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The Bad Client

The Bad Client

The Bad Client

I have had a recent run of bad luck in terms of landing a pair of jobs with clients who have this mindset that anything less than absolute perfection
and 100% full time attention to their needs is grounds for non payment.

The typical scenario goes like this:

1. I send my documents over for final review
2. The client points out that I made a mistake (no matter how small) and that they are firing me and not paying me. No pre-conversation discussing this mistake. No, "hey lets do better". Just the axe.

The obvious timing of this move (my product being delivered), associated with the fact that the architects documents that I'm following are no way NEAR perfect, yet they are still happily
marching along with the owner, make it that much worse.

So I am in a spot where I have to admit, that yes, I made that mistake, and No, that does not mean you get a 75% discount off of the job invoice.

Before I get the lecture of "own up to your mistakes" I will point out that I do own up to my mistakes and I do pay for insurance, which is significant. I am not God, and I do make mistakes.
The client I am speaking about is starting the job with this "business" move in mind.......and up until now, I have not been able to identify who it is who will be doing this. It is basically theft hiding under the guise of "well you messed up my favorite (insert part of the job here).....".

From what I can see is that their jobs go over budget, and they need to make a cut, and low and behold, here is some poor engineering shmuck with insurance who made a mistake (no matter how insignificant), and whose invoice is about the same as it would cost to litigate me. Lets start there.

How do you combat this legally? Can you combat it legally? Anyone have a similar experience beating this.

RE: The Bad Client

What is the nature of the mistake? Trivial? Costly? Life threatening?

If its trivial, I'd say the client is looking for free engineering. If its life threatening, they are probably scared of "what else could be wrong that we have not found"?

RE: The Bad Client

Well on one, I had a note mislabeled that showed the garage slab at 99'-6" instead of 100'-0", despite the fact that it was drawn at 100'-0".
We were in the middle of coordinating drawings, and instead of coordinating or saying hey, this is off, they fired me.

With the other, the datum for a remodel project had moved because the contractor field verified that the distance between two floors was more than
we had originally shown on our drawings. Suddenly everything was off by 3 inches in theory and no one could figure out why. It looked like I had drawn my
structure 3 inches too low. We'll, we figured out what happened and once we adjusted for the new datum location things were shown to be
correct. But by that time the owner was convinced I was the cause so he fired me.

My point is that they have zero intention of "fixing" anything. They are looking for money.

RE: The Bad Client

My old firm landed a project for a few truck stops with a well known client (similar to swimming k). After a similar thing happened (we reached 95% drawings) we found out this was their M.O. In the end, we were just glad to be rid of them. We had at that time already collected some fee from them so it wasn't a total loss.

RE: The Bad Client

Was there anything in your contract regarding performance?

If not, then they could be construed as attempting to change the terms of the contract, possibly breach of contract.

A reasonable measure of due diligence would still have to be applied.

Mike McCann, PE, SE (WA)

RE: The Bad Client

In our company we emphasize that our contracts promise a professional standard of care. This is not perfection, or free of any mistakes, just what one of our peer groups would do in the same situation.
If your mistakes could easily be corrected by an RFI, or a Design Change, it seems that you've met this criteria.
It sees like you've run into a series of bullies. If they didn't have these excuses to not pay you, they'd find some other schedule or accounting trick to stiff you. Unfortunately, this kind of business practice doesn't come back to haunt them, like you hope it does. It might even get you elected president. But it's a sad way to do business.

RE: The Bad Client

It's really hard not to take this personally, like an attack on your credibility or integrity. Been there.

In some ways it's best just to take your licks and move on, and in the future try getting some payment up front, offering them a contract that commits you to correcting errors but does not relieve them from paying when they are found. When submitting drawings to a client, you can consider covering them with "REFERENCE" or some sort of ugly watermark to prevent their use prior to customer approval. The thing to secure is your customer's written approval before issuing the approved/stamped copies.

To get paid from a client like this may require a higher power. If you feel that litigation (say small claims court) would vindicate you, then maybe you can put a lien on the property or assets of the client. I've never done this, just had friends who did, so that's all I can say about the prudence of that move, and I can say nothing about the chances for success. The only cases where this was worked have been slow and barely justified the waste of time. And in at least one case, the property changed hands DESPITE the lien. If you've got one of those kinds of client, cut bait now.


RE: The Bad Client

Do you not have a standard design review and approval process specified in your contracts/statements of work? JME as both customer and contractor, but the devil is in the details of the contract. The more detail the more both sides are protected but the more time lost for other work. Different industry, but we specify formal and collaborative design reviews based upon project plans, and base the payment schedule off that.

RE: The Bad Client

If you DO find an error, own up to that error. (Sounds like you started that way, but now need to convince them (and you!), and any future customers that, indeed, YOU are not going to make that mistake again. And that YOU have not committed any other egregious error. And floor elevation reference numbers ARE important. Especially if the floors are "drawn flat!"

Audit "around" the problem as deep as you need to PROVE that no other levels are mis-labelled, that ALL other dimensions using that level's 99'-6" baseline height ARE CORRECT, that ANY distance measured FROM the 99'-6" datum like overhead distances, walkway and stairs lengths, tank elevations and pump inlet lines or pipe lengths, or column lengths and angle lengths are correct.

You have not convinced me (with the tone of your troubleshooting and root cause analysis of the error) that the rest of the building and systems can be built "as dimensioned" even if they are able to be built "as-drawn".

RE: The Bad Client

@racookpe1978, your suggestions are very 'engineerish' in the fact that you assume there must be a solution for every problem.
I am not trying to convince you about anything. Being an engineer, it is especially frustrating to come across problem without
a practical communicative solution, which is what I am trying to imply here.

The 'error' I made was not found during construction. It was during review and coordination prior to even issuing for a permit. What is happening has nothing to do with good or bad design.
It is related to the fact that the client is over budget because this is their first time in construction and that they can glean my drawings until they find something questionable
to be used as grounds for non payment. When you try to sit down with them and monetize how much the 'error' cost them, the typical response is "you can't put a value on this", which
is a slimy move they make to load up their side of the argument while refusing to listen to you.

Ambulance chasing is another word for it in the law world.

@cwb1, the review and coordination phase is exactly what you describe. I give my drawings to the architect and builder for review. They comment.
In terms of formalizing this process (like requiring signatures on title blocks etc), this is typically a residential construction setting. Trying to formalize it too much would just draw skepticism and questioning (....why don't other engineers do this type questions).

RE: The Bad Client

I don't think there is an easy way out of this.
Now, if they don't pay you, is there any way that you can prevent them to use your designs/calculations for the job?
If yes, then maybe that could be a point that you can bargain with to reach a settlement and cut your losses.

In future, maybe you will want to do some more due diligence before getting a new client.

Good luck.

RE: The Bad Client

Making “a mistake” that can be measured as inconsistent text on a document is not cause for 100% non-payment. It *is* cause to have the error corrected free of charge. Fortunately, I have not had the misfortune to have my entire invoice rejected.

Wait...Indeed I have. The client’s secretary didn’t like how my invoice was formatted. We sorted that out.

Who is right doesn't matter. What is right is all that matters.

RE: The Bad Client

I think that the issue is weather they used the drawings to get the building permit. If they used your drawings to get the building permit, then you have a good position to receive compensation. If not then you are out of luck. In most areas, material submitted for building permits are public information, so you can check to see if they used your drawings. Were the drawings sealed by you?

RE: The Bad Client

What is your role, are these Structural Drawings? If they use your drawings to get the permit then often there are questions from the reviewer, or shop drawings that require your sign off. Which if they aren't going to pay you, you could refuse to respond to. Seems screwy, that they would fire you for some mistakes discovered during preliminary review stages.

RE: The Bad Client

Am I the only one who shows no dimensions or elevations on my drawings? Unless they specifically pertain to the structure (ex details for steel placement within concrete).

I don't really care how high the finished slab is above sea level, that's for the architect, builder, and surveyor to figure out.

Including things on my drawings that don't relate to my responsibilities only open myself up to getting blamed for things I'm not involved with.

In return, I don't ask the architect to start specifying concrete properties on his drawings, or ask the surveyor to include my bolt sizes on their drawings.

That aside, I've never heard of such a terrible client and frankly I would put a lien on the job and stop taking calls for a couple weeks. I have 0 time for that crap. Hate to say it bigmig, but it might be time to grow a spine.

RE: The Bad Client

Sometimes you gotta fire the client. I have one that needs the boot. Your story is very familiar.

If you are offended by the things I say, imagine the stuff I hold back.

RE: The Bad Client

I have a friend in the HVAC business that installed all the mechanical systems for a new winery. When the job was finished the client told him he would only pay him 60% and that he would have to sue him for the rest. My friend told the client that he would send his crews back to the job site and remove as much of the mechanical equipment as he could without destroying other work. The client didn't believe him until his crews showed up on site. The client paid the full amount.

RE: The Bad Client

Thanks for the comments. After reading through the comments and coming up with my own conclusions, it boils down to a few nuggets:

1. Identify the problem client before you get the job so you can run. So far, 90% of the problem clients are owner build projects. They all have similar characteristics....egotistical, poor communicators, with little respect for anyone and little experience with a lot of "knowledge". Loud, over spoken jackasses who are constantly doing little control moves with everyone in their circles.
All of the traits could be found in quick sit down pre proposal lunch meeting.
2. Have a contract and stick to it. If changes happen (example, you mess up and cost the project money) then handle them in writing. Put dollar signs on "mistakes" so that all players can see the actual cost. This means you may have to fork over some money for a mistake. Be financially prepared to do it. Do not EVER, and I mean EVER let a client change your contract verbally.
3. Do not exchange your faults for free future work. The client will immediately take advantage of that. It is cheaper to just pay for the fix and then send him a bill for future work.
4. Have a stipend in savings for the day you have to pound it out in court. Being unable to financially afford to go to court is like riding a bike with one wheel. You can do it. Just not very well. If your client realizes that you can and will sue him, he will probably watch his mouth, as compared to the guy who knows that you cannot sue him....he will walk all over you. Again, it all comes back to contract.

RE: The Bad Client

Wouldn't it be nice if we consistently worked with people that have good, honorable character and integrity?

Pamela K. Quillin, P.E.
Quillin Engineering, LLC
NSPE-CO, Central Chapter
Dinner program: http://nspe-co.org/events.php

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