How to Handle an Unhappy Client


It’s inevitable. Whether your fault or not, in time you’re going to have to deal with a client who is, let’s say, not pleased with your work on the project. It’s a subject that doesn’t make it to the top of a problems-project-managers-have-to-deal-with list if it’s even on there at all, but it should be.

In short, it’s important that you know how to deal with unhappy clients.

Begin at the beginning of your project. It’s imperative that you ensure you have a full understanding of how your stakeholders define success from the start. You’ll find in some cases that achieving clarity around those goals can be difficult, which is one way you might experience the unfortunate situation of having an unhappy client. Not only can this be extremely stressful but it can also make you question your abilities as a project manager. To avoid this, you can use a stakeholder analysis template to identify your stakeholders and better understand their requirements.

So, what are some tactics for turning that frown upside down? Consider inviting your client to your project management solution. Many PM tools have client or guest logins, designed to give clients visibility into the progress and collaborate easily, so they stay connected to the project team. This kind of transparency can go a long way toward easing tensions, as so often the problems are ones of communication and expectations.

But there’s, even more, you can do beyond the technical implementation. The following are half-a-dozen suggestions as to how to manage your client throughout the process, once it’s clear you have an issue.

Prioritize Issues

All projects have issues. When issues within your deliverables are discovered, stakeholder relations and trust can go downhill very quickly. Collecting all the issues and prioritizing them with your client can be difficult but it is essential to start the process of digging your way out.

The role of a project manager is not defined only by the successful delivery of completed tasks but also by the way they are delivered. You might hear your stakeholders say they cannot prioritize the issues because in their mind all the issues are a priority. The patience and leadership skills of the project manager are key in these situations.

Do not wait for your client to prioritize. Always attempt to prioritize their issues on your own and present your plan to address them. Be flexible and open to modifying your plan but not to the point of failure.

Cause vs. Action

In my experience, bad customer service starts with the lack of alignment around the customer’s goal. Having a clear understanding of how your client expects to be communicated to will help keep your project on the rails.

It can be simple to turn a happy client or stakeholder into an unhappy one as soon they feel they are not being heard. You need to create clear project communications. From the beginning of your project begins talk with your stakeholders about expectations surrounding communication.

How would they like to be made aware of the project’s status, budget, opportunities, issues, risks, gaps and overall health? How often? What format would be the most convenient? Document this into a communication plan that is agreed upon by all parties involved.

Act and Show Urgency

Nine times out of 10, the origins of the issues you are facing are directly related to poor communication. Whether the situation was caused by your stakeholder, team, tools or planet alignment it does not matter. Save that discussion for the post-mortem.

Your first order of business is to gather the team to identify potential paths forward, vet them and present them. Putting a strong focus on over-communicating is a key tactic in showing there is forward movement on an issue.

Focus on ways to improve communication as quickly as possible. When you display that sense of urgency your stock will immediately rise and the chances your project will succeed will follow in turn.

Use the Buddy System

If emotions are running high in your communications with your stakeholders it might be time to bring your manager or a company representative into the conversation.

I’m by no means suggesting you push your problems to someone else, but many times introducing a new voice to the conversation can change the tone very quickly. Hearing the situation and solution from someone else can remove biases and restart civil discussions without the baggage.

It’s a good way to get a different perspective on the problem and, in doing so, possibly resolve it in ways that neither of you had been able to previously see. The truth is that there is no magic bullet that will end a conflict with one shot. You should think creatively and be open.

Zero Tolerance for Unprofessionalism

Tight budgets and timelines will sometimes cause friction or even heated emotions. However, you should never ignore abusive language or bullying. Sometimes politics or other sensitive topics can disrupt the unity of your team and threaten the project.

I have seen some project managers do their best to overlook these situations as just “part of the job” and try to focus on the work, assuming that a successful project will clear the uncomfortable atmosphere.

Staying silent sends a message that it’s acceptable to treat a project manager as a subordinate and in the end, works to erode the value of the profession. If you respect your role and your position in your organization act against unprofessional behavior.

Cut Ties

If you’ve tried everything in your organization’s power to resolve the issues but have not been able to satisfy your stakeholder’s needs, it may be time to consider stopping the project altogether. An unhealthy project is as bad for you as it is for the client.

As soon as you know there is a problem within the project, act and be decisive. If you try to avoid the inevitable and potentially uncomfortable conversation, you and your team will pay for it later. Be transparent with the client on the steps you are taking to resolve the issues and keep communication frequent.

A project management tool can go a long way to make both you and your client happy. ProjectManager is an online project and collaboration software that provides real-time data and a simple means to communicate with clients and teams. Reports are easily created and shared, and you’re able to monitor all phases of the project to foster the transparency that builds trust in a business relationship. See for yourself by taking this free 30-day trial.