Working as a contractor in the video game industry has taught me quite a bit of things about human nature that I didn't even want to learn.
A couple of days ago, one of my friends was lamenting on Facebook that his client had loved his work and said it was finished and approved, and when it came time to sign the check the client didn't love the work anymore. That ripped off a few scars because that has happened to me. Here are two of my "favorites."
I'M IN CHARGE! REALLY!
The person approving the work may not be the person that is actually signing the check. Put another way, the person that is approving the work really does not have the AUTHORITY to approve the work. This is extremely common. And incredibly frustrating.
You will generally see this problem start rearing its head when the person that approves the work says it is "done," and then slowly backtracks after having time after the initial "done" comment.
The client may have to go get approval from someone else without you knowing who it is or how this process occurs, they withdraw their initial approval, and pretend they never agreed upon its acceptance at all. This can defy logic, because you may have it in writing and an email, but they will find some way to tell you that they did not ever agree to it.
Your best bet is to spend the time up front to find out who is the final approval, so once that approval is given, the check gets cut. "Who has the final say on milestone signoff?" Clients will look at you like you're crazy when you ask that question, especially when they are the only person on the deal (i.e. they are an individual and not a company representative), but it really is worth it to get that check cut on the first try.
The client may not have a backbone. In other words, when they are with you they are able to say what they want, you are able to repeat back what it is they want, and then when they take your final work to someone else, they are so wishy washy that any question thrown at them from that other person puts them in a tailspin of self-doubt. When that happens, the person that is going to get hurt is YOU. This can be when they elicit feedback from a significant other, a shareholder, or a person off the street. There really just is no way to know. In my opinion these are your worst customers because they literally don't know what they want, and are unable to remember what it is they agreed upon with you in a meeting. In fact, that is a hallmark of this type of client. If they can't remember what you agreed upon that is a BIG red flag.
This is a very dangerous situation.
The first time you have a client indicate to you that they cannot remember what you agreed upon, it is time to start OVERdocumenting.
You should be doing this already, but now it is time to really make it happen if you haven't. Ensure complete documentation happens during and after all meetings. Whatever gets agreed upon gets written in an email. And I mean EVERYTHING gets written down, because until you think things are being remembered, you are in immediate cover your ass mode. If you do not do this, your team is going to be exposed to re-work that is completely your fault, and they will not be able to trust you when you say something is done. That is the most insidious problem with a client of this type. It can destroy your team's belief in you as a leader. It also doesn't do much good for your self esteem, either.
HOW ABOUT YOU?
Am I off base here? Miss anything important? Do you have any good stories about how have dealt with clients that behave this way? Light up the comments! I'd love to hear how you handled it.