#22 - Clients have needs too

Remember there are humans on both sides of the table and frustration usually follows unmet needs and failed expectations

TLDR – when problems arise, many sit on them too long and then fear sharing them with clients. This causes issues to fester and potentially grow out of control. It’s best to share them early on and offer objective paths for resolution. Treat your client like you would like to be treated and respect their frustration as a valid consequence of under sharing.


This scenario comes to you via one of my advisory clients. The firm is in transition and new people are stepping in to help improve operations and rebuild client rapport.

Need Help?

Q: What do we do when a client is upset and emotions are high on both sides because the project is not going well?

This is almost always due to a lack of transparency. Tough decisions were not addressed when they should have been and issues compounded.

In this particular case, the relationship had been stressed for many months (likely years) and a zero-sum mentality had taken root within the firm.

The human element of the “client” was not being considered. He was accountable to his company — results, budget, timeline, etc. Yet the consulting firm was only considering his frustration. The ‘what’ not the ‘why’.

The client was described to me as “unreasonable and all over the place” yet when I dug deeper, most issues were related to a failure to have candid and productive discussions when issues arose. Early and often.

He just needed answers and options. Instead, his requests were met with indifference and contempt. Not directly to his face but around the virtual water cooler.

Issues are inevitable in complex projects. Rolling with the punches is the hallmark of good project management. Learning to define what went wrong, why it happened, and then devising a set of options to get everything back on track — those are the tasks that should always be prioritized.

This was not happening. The firm and client were no longer on the same page and the relationship was dangerously close to imploding.

The first step to repair the relationship required level setting. Working with a new PM, she focused on clearing the air and resetting expectations. Part of that magic involved giving the client options and (gasp) listening to him. Listening and striving to understand what he meant to convey.

He wasn’t being unreasonable or combative; he simply needed clarity on budgets, timelines, and outstanding issues because he needed to answer to people within his own company.

With this effort underway, the new PM quickly gained the client’s confidence and then consistently kept him in the loop. And when something went sideways within the project, she quickly shared the concern with the client and provided options for moving forward.

Half the art of these interactions is in how the options are presented so that does take time to learn, but what I’ve found to be true is this:

When you take the time to put yourself in your client’s shoes, you begin to anticipate and appreciate what motivates them to behave like they do. At that point, you begin to focus on minimizing their worries and being proactive in getting them the information they need to be effective at their job.

The work is by no means finished. It will be a long road where each of the firm’s PMs will need to reset expectations and strive for consistent communication. In the past few weeks, several projects have been dramatically improved.

As a pleasant side effect, there are a number of processes being created to ensure actions are performed consistently with the right amount of sign-off and autonomy.

There is also something else happening now as well. The client is quicker to share info that may have the potential to derail projects. He is also quick to hold his teams accountable so the firm can more confidently meet timelines.

What a wonderful virtuous cycle of collaboration, right?!

It all started by remembering the client is (represented by a) human. Once you do that and make the effort to understand what is motivating their behavior, you can rapidly improve any situation.


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