Making The Most Of A Bad Client Situation

Sometimes despite your best efforts client engagements and pieces of work can go completely sideways.  Everything becomes uncomfortable and in some cases, even quite toxic.  If you work with clients in your business, this is an inevitable reality that you should come to terms with if you haven’t already.

I’m going to be totally honest, the easiest thing in the world to say would be that it is always the client’s fault when the relationship or engagement that goes south.

That would be an absolute lie.

There are times where you simply drop the ball and you miss on client expectations.  In my personal experience, 90% of the time this is due to workload.  You get really busy and for whatever reason, the work doesn’t happen within the agreed time frame.  Most clients can be accommodating with situations like this if the work isn’t terribly time sensitive, but occasionally you hook a client where they simply aren’t willing to accept that delays do happen.

The other 10% comes back to scope – between yourself and the client, there is a mismatch in what the deliverable is meant to be for the money that was agreed.  In my opinion, this is almost always down to the client.  They misunderstood what they were getting, didn’t ask the right questions or had some misguided view that they were getting an unnaturally good deal.  I’ve seen instances where a vendor has intentionally made the scope of an engagement a bit opaque to try and get variations, but to be honest, that’s pretty rare because the pain is just not worth the extra money.

Both of these types of issues have a singular central theme, poor communication.  When you’re delivering a project and you recognize that you’re going to have an issue coming in on time, then the most sensible thing to do is raise this with your client right away.  By flagging the potential delivery issue as soon as possible you give the client and yourself room to come to a mutually acceptable position.  It also gives the client the opportunity to make adjustments in their business to accommodate the delays on your end.

Sometimes though, clients are late.  Maybe they have to deliver a design or some documentation that falls on the critical path of your deliverable.  Again, you need to call this out as quickly as you can.

I worked on a project recently where the client was two weeks late with releasing some required documentation, didn’t have all the necessary data for me to do the work and our project manager didn’t flag it with the client that this was going to cause problems.  What ended up happening is my deliverable got pushed back three weeks because I didn’t have the necessary information, it wasn’t great when it arrived and my availability changed because of their delay.  However, because my project manager didn’t communicate that properly, the whole engagement became contentious because we were “late”.

The other thing you need to do when clients are late with meeting their obligations is to point out the impact of their tardy behaviour.  In our SEO business, if a client doesn’t give us the information we require to do the work at the agreed times without notification, all of our agreed delivery dates are null and we deliver on a “best efforts” basis.  That ensures that we don’t have to bump other clients or overwork ourselves to rush things because a client came up short.  To get around that, the only thing a client has to do is give us a bit of notice that they are running late and we work with them to juggle the dates for them.

There’s a common theme in those two scenarios and that’s being proactive to find solutions to problems.  The best outcomes always come when you work with clients to overcome problems and obstacles.  I generally try and put aside things like blame and look to find an answer.  People who know me and have done work with me will know that I routinely use the phrase, “We are where we are, now how do we fix the problem?”

Ultimately, that’s what the client is paying you for – to solve a problem.  It is in inevitable that things will go wrong, but the measure of how successful you’ll be with clients, in the long run, is how you put those problems to the side, find common ground and move forward to the best possible outcome for everyone.

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