In Praise of the Scapegoat

Worried that good faith will get you fleeced? Need to get more contractual with your clients? Meet the unlikely hero here to save your hide. 

Like a bolt from the blue, a couple of buddies you haven’t seen since your Uni days have got in touch. Want to join them for 18 holes and a burger? Of course you do! 

…just, not this Saturday. Man United are facing off against Liverpool and you have a prior commitment to the living room couch.

You don’t want to upset these guys. You want them to know that you’re really keen, protect what could be a very valuable friendship. You’d genuinely love to go with them another day. 

But… you’ve been looking forward to this match since the start of the season. And you’re not sure they’d understand playing second fiddle to a TV screen. 

So what do you do? 

You phone in a scapegoat. Your significant other wants you home. Or you have to look after the toddler. Perhaps you’re helping a mate move house.

Let’s be real here for a moment: honesty is always the best policy. But when people’s feelings are on the line, the scapegoat is the oldest trick in the book for a reason – it works.

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A Simple Solution

With Football on Saturday a distant memory, you’re back to the real world. Your company is about to hit ‘go’ on another project. The client is the real bread-and-butter kind – a Big Name, with Big Business to show for it. They’ve been keeping you guys fed and watered for the best part of a decade. 

But you recently heard rumblings about a similar project with a different contractor that went to hell in a hand basket. The big-name client decided not to pay, for what sounded like basically no reason. Arbitration happened, litigation nearly happened and it all sounded like a world of pain. 

So as much as you’d like to be feeling optimistic – well, you’re not. This critical relationship lies in your hands. And you’re sweating. 

How do you keep the client on-side, but subtly make sure that your company doesn’t end up in financial ruin?

You call your friendly neighbourhood scapegoat, of course: a third-party consultancy that doesn’t rely on your client’s undying affection.

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The Benefits of a Scapegoat

Hi Very Important Client, we’ve engaged a company to keep an eye on our contractual obligations so we can concentrate on what we’re here for – doing the best job we can for you. 

Engaging a consultancy (scapegoat) effectively involves some clear, honest communication – you need to be as up-front as possible.

That’s because, from your client’s perspective, your company doing any of these things can potentially raise a red flag: 

  • Suddenly becoming more contractual part-way through a project
  • Appearing to have little or no awareness of the contract at all
  • Changing processes part-way through – especially when it comes to capturing changes to scope/potential variations

It’s a balancing act. It can be really tough if you’ve worked with the client before and they’ve become used to a particular style of management. But as long as you’re up-front about it, the idea of bringing on a consultancy shouldn’t cause anyone any lack of sleep. In many situations, it makes sense. Look at it this way – does your company need an excuse (or anyone’s permission) to review and optimise processes? Of course not. 

For this project, we had a look at making the most of the resources we had to do the best possible job. As it turns out, the most efficient solution meant outsourcing the contract side of things to another company.

Once you’ve managed to explain the new situation – and reassure your client that things shouldn’t change for them too much – you’ve earned yourself some breathing space. 

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You CAN Have Your Cake and Eat it, Too

I’m assuming you want all of these things to happen:

  • You do a great job for the client
  • You forget about the contract and focus on work, knowing that no fine print is going to come back to bite you
  • The client has a great experience working for you and still feels the love

With a consultancy, none of these are mutually exclusive. 

If your company has been lax in the past and wants to come down a little harder to protect its best interests, this is the perfect way. Any change in the way things are done can easily be ‘blamed’ on the consultancy. You’re still friendly and accommodating. It’s the consultancy, not you, that wants that change captured in writing, or more detail added to the scope of works before it’s signed off. 

Too easy.

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The Long and the Short of it

There’s been a shift in the way the bigger companies have been doing business lately. Like it or lump it, they’re getting more contractual. 

It is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Aware of a general trend towards an increase in claims and disputes, these companies bring more people on board to help ensure that it doesn’t happen to them. In turn, this means that there are more eyes on the contract – creating more potential for disputes in the first place. And if you think you need to be more contractual to match, then you almost certainly do. 

Change is tough. But it’s a LOT easier when someone’s there to play ‘bad cop’ for you.

So while other contractors might just take the gamble, you can be smarter than that. 

Step 1: get your goat. 

Step 2: relax.

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