The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Client Confusion

I occupy a weird position within the general construction/engineering/consulting industry. I am hired be my clients because they are required to have me perform studies in order to get their permits, government money, what-have-you for their project. So, we become an added expense to a project (though, usually, the smallest expense - rarely even taking up 1% of the total project budget*). We, along with the biologists with whom we frequently work, are generally afterthoughts on any given project. It's a weird situation, and one with a lot of tensions and potential (though rarely materializing) problems.

Contrary to what one might expect from this situation, I do in fact have clients who do respect me, who do value my opinion, and who do view me as a valued member of the team. I have a larger number of clients who are likely indifferent to me, but who recognize that they are required to have me there in order to get their permits or government funding, and who are gracious to me regardless of what there personal opinions might be. In truth, the actually painful clients are a definite minority.

But what a minority they are!

One project held several of the recurring issues that have haunted me as I have become a supervisor: the first time I was in charge of an excavation, it was for a site the was soon-to-be underneath a housing development (for a variety of reasons, I can't really say when or where this was). the project manager, a friend of mine, had discovered the site during monitoring**. The client, the owner of the development company, tried to bribe my friend in order to persuade him to not report the site. My friend, being smart enough to both recognize the bribe attempt and smart enough to see the legal minefield if he acknowledged it, played dumb and answered the attempt with a description of what would have to be done to evaluate the site***.

I arrived a week later, and the day before work began I met with the client in order to describe what we were going to do and how long it would take us to do it. When we met, the first thing he wanted to know was what the "worst case scenario" for this project would be. I explained that the worst case for him would be if the site was found eligible for the appropriate historic register, and he would then have to negotiate with the agency that issued his permits as to what was to be done - project re-design, data recovery excavation. etc. He then asked me how much that would cost, and I explained to him that it was not possible to know until we had completed evaluation and had a clear idea of what was in the ground. He then said "okay, I get that you are saying that to be cautious, but what is the real cost going to be?"

I have encountered this frequently. It is understandable, the client wants to plan and be prepared, and as a result, they want to know what may happen. The problem is that it sometimes happens that a site has a sufficient buried component that what one sees on the surface is only a pale reflection of what lies under the surface, and this means that a "worst case scenario" can never be adequately judged. I can give a "most likely scenario", though at the time that I was working on the project described here I was too green to even give that, but the worst case is literally as bad as your imagination can muster.

So, while I understand where the client was coming from, the fact remains that they were asking me to do something that was really not possible. However, this tendency to not understand what I am doing often proceeds into the next frequent problem - unreasonable expectations.

With this same client, after we had established that I am not a psychic and could not accurately give them the worst case scenario, we began to discuss what I was going to to. There were two steps to the evaluation of the site. We had to excavate shovel probes (small holes, usually 50 centimeters wide and about a meter deep, though this is variable depending on what ), and based on the results of the shovel probes, we would open up excavation units (larger holes, usually 1 meter by 1 meter, and as deep as they need to be to see what's below the surface). We were to excavate 20 shovel probes, if I recall correctly, followed by up-to four excavation units (we did three in the end).

"How long will this take?" the fellow asked me.

"Well, in these soils, with the depths that we're expecting, I figure two to three shovel probes per person per day, with a crew our size, I'd say four days."

"Huh? Look, if I hired some guys and they told me that it would take them four days to dig twenty holes, I'd fire them."

I proceeded to try to explain that we don't just dig holes, but we have to do so in 10 or 20 centimeter levels and sift the soil through screens looking for any artifacts, including some very small flakes of stone and beads. His response?

"I don't care, if I hired some guys and they told me that it would take them four days to dig twenty holes, I'd fire them."

This has been a common them in my work since then. Very often clients try to compare what I am doing to things that look superficially similar, but are in fact very different. Someone who is digging a hole for construction will use different tools, techniques, and be able to dig faster than an archaeologists who is having to move methodically and examine everything that comes out of the hole.

Similarly, I have had to start working with seismic surveyors. These folks move across the landscape either walking or driving ATVs, placing markers for the placement of source points****. s these guys are just walking a line across the landscape and placing a marker, they are able to move quickly. Us archaeologists, by contrast, have to walk more slowly, with our eyes on the ground, looking for signs of archaeological sites. When we find sites, we have to stop, determine their boundaries, and take points with a GPS unit. So, again, it looks superficially similar, but is in fact rather different, and the archaeologists are slower.

Luckily, both construction proponents and seismic surveyors are usually receptive to our descriptions of our work and figure out what we are doing rather quickly, and before too long we are usually able to work with them quite successfully. But every time I start working with someone new, we go back through the same routine of having to explain why what we do is not the same as the other people with whom they work. But every now and again, I am stuck working with a client who is resistant to learning that archaeologists are different from whatever they want to compare us to, and they accuse me of trying to milk money out of them (if these folks knew the number of unbilled hours I put in - that is hours of work that I don't track or get paid for because I am trying to keep costs down - they'd realize that this is ridiculous) and this is always frustrating. It's always less than fun when someone insists that I am trying to rip them off because I am digging a hole more slowly than the guy who is placing fence posts.

So it goes, part of the cost of doing business.

* The primary exception to this being small project proponents - the guy who has to get permits to build a new room on his house, the woman who wants to put down foundations for a shed, etc. These folks often get hit with the requirement to have us present at the last minute, and I have a lot of sympathy for them, even if I can't do much to reduce their costs.

** Monitoring is pretty much what it sounds like - when construction is being performed on or near a site or in an area where a site is likely, an archaeologist will often monitor the work to ensure that the site is not damaged.

*** Yeah for footnotes! As I have described before, for a site to be eligible for any sort of protection, it must be eligible for listing on a federal, state, or local historic register. When we evaluate a site, we are attempting to determine whether or not it meets the requirements for listing on such a register.

****Even more footnote fun! Seismic survey is done for mineral exploration, usually oil. A grid is laid out, and spots, called source points, are identified along a pre-defined grid. At these source points either an explosive charge will be buried or the ground will be shaken with a piece of heavy equipment called a vibroseis truck. The vibrations will be picked up by devices called geophones at other points on the grid. The readings on the geophones are then processed to create what is essentially a sonar image of the minerals below the ground surface.

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