likely to behave aggressively because they could wonder: they are so calm! But this would also make them behave even more aggressively sometimes. However, this will all come to an end if you remain calm.

In the mean calm time, you can seek clients that are less belligerent and reduce reliance on clients who want to vent it on you. But until then, treat it as a case study in abnormal psychology.


fantastic advice


Have you tried to explain what behaviours are unreasonable to your customer? I assume they want the project to succeed but they might not realize that their behaviour is actually hurting the team rather than helping.

A very common issue is Project Managers asking for regular (several a day) updates of varying degrees of detail. This is done, normally, because the programme manager is being pressured by the account executive to provide these updates,to, as best as I can figure, give the illusion of control in front of the customer (if project important enough, there could even be VPs involved)

Unfortunately, providing detailed updates that might trigger an email back and forth do not help to deliver the project and yet this is very common.

Sometimes all it takes is for somebody, it can even be a developer to say no, this is counter productive, as the time would be better spent doing actual work. A single daily update will be provided.

Finally, always remember that if everything else fails, you can quit. This is not to say that this might not be without consequences but your personal circumstances might allow it.

Best of luck.


On my first day as a PM leading a team of 5 developers, I had a meeting with the Marketing director as I was brand new to the company. She welcomed me by telling me: "Your developers are total idiots who don't understand anything to the business" while smiling to their faces which has marked me forever. What I learnt from that experience is you can't reason an asshole (I tried too many times over and always failed), if this asshole happen to be your main stakeholder and you can't change that, then get another project or step aside.


I had a horrible experience with the site director for a Fortune 50 company that lasted almost two years. I tried most of the techniques mentioned by others here to protect my team.

In the end, the only way we were able to deal with the situation was to play some extreme politics with the asshole's organization to get them to move him to a different org within their company. The company itself (rightly) has a reputation for having an asshole management culture, so things only became marginally better. They were our only client at that site.

I helped some of my team move to different sites within our company to get away from that client. Interestingly enough, I found out about a year into this that my company had given up another site for this same client to our main competitor for that business because it was physically very near their headquarters, and so was frequently visited by asshole executives who created even greater levels of stress.

I also tried to move myself by out of there, but was unsuccessful by the deadline I had set for myself, so I exercised Plan B and changed careers. That was five years ago and just reading this pissed me off again thinking about that situation.

Whatever you do, protect yourself. The damage from enduring that kind of work environment happens faster and lasts longer than you realize.


Could you share a few specifics on what actions made your experience with this client terrible? “Terrible” and “asshole” are very subjective terms and mean different things to different people.


Late reply, but here are the bullet points:

* Offered expensive incentives to my employees during one particular crunch time -- incentives that were to come out of our pocket, not his -- then lied about it

* Used insulting, demeaning language when addressing me, my direct reports, and some of the first-level employees

* Made racist comments within earshot of the targets

* Shifted goal posts constantly so that last week's goal suddenly became only halfway there

* Tried to get competitive information during contract negotiation time by buying my directs drinks at "social hours" and/or offering seeming insider information to get them to reveal the reasoning behind our negotiating positions

I could go on, but that gives the flavor. My boss got him out by pushing very hard with her superiors and his superiors on a (partially trumped up) sexual harassment charge. Normally that would really upset me, but in this particular case it seemed like old-fashioned rough justice.


Take it to the top. Have the CEO of your company sit down with the CEO of their company and get it all straightened out. Since you've already decided they are on the way out as a customer as soon as your company can support itself there is nothing to lose.

Also, this didn't happen overnight and if someone - anyone - on your side would have set this client straight when they first crossed the lines it would have never gotten this far. I've seen my share of toxic customers over the years and the most important takeaway from me is that it takes two, if I let myself be abused once by a customer they'll use that as a baseline for future pushes and it is up to me to stand up for myself and my crew and to push back hard enough that they realize that it is a two way street.

On another note: never depend on a single customer, no customer should be more than 15-20% of your total business, max, and that is likely where it went wrong: your company is afraid to lose this valuable customer and so they accepted more from them than they really should have and it went downhill from there.


It's easy to say, but if you begin, it is very difficult to do.


Oh, absolutely. Most of this stuff happened early on in my career, people still try - rarely - but when they find out they can't make it stick it actually earns you some weird kind of respect.

I've made a simple decision: my first responsibility is to the crew and their dependents, clients second.


Are you an outsourcing company by any chance?

If you are, then there's a fair chance that a decision to go with you was forced on the company's PMs against their will, likely as a cost-cutting measure and, perhaps, causing their friends and colleagues to lose their jobs or some such. You will be then viewed as an unfortunate and unwelcome trade off that they have to put up with. This would apply in double if you are an Indian outlet, because of a sheer scale of general incompetence and outright fraud in Indian outsourcing firms.


I’m surprised by some of the responses on here. You don’t have to take this shit. Your client is a bully.

Log everything, inform your management you will not be bullied, and in a professional tone, parrot each assholish thing your client says.

If they remain unmoved, tell them upfront this is abusive behavior and it ends now. This will either stop them in their tracks or you will eventually be fired. That’s when you consult a lawyer.

I called out two executives in my workplace for similar shit. I was prepared to be fired. Instead the abusive behavior ended immediately.


Thank you this is very useful. Paper trails work.


There's no managing an asshole. It's very rare for an asshole to become a nonasshole. It's common for assholes to become bigger assholes over time as they get use to shitting on you. Either drop the project or leave the firm. You're in an unstable situation, working with assholes can take years off your life.


You don't, this is the kind of project which causes "emotional bankruptcy". The company you are working for is defined by the team working there, not by the disruptive projects you make. Especially if you're doing something like consultancy.

I had a similar situation, we needed 1.5 years to fully recover from something like this, people left after the deadline, productivity dropped, everyone was demotivated.

Me and my friend drifted apart because of a project like this, only to build another company in completely different industry together later and properly discuss how emotionally straining the experience was.

Nevertheless all companies are still running and fine, but it's not something that should be treated lightly. Have a serious talk with your manager if this is affecting you and your team. Most likely the team is more valuable than the project by orders of magnitude.


"How do you manage your clients who are completely unreasonable, rude, and treat you and your staff extremely poorly?"

Go up the executive chain. Someone is paying handsomely for your project to end succesfully and that particular someone will probably not be very pleased when he hears that a project is being sabotaged (== $$$) by two asshole underlings. Use that to your advantage.


Your main point of leverage is always going to be the willingness to drop them. In your case this doesn't appear to be possible, so you have no control. Us non-nasty, reasonable people can't expect to win against people who've been practising this their whole lives.

Suck it up now, but get an iron-clad agreement from your management to never again court or sign up a client unless they're "nice". And bake it into your company culture. Yes this will limit you to only a section of the market, but unless you're realistically looking at "world domination" you can afford to be a bit picky.


Document everything all the time. All the promises, complains, make minutes from all calls and meetings and send them over with cc to boss or whoever. Answer accusations respectfully, but don't ignore them. Again, make sure both are documented. When the "bordeline abusive behavior" is actually accusation of something that is not true, address the accusation (but not necessary emotional tone).

Assholes will lie, willingly mis-remember, accuse you of their own mistakes and of consequences of their own decisions the moment first bug shows in production or something is not perfect. Be ready for that with documentation. Documentation does not make it easy and it will sux, but without it is even harder.

Let staff vent and talk about it, validate their feelings. But, make sure they are calm and respectful in their behavior toward client. Again, keep documentation.

Do not let abusiveness and rudeness dictate process. Do not do things that are irrational wrong or slow you down just because they were abusive or confrontational. You can do them as "client management" of course occasionally, but don't do them just because you are afraid of further abuse or rudeness. Again, document such things in a way that makes your objections very visible and makes it clear they insisted on it.


Sadly, this is a pretty typical scenario in consulting. In my own experience, the best and ultimately only thing to do is to be a gentleman as long as you can, and then to walk away once a clients behavior becomes abusive.

You don't say what level your client is in their organisation. If, (as is generally the case with ineffective managers), they themselves have a boss, one of the best ways to address abusive behavior is to withdraw your services, thereby forcing your client's organisation to make a decision about whether to remove them, or force a change in their behavior.

The most important thing a consulting firm has is its reputation. Unsatisfied customers talk to potential customers and dissuade them from entering new contracts. There is a real financial cost to entertaining abusive customers- it is better for all concerned to enforce a code of conduct.


I've seen multiple shitty IT contracting firms failing projects over and over and still get contracts.


Probably the client is just an asshole and nothing can fix that. However, I have some additional theories that may partially explain it.

My suspicion is that business schedules and contract structures may have something to do with this.

I'm guessing pressure is mounting because a lot of money has already been paid out before they received a final working product. It seems that people like to create large lump sum project fees and collect them immediately. This leads to crunch time and pressure to collect working software without extending the contract for additional money.

If possible I think it's best to have contract structures that are actually billed for the time of the developers and also have relatively short releases. So the idea would be that there is some working software with some features, then every few weeks you add a feature or two. This results in less pressure than if there are very few software deliveries.

But it sounds like there is some fundamental contempt the other party has for your group. It is risky but in order to understand and possibly combat that you could try changing the mode of communication. Perhaps no emails and only phone or Skype or face to face. Maybe you can have a discussion about where the contempt is coming from.

Also if you haven't delivered software for awhile you may not want to wait until the delivery date. Although that could make things worse also depending on the situation.


Seems like they are not complete assholes, since the project is meaningful.

Think of the situation where the client is not an asshole but just incompetent, and the project does not pass simple logic tests, let alone business health checks.

And the only reason your project exists is because the client has to make himself busy and spend his budget.

And it pays you well, e.g 150% of market average. And you have extra perks, like the luxury to cycle to work through the forest.

And imagine living this life for years.

With family to support ahd kids on your back.

Um...


Whoo: this is close to home. I could tell you a story here but I'd have to use a throwaway.

The best advice I can give you is to grow your business in other areas and diversify your client base. Really this is the only thing that gets you out of the hole in the long-term because it makes you less beholden to these people. Sounds simple but it's obviously not easy.

You should also give your team space and time to talk about it, and enlist your manager for support.

If you can formalise communication (e.g., through regular meetings, or via a ticketing system) all to the good, although I hold my hands up and say this didn't work in our case because the person involved was absolutely incapable of following any kind of process properly.

Finally, and this is the shitty end of the management stick, I'd recommend you shield your team from them as much as is practical: it's time consuming but funnel all comms through yourself. At least it means your team aren't dealing with the pummelling. Again, a good opportunity for your manager to help but you'll need to suggest concrete, practical steps for this because it sounds like they might be overcommitted already based on the lack of support they're providing.


First, I don't think that, in this situation, the client should be in direct contact with the developers. I'm not sure how the situation is (if the developers are physically working at your client's location or not), but I think all questions and remarks go through you, since you are the project manager. They will probably give you a lot of shit, but I think that one of your responsibilities is to shield the developers on the project from this kind of shit.

Also, I would try to communicate that the client probably is an expert in their business, and your developers are not. At the same time, your developers are experts at developing, for which you need to know an enormous amount of details about the business. If they seem idiots, it's because they lack domain knowledge (and it might be worth it to try to do something about that in cooperation with the client -- I'm not sure he's open to this but you can always ask him for suggestions on improving domain knowledge).

On the other hand, don't give the client any reasons to be an asshole. Underpromise, overdeliver, and communicate timely and clearly.


Do you have any customer support (experienced) people in your company ? Usually they have come across such behavior and help you dealing with them.

Your immediate goal should be shield your developers so that they can continue do work without any pressure.

Next, are you clients afraid of you not meeting deadlines or asking something which cannot be added to the product? The reason i asked this because, i had to deal with such customers in the past where

1) Paranoid Customers- Usually i found they pressure you because there is someone above them putting unrealistic expectations / pressure, identify if someone like that exist and try to get a someone higher than your grade level to talk to them .

2) Satisfying Ego / Giving Importance- We found certain situations even though the changes which customer asking don't make sense or they are expecting unrealistic deadlines and feel that we are not giving the enough importance, during these situations getting someone like a director or Vp on call made them feel more important and deescalated the issue.


Some people will say "it's not worth it". But if you need to pay a mortgage and take care of a family, you may have to change this to "it's not worth it forever, but I can handle it for a while."

I have fired 3 major clients of mine in the past 20 years. All of them started out fine, but turned so rotten and horrible I nearly quit each time.

But it's not just bad clients. Even some of my ok clients can be a pain at times, mainly due to schedules and stress.

Here's a few things I have found that help both with bad clients and "ok" clients having a bad time.

1. Patience and understanding: Seems obvious, but it's possible these people that are assholes today may really be on the edge of losing their jobs/business too. Not an easy thing to do, but takes a tiny bit of the bite out of their accusations.

2. Support tickets: Require (in some way) all/some requests go through a support ticket system. I have found this can help both parties with communication, so it's an easy sell without having to lie to them. Also, the more nasty they are, the more specific fields they have to fill out.

This turns a "it's broken and you broke it!" into -> "The form shows an error when submitting from an iphone."

3. At the extreme level, I have stated I will only do email communication and not talk on the phone. May work or not.

4. Don't answer the phone or reply to emails. Take a break for a while. I have to do this even with my ok clients. (my good clients I pick up on the first ring, and they treat me better than I treat them, or that is how it feels)

5. Set expectations CLEARLY. I found the biggest problems were when someone thought something was going to happen and it didn't. After many years of software dev, I tell people up front all the things that I know in the past have caused problems.

For example, I say "1/3 of the budget is due up front before we start work". If they come back and say "why haven't you started yet?" I can say "I have not yet recieved the up-front money". And refer to the documentation. (if they haven't read it, that's on them and it take a little bite out of their bark)

Another example is changes. I state clearly in advance, any changes from the specs (depending on the project how detailed they are) _will_ change the timeline and the costs. But even with this, I offer a number of minor changes within the budget. But also, I offer free bug fixes for _fixed_ period of time. All stated plainly up front.

The hardest part about this? When I forget to mention something, and I have to bring it up in the middle of a problem. It doesn't change the formula though.

It's like this: Client asks for 10th change. I say that is a "change order" and will cost extra. Client is mad because he's "expecting" it to be free. I apologize (the key here to take responsibility for my failure to communicated) for not making it clear that there are only 3 free changes, and in fact I have given 10 (demonstrate they have already gotten a deal). But I will give you one more (smooth it over some more even)

6. Accountability system: I had clients complain about "mystery changes" in their templates. I'd get viciously blamed for breaking a site. So, instead of explaining that my software couldn't possibly create broken html tags with a random copy paste. (because I know my code) I instead installed GIT on the dang server and every save from the client stored the account info, date stamp and even IP address.

That ended _every_ _single_ _complaint_ about template errors. (because _none_ of them were mine, they were all the clients fault.) Imagine having to tell your client it's their fault every time they call you? It sucks for both of you. I cannot emphasize enough what this meant to my sanity. Imagine going from a few complaints a week for months, to zero.

The first few times I had my client click the "history" button on a template and showed that it was either them personally, or one of their unskilled laborers that broke it, the accusations stopped. For ever. (I feel that relief again just writing this)

Since I don't know the exact nature of your project, GIT maybe won't help directly. But the idea might.

A universal CYA method would be include all client requests as part of the documentation to changes. (if this is part of the problem)

7. Take responsibility for your errors. I found that as soon as I made a mistake, and I owned up to it, it was easier to point out when something wasn't my mistake.

8. Ask them to be polite. One client (who I eventually fired) had two partners. At the end of the relationship, one of them just sent nonsensical email rants. I asked him to talk more politely, and he out right refused. So I asked his partner to step in, but he was a big wimp and did nothing about it. Now, knowing what I know, I would simply ignore the other guys emails, and just communicate with the decent guy.

Sometimes playing dumb works too with these things. When you are sick of something, just ignore their replies and just keep working and doing the best you can.

9. The owner/s need to step up. It hits a point where if the environment gets so bad that you start losing talent, then it's going to hurt the owner. It would be a good show of respect to get the owner involved in the problem before it's too late.

10. Build extra tooling. One project with a client (from #8 above) and sub-par developers that couldn't follow directions or solve any problems. I built an API and all sorts of stuff, documented it clearly, yet I got blamed when their stuff didn't work with mine.

My solution? I built _their_ stuff too. Or at least a very simple skeletal version of their system. Combined with multiple screen recordings of working with the API and the data. That _totally ended_ the complaints that my stuff didn't work, because it was really, really obvious that it did. (their programmers just didn't seem to know anything)

Final thought: I have found when I am teetering on the edge of falling over a cliff (despair/rage/annoyance/quitting/etc...) even the slightest bit of positive change can help me make the right decision. And making the right decision is always better in the long term. So get even small successes from any changes you can make may be all you need to get things on track.

This hits home for me, I've had such horrendous experiences with this stuff that I could write lots more. Hope you recover and everything works out. (sorry this got so long)


Usually assholes become lambs when there is a real violence threat. P.S.: My life is a mess, don't follow my advices.


Its obvious to me that they are not happy with the service you are providing.

I've dealt with an outsourcing company in the past for an entire year, and really, being on the other side of the fence it is a very stressful situation.

The kind of problems, like lack of testing for bugs, fixing one bug but introducing another bug, slow progress, lack of proper management, lack of understanding requirements all adds up.

Its THEIR asses on the line, not yours, so you should understand that they might be a "little" stressed with no real control over the situation other than through you.

They are paying money for whatever service you are providing, if things aren't going well then its because the culture of outsourcing companies is to not give a shit about bugs so we can bill the customer for months and months more for them to fix the bugs.


Are they being assholes simply because they're nervous about your team and whether you're going to deliver, vs. make them look like, well, assholes? Maybe they're insecure and frustrated about that, and about their own inability to evaluate your work on a technical level. Sounds like a little "explanation for a non-technical audience" and some reassurance and empathy are in order. Sometimes assholes are assholes because they're scared, and they think being an asshole is the only way to handle it. Although a firm but polite reminder that you're not going to eat their shit is probably a good idea too. You've set a bad precedent by allowing it at all. Be the mom AND the dad to these little kids.


Bite your tongue, wrap up the project gracefully and never work with them again. This is easier said than done, but as you mentioned, you are close to launch and your company could not survive without the deal. Good luck.

However, I would like to point out to things: 1. Client treating YOUR staff poorly is way beyond any line. It should be communicated to the client and explained that it's not helping anyone and that you will be removing your abused staff members from the project, thus slowing the whole thing down. 2. From my past experience, problematic clients have problems paying at the end of the contract. Just make sure this bit is legally covered.


The only strategy I've been part of that has worked in this situation is to set up one person as the gatekeeper and shield the rest of the team from any contact with the client. Pick your gatekeeper with care and give them 100% support.

Also, while fully understanding why your client is behaving like this may not always be possible, you can usually get part of that picture; do they want leverage, are they under pressure themselves? Sometimes understanding this can help you proactively short-circuit their behaviour.


I generally agree having one contact person mitigates the spread of the damage. But it seems like he is asking for feedback partly because he has the role of the gatekeeper himself (at least part of the time if not all of it).

Eventually everyone will hit their limit though, no matter how much support they get, or how well your coping mechanisms are.

Therefore, doesn't it seem useful to find a way to ask clients to behave appropriately/respectfully?

Even if they say "no", at least this opens up clear communication. (ie, if he says "I am _going_ to be jerk, live with it,", then it seems appropriate to openly be protective in return.)


Might sound obvious but you'll be surprised how much we resist just airing the issue: Have you tried talking to the person (Product Owner/direct manager) human-to-human? Tell him/her that you are aware how stressful it is for the PO with the impending release. Remind him/her how much better his/her products will be if developers are motivated and work as a team.

“If you would persuade, you must appeal to interest rather than intellect.” – Benjamin Franklin.


I fear they may know it and because you are tied so tightly to them they know they can behave that way and potentially use their leverage for other things.

I've known companies who explicitly look for situations where they are the biggest customer in order to operate how they wish and extract concessions. I'd be concerned about more than just behavior.


I'm cautious of taking the asshole judgment at face value because we only see one half of the story. Instead, I want to dig in a bit and find out more.

> extremely aggressive and borderline abusive behaviour

Such as?

> In the beginning we we all agreed not to take anything personally and to let it just roll off the back.

Could you have done something differently here?

> We agreed to tighten up our processes and try to avoid confrontations by being super proactive with all our work

What does proactive mean in this sense? That it met client's expectations, or that it tried to pre-empt them, or something else?

> Ordinarily, we would have dropped the client by now and refused to put up with the end-justifies-the-means tactics

Tactics such as...?

> we're coming close to the launch date, and it's getting worse as more pressure mounts.

Where is this pressure coming from? Is it coming from you and your direct managers too?

> This is a very high profile project that stands to disrupt its market.

Is this what you tell your team? If so, that might answer the last question!

> It's exciting for them and us.

That sounds really positive. Does that mean there's a way to share that excitement?

I don't mean to be accusatory, I think this is important to explore if you want a decent answer without the confirmation bias.


Please check out The Psychopath Code written by Pieter Hintjens. Based in real events, real people entangled in real software projects.

http://hintjens.com/blog:_psychopaths


One thing that we always joked about but have never done, is giving nasty people's names to a bunch of recruiters to help them to find a job someplace else.

More practical is making sure you have account management with relationships at a higher level to put a stop to the abuse.


Sometimes its just perception from stress, but there can be very unprofessional people out there.

I began using mirroring and calibrated questions I picked up from a negotiations book. I find it to be a very helpful approach that helps me keep the ball in their court so to speak.


Even if there are plenty of competitors in your space, time is a huge factor, and they probably need your firm as much as you need theirs at this point.

So, I'd just put the cards on the table: treat us with more respect or find someone else.

That usually sorts things out.


Take client and your people out for beers; there is a world outside work and noone wants to be "an asshole".


When you look at client cultures, there will be a spectrum. It is vitally important to know you will see a bit of each type: the good, bad, and fucking ugly. Learn to deal with them all. There are some that you are better off breaking ties with: clients who will tie up your resources, wasting too much time and energy.

As to the troublemakers and jerks:

1) To the extent you can, accommdate.

2) Limit contact to the people who can work with them with the least friction.

3) A quality product is the result of process, not something conjured up instantly and perfectly. Work and refine the pricess and make sure the customer understands it.

4) Keep a policy to neither abuse nor take abuse. Reasonable, constructive criticism is one thing; attacking just to enjoy inflicting pain is unacceptable. If they want to piss on something, direct them to the nearest outdoor fire hydrant.

5) If your product and development process is sound, stand your ground. Assert that "business is the persuit of the possible." If the customer wants magic, buy'em tickets to Las Vegas and GTFO business.

6) Increase your customer base so that you are proportionately less exposed to problenatic customers.

7) Train your staff in "people skills" for de-escalating conflict and staying focused on getting the work done.




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