Helpful Suggestions For Managing Difficult Clients

(and…how to avoid a client turning difficult in the first place!)

Stakeholder Management | By Gina Abudi | Read time minutes

Fighting business couple

Every consultant has had to deal with a difficult client. The nice thing about being a consultant - you just need to get through the project and you will be able to move on - you don't necessarily have to work with that client ever again. But really, that's not what you want, is it? Ideally you develop a strong working relationship with a client so that when another project comes up, the client thinks of you first. You become a partner with the client, not just a one-time deal.

There are many examples of what might be considered a difficult client - refusal to pay for services rendered (certainly sometimes with good reason), frequently changing the objectives of the project, not signing off on documents to move a project forward, avoiding responsibility for their component of the project (e.g., not making needed decisions), pressing for solutions before analysis is completed, etc. These are just a few examples - no doubt you have many more!

Let's look at how to best handle difficult clients. One thing I have found to be most beneficial is to develop strong client working relationships right from the very start - this builds trust and credibility and makes the difficult conversations with the client a bit smoother and easier. I often find that difficulties with clients arise when things are not agreed upon in the first place or are not well documented.

Difficult clients sometimes look for an "out" of their agreement with you. To avoid this, I recommend documenting all conversations with a client right from the beginning of the first contact with them. I do this and it seems to be quite effective. I share the information with them as follow up to a phone call or a face-to-face meeting we have had. This helps to ensure I understand the client's needs and have not forgotten anything. It also provides the client with the opportunity to add to the status report - correcting what I may have misunderstood or to add in some new piece of information he/she may have forgotten during our conversation. It always includes a "next steps" section with due dates and roles and responsibilities. This document also serves me well if there is a misunderstanding or expectation from the client once a project is underway. I can always refer back to this documentation, and refer the client back to it, to clarify something or correct any misperception. When working with a client on developing the scope of the project, be sure you are working with the right person at the client site. You want to be working with someone with the authority to make decisions and sign off on documents (such as the project charter and project scope statement.) Don't just assume the individual working with you is authorised. I have seen this get many consultants in trouble with the client and gives the client an out in paying the invoice.

When working on a client project, I update the client, at least weekly (sometimes daily depending on the project) on the status with a formal report. My status report will include at least this information:

  • What should have been accomplished in the week
  • What was actually accomplished in the week
  • Any variances and why (root cause of variances)
  • Activities to be accomplished in the following week
  • Any issues identified and corrective actions planned or preventive actions taken
  • Any questions or issues I need the client to address

I follow up the status report with a phone call or a face-to-face meeting. This keeps the client in the loop regarding the project's progress and lets them know of any issues right up front and how they are being addressed or if I need the client's support in addressing the issues. No surprises this way and the client can't state later that no information has been shared with them or that they didn't know about an issue. A client who is kept in the loop feels better about the project - even if there are issues arising - because you are not hiding what is going on and you are being responsive by addressing issues immediately as they occur. During the phone call or face-to-face meeting, I ask the client about how things are going from their perspective. If they come up with issues, I document that and send that information to the client to be sure I have captured the information correctly. I also include a plan for addressing the issues that the client has brought up. Being responsive helps to further strengthen and develop the relationship with your client.

As the main client contact (and head of the project) I always take responsibility for what goes wrong. Don't pass the buck or blame your team, a subcontractor, or someone else for the problems. You are the key person - it is your responsibility. And I never go to the client with a problem unless I have some potential options for resolution. I also tell my team that I don't just want a problem brought to my attention - come with some options for fixing the issue.

In speaking with Sarat Varanasi (a fellow blogger), he offered the following information concerning clients who don't want to pay the invoice. From his perspective, and many other consultants I know feel the same way, this is likely a sign of poor project and relationship management. Bottom line - you did something wrong! A good project manager or relationship manager stays in constant communication with his/her client. He/she shows tangible progress to the client, knows the clients concerns and addresses client issues proactively on a regular basis rather than waiting until the client is angry or until the end of the month when the invoice has arrived and the client refuses to pay. A good project or relationship manager is well aware of how the client will react to issues that occur. If a mistake is made, he/she will admit to the mistake and have a plan in place to remedy the issue. By owning up to the mistake, good will and trust is retained with the client. This will help you turn around a tough client and certainly make for a better working relationship. According to Sarat, ignoring the mistake in the hopes that the client will not notice and/or will forget is never a good choice! Once the project is done and the client refuses to pay the invoice, or even a part of the invoice, because he/she is unhappy with the work, your options are limited. You can try pushing back on the client and providing a discount for the work, but likely you have limited your ability to do future work with this client. An unhappy client will remain an unhappy client.

I'm OK with clients who want to change something on the project (let's not assume this is necessarily a difficult client.) But I make sure there is a formal change process in place - and the client knows what that change process is and how it works. This protects everyone and avoids a client turning to a difficult client. Changes are natural - things occur that makes a client rethink what they need. I don't outright tell a client changes are not possible. By letting them know the impact on the project cost and the timeline for the project, they can better make a decision as to whether that change is really necessary. If there is a possibility of making the change with a "second release" of the project, and that may be more cost effective for the client, I let them know about that option. Work with a client who wants changes to the project - putting your foot down and saying "no," or worse yet agreeing to everything doesn't benefit anyone.

I always make sure the client is actively involved in projects. This also helps avoid difficult clients who like to have "plausible deniability" about what is going on. I ask a client to assign a project manager from the client-side to work with the team. This means the client also takes ownership of the project. It also enables me to transition ongoing project maintenance to the client. My goal is to provide the client what they need to make sure this project was a success and not feel like they have to call on me each time they want to do something. Let me provide you an example, if a client wants me to develop a new process for something, I make sure to provide them all the information they need to update or "tweak" that process at a later date and not feel like they need to call on me to do so. Clients feel better about working with you when nothing is a mystery to them. They are involved in the project also and learn from you. Transitioning your knowledge to the client should be part of your responsibility. Believe me - you aren't losing a client. Another project comes up and they are calling on you!

So - I think you must have enough examples by now of the benefits of working closely with the client and being transparent. This helps to tone down your difficult clients. Here are a few brief bullets to help you avoid having to deal with a difficult client.

  • Make sure you have a clear project charter and scope statement for all projects that have been developed with and signed off on by the appropriate level contact at the client.
  • Have the client sign a project manager from their side to be involved in the project.
  • Be sure to develop a written status report on a regular basis and share that information with the client.
  • Have regular client meetings - whether by phone or via conference call - to update the client and get answers to questions, resolve issues, etc.
  • Don't hide anything from the client - bring up issues immediately along with a proposal for solving the issue.
  • Develop and stick to a change management plan. If changes come up - even if minor - stick to the processes for managing change requests. No exceptions here! Make sure everyone on the team knows the process and follows it.
  • Develop a detailed contract or agreement for the project that specifically includes what the consultant (that's you!) and the client expect from each other and how you are going to work together.

These steps will help you to keep a project moving in the right direction and avoid a client turning into a difficult one.

And once you have a difficult client, take these steps:

  • Set up a face-to-face meeting with the client to address their issues and concerns.
  • Develop a plan, with the client, on how to get back on track.
  • When necessary, refer back to the documentation (such as status reports, write-ups of meetings and/or conference calls, etc) and your contact with the client (see bullets above on how to avoid having a client become a difficult one.)
  • Most important - keep your cool with the client. Come to a consensus on what will work for both you and the client. Don't look to just "win." There is no real winning here if you can't remedy the situation and come to agreement.

A great resource for all consultants - whether new or you have been consulting for a while - is Peter Block's book: Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used

What are some of your stories? How have you managed difficult clients? Or…better yet…how have you managed a relationship so the issue of a client turning difficult does not arise?

Gina Abudi has over 15 years consulting experience in a variety of areas, including project management, process management, leadership development, succession planning, high potential programmes, talent optimisation and development of strategic learning and development programmes. She has been honoured by PMI as one of the Power 50 and has served as Chair of PMI's Global Corporate Council Leadership Team. She has presented at various conferences on topics ranging from general management and leadership topics to project management. Gina received her MBA from Simmons Graduate School of Management.

Copyright © 2009-2010 Gina Abudi. All rights reserved.

Recommended read: What Is Stakeholder Management? by Duncan Haughey.


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