My first big client was a major retailer who had grown tired of paying a huge ($400k / year) maintenance bill for SAP software they were barely using. They asked me to build a much simpler application that was designed to meet a simple, strict set of requirements. Our first iteration of the app was a huge home run and they promptly cancelled the SAP contract. As more people within the company adopted the tool we built, there was an avalanche of new requirements and most of them “top-priority”. I was glad to take on the work, but I made a bit of a tactical mistake by letting a big company bully me as a small vendor. There were many 80 hour weeks, interrupted vacations and “drop everything and change this” phone calls. My nature is to want to help, but I fell for the feigned sense of urgency that was nowhere near real. There were senior IT people calling the shots who had NO BUSINESS being in the position they were in. I could never get them to sign a maintenance agreement (with a magical SLA included), so it was all time and materials. I finally got their attention by charging them for every single hour I spent on new features. They knew they were my only large client and they thought they could push me around. Once I finally came to my senses I was able to carve out time to shake some trees in my network and drive some new business. Once I started pushing back they got much more sane with their requests, toot sweet. Fast forward 7 years later and they are STILL using the application I built, saving almost $3 million dollars in the process.
OK, enough humble bragging. Suffice it to say I learned a ton and provided measurable value in the process.
The best part of dealing with large clients is that the budget constraints are nowhere near what they are with small or growing businesses. The biggest challenge can be the fact that they won’t see the direct value they are getting for that budget. It’s hard to have the same conversation with a 400K employee client that you can with a 10 employee company, especially as it relates to “What benefit does this application provide for you?”. It’s surprising how off-putting that question can be to a person who is only in the vendor meeting because their boss asked them to be. Ask any sharp small business owner that question and they will probably rattle off an exact amount down to the decimal. Don’t get me wrong. Small businesses are typically the MOST demanding clients I have, but they are most often the most reasonable.
They say (yes, the ubiquitous “they”) that your client won’t truly respect you until you say “No”. Don’t chase dollars by letting your client treat you like a full time employee. If they are asking for something unreasonable, just tell them it’s unreasonable. If they just need extra hustle to meet a deadline, naturally you should kick ass for them but don’t get pushed around.
Sorry, I gotta call back a client that left two voicemails and just texted me while I was writing this blog post…