Project Management

How to Tackle a Tough Client Conversation

Laura LaPrad
May 1, 2018
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Ever had that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when you realize your project’s hit a snag? We’ve all been there.

Maybe it’s running behind because you underestimated the timeline. Or perhaps the client dropped a big new feature in your lap, expecting it to get shipped as part of the original project scope.

Whatever the case, one thing’s clear: It’s time to talk turkey with your client.

Tough client conversations may be intimidating, but they don’t have to ruin a good relationship. With a few simple steps, you can keep the project peace so everyone’s happy with the outcome.

Start with empathy

It’s easy to think of your client as just another cog to manage in the project wheel. But look closer, and you’ll see a regular person who brings their own set of fears and pressures into a project.

Before sitting down to discuss the issue at hand, take a moment to consider what’s going on in your client’s world. A little empathy can go a long way toward keeping a tense conversation from taking a negative turn. Consider it your very own secret super power.

Try saying this: I understand you have a lot going on.

Act quickly

Have you ever ignored a small issue in hopes it would go away, only to watch it snowball into a big nasty problem? Yeah, us either. 😉

We’ve lived and learned, and here’s what we know: What seems like a minor risk today can throw a major wrench into your project if you simply wait and see. So grab the bull by the horns as soon as it rears its ugly head, and take control of the situation.

You don’t have to wait for a status report to loop your client in. Speaking up as soon as you sense trouble shows your client you care about the outcome, and that’s a surefire way to win trust.

Try saying this: Can we schedule a quick check-in?  

Own the issue

Let’s be real: Admitting you messed up is hard. So hard.

But if you’re human (and we know you are), mistakes happen. It’s how you handle your mistake that matters. Eating crow may leave a bad taste in your mouth, but it’s is an act of courage, plain and simple. And guess what? Your client will respect you more for owning up to your team’s mistake and addressing it head on.

So what if the client’s to blame? That’s where you really have the chance to shine! Put the project before your pride, and take ownership anyway. No matter the problem, finger-pointing isn’t the answer. This is a perfect opportunity to bring empathy back into the picture as you state the issue honestly and present possible solutions.

Try saying this: I dropped the ball, and I’m sorry.

Listen without reacting

What if your client rants and raves and throws 4-letter words at you? It’s your job to buckle into the hot seat and get comfortable, no matter how wild the ride.

This might be the hardest ask of all because you simply can’t predict how your client will react. And that can be downright terrifying.

If your client needs to vent, let them. This isn’t the time to insert your personal opinion or let your emotions take the wheel. Take deep breaths, and focus on staying cool, calm, and collected. Then use the power of active listening to ask clarifying questions as you guide the conversation toward positive outcomes or next steps.

Try saying this: What can I do to help?

Bring options to the table

Did you ever read Choose Your Own Adventure books when you were a kid? There was something magical about knowing you had the power to determine how the story would go.

Well, consider this your chance to spread a little magic by putting a sense of control back into the client’s hands. Here’s how it works:

  • Come up with a few different ideas for fixing the situation.
  • Present those options to your client.
  • Let your client choose the solution they want to move forward with.

Nothing sets a client’s mind at ease like knowing you’ve already worked out a plan (or 2 or 3…) for preserving project momentum. Got ideas for keeping risk in check to the project end? Share those too for a trust-building double-whammy!

Try saying this: We can fix this. These are our options. How do you want to move forward?

Reset expectations, rinse, and repeat

In a perfect world, you’d outline expectations at the project start, and no wires would ever get crossed along the way. But the reality is, setting expectations isn’t a one-and-done thing.

Remember, your client isn’t the project expert. You are.

Instead of viewing every glitch as a fatal flaw in the plan, consider it a fresh opportunity to engage and educate your client. Your client may simply need a friendly reminder of the importance of timely feedback or even what valuable feedback looks like.

Try saying this: Here’s how we can partner together to make this project a success.

You’ve got this!

If something goes wrong, keep this in mind: Your client will remember how you solved the problem more than the problem itself—and respect you more for doing right by their project.

When it comes down to it, every client just wants to know they matter. Having the courage to be honest and transparent through all the project ups and downs is a bold way to show them you care.

Keeping clients happy is easy with TeamGantt.

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