Team Productivity

How to Turn a Tense Client Conversation into a Win-Win

Daniel Threlfall
November 10, 2015
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I’m sure you’ve been in this situation before.

You’re on the phone with a client, and things are… awkward.

The project has been going according to plan. Project communication had been going swimmingly—until now. You were being a good project manager, executing tasks, sending deliverables, and satisfying every expectation, but then, things began to come apart.

First, it was budget issues, then, scope creep, then, you had to fire a key team member, then, the client went on vacation, then you had a project estimation snafu, and then things totally unravelled.

Now, you’re on the phone. It’s not good.

She’s not happy with you; You’re not happy with her; You’re frustrated with your team; She’s frustrated with your team; She’s about to pull the plug on the project; You don’t want her to pull the plug on the project.

Basically, everyone is tense.

Yeah... it’s pretty awkward.

And you have to salvage this situation somehow. The question is, where do you even start?

Whatever tense situation you’ve faced in your storied project management career, I’m sure you can relate. Every PM has war stories, battle wounds, and ugly flashbacks from client relationships gone awry.

Knowing how to handle these situations and defuse them is the hallmark of a good project manager.

Let me suggest a scripted process that will help you turn that tense standoff into a win-win.

Let’s back up for a minute. Why did this even happen?

Remember, this isn’t a blame game. This is a cold and analytic assessment of the situation.

Do a free-thinking brainstorm of all the reasons things fell apart.

Here are some common culprits:

  • Communication issues. Far and away, this is the number one cause. Clear communication must be firmly in place.
  • Scope creep
  • Project resource planning oversights
  • Project estimation mistakes
  • Project planning issues

Unless you have an impossible client (it happens), you and the client can both share the blame.

But when you are trying to defuse the situation, that’s not the way to present it.

Ready for your script? Okay, here it comes.

1. “We blew it.”

Yes, your first step is to eat crow.

All that’s necessary for this first step is a bold declaration, a clear explanation, and a dash of humility.

Don’t hedge it. Just say, “We screwed up” or whichever colorful variant of “I’m a loser” you prefer.

Sales savant Grant Cardone has a great line that can help set your perspective:  “Always, Always, Always Agree!”

Look at it from the client’s perspective.

  • Bad things happened.
  • Client not happy.
  • It’s your fault.

Agree with them by admitting culpability. Then, do two things. First, provide them with a clear explanation and second, remember that humility is a virtue.

Explain exactly what went wrong.

Okay, stop your entire mental process for just a moment. I need to make a very important point. This is not the time to make excuses.

Excuses not allowed, period.


  • We exceeded the budget by $3,208 in the last month. (It doesn’t matter that the client ordered new features that made this happen.)
  • We are 2 months behind on the designs. (It doesn’t matter that your lead designer resigned for reasons beyond your control.)
  • We didn’t communicate our progress for the past three weeks. (It doesn’t matter that you lost all your customer data in a security hack.)

Yes, you are admitting wrong.

Your explanation need not be long, but it should be clear. You must delineate exactly what the problem is you’re dealing with.

Now serving… humble pie. It’s not going to be easy.

Enough groveling. Let’s get into the good stuff.

2.  “Here’s how we’ll fix it.”

To recover from your abject abasement, it’s time to pull a power move. (I love power moves)

In this power move, you are going to explain how to fix it.

Just as you were clear with your “We blew it” speech, you must be equally clear with your “We will fix it” speech.

Clarity is everything. Tense situations often arise due to lack of clarity.

You don’t need to ask permission to fix it, nor do you need a meekly worded, “Is that alright?”


You broke it. You fix it.

  • What if you need to run it by leadership or the management team? Fine, but don’t use this as an excuse. It’s a cheap copout. Instead, tell the client, “We’re going to fix this. I will call you in 24 hours with a specific plan. Are you available at 3pm tomorrow?” There. You’ve given them specifics in the form of next steps, but you still have leeway to huddle internally about it.
  • What if it’s beyond fixing? Nothing is beyond fixing. The project itself may be off the rails, but the relationship is not. If the project has exploded, you need to clean up the mess. A plan to bury the project is still a plan to fix things.
  • What if the client won’t let you talk? There is such a thing as irate clients f-bombing the conversation to pieces, and not allowing you to speak. Does this sound like the voice of experience? It is. In this case, you can deploy two lines: “I’m going to let you finish, but in two minutes, I expect you to listen to my response.” If they don’t react accordingly, then say, “I can see you’re very concerned. I’m going to call you tomorrow at 3pm, and hopefully we’ll be in a better position to have a conversation. Goodbye.” CLICK!
  • What if it totally wasn’t your fault? Then you explain to the client how you’re going to fix his mistake. In other words, if the client blew the budget by ordering a set of new features, you can fix it by saying: “We’re going to remove the two features that you ordered. That will put the project back within the budget.”

The fix-it conversation is the central feature of this entire process. This is where you pack all of the substance, the discussion, the intention, and the passion that you can muster.

You’re going to fix it. Explain how.

3.  “This is how we will prevent it from happening.”

The third phase is the denouement.

You reached a climax in your “We will fix it” speech. Now, you’re coming off that high with a discussion of safeguards that will fireproof the project.

You’re doing this for 2 reasons:

  • First, you don’t want this to happen again.
  • Second, you want the client to know that you care.

I recommend concrete actions that are verifiable, objective, and data-driven.

For example: “We’re really working hard to make sure this never happens again” is a flimsy statement. It’s unquantifiable, subjective, and bereft of real assurance.

I know I’ve said it 82 times already, but clarity is a key feature of this part of the conversation.

The clearer you can be, the greater your ability to assure the client that things are going to be okay.

4. “Here are your options.”

Sometimes, the only way to defuse a tense situation is with some give-and-take.

I’ve traced out a pretty aggressive alpha male attitude to fixing the problem, but sometimes, you need to negotiate.

To have this discussion from the strongest position possible, you create a set of options for the client.

Each option must be explicitly fair, explicitly solution-focused, and explicitly understandable.


Nobody likes tense situations. They make you uncomfortable before, during, and after.

The only way to make such situations better is by facing them head-on with a clear plan, absolutely unambiguous communication, and a clear path forward.

My parting advice?

Stay in control. Don’t let a wild and wooly situation develop any more wool or wild. Instead, maintain a firm grip on it. If you can do so, then you will probably salvage a product and save a client.

Maybe someone will even nominate you for project manager of the year.

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