I recently had a less than positive experience with the manager of a service vendor we work with.

It wasn’t over-the-top bad, but it was bad enough to reinforce my sense that the vendor has a problematic workplace culture. It really got me thinking about ineffective ways to deal with clients, which helped me to focus on more effective ways. At Catalyst, this is what anyone who occupies the Project Owner (PO) role tries to foster — I’m not saying we have all the answers, but I think we’re on the right track.

Here is a list of guidelines to follow for managing clients effectively and with positivity, particularly from the perspective of a PO:

  • Validate expectations: When making a quote or describing a deliverable, validate your client’s understanding of what they can expect you to provide. It’s important to make sure you have at least the same general idea of what you are going to do for them. If there is more than one option, ask the client to describe not only which option they are choosing, but also why they’re making a particular choice. This will allow you to address any misunderstandings before they become a problem.
  • Prepare for discussions: When going into a potentially tense conversation or negotiation, make sure you understand the complete history of the issue as well as other important information. Talk with your team to understand what has been said and done by people on both the client team and on your own team. Read relevant emails, but also make sure to read between the lines for any unspoken assumptions or insinuations. Then, if you discover you don’t have all the facts, put the discussion on hold and make it clear why you’re doing so.
  • Avoid internal griping: Even if it’s impossible for the client to hear what you’re saying, talking about them negatively will undermine the relationship. By fostering negative attitudes you are simply strengthening a sense of adversity in your own mind. This us-vs.-them perspective will create an unconscious undercurrent. It will diminish your team’s commitment to the project, resulting in a shoddier product.
  • Set expectations: Though it’s fine to over-deliver (and sometimes you should), make sure to tell the client they’re not getting a typical deliverable. It’s important to explain to them why you’ve done so, and also to give them a clear example of what is typical.
  • Maintain the long view: Even if a client seems like they may be asking a lot of questions, or it seems like they are generally high-maintenance, it may be an indication that they are simply struggling to understand something. The fact they’re willing to invest the time to clarify may mean they see the potential for future relations, and they want to ensure they are starting with an accurate understanding of your process, deliverables, experience, etc.
  • Accept responsibility: Never place blame on the client, or even imply that something was their fault. They are well aware of their actions, and are possibly feeling a bit sensitive about taking blame. There’s nothing to be gained from pointing out their role in a misunderstanding. There are always two parties in a miscommunication, and it is always possible to do a better job of listening and explaining.
  • Be flexible: Remain open to potential opportunities to create a positive relationship. No two client relationships are the same, nor should they be. Just because this one doesn’t fall into your pre-conceived notion of what the project should or could be, don’t try to make it conform to your expectations. Something more interesting and satisfying might evolve that you could never have anticipated, but that definitely cannot happen if you are too rigid.
  • Be transparent: If you do make a mistake, or see a deadline slipping, let the client know right away. It’s human nature to be optimistic, hoping that the client won’t notice or that a lagging project phase will turn around at the last minute. It’s much better to be up-front about any challenges you are encountering. The client will appreciate your willingness to be honest. It’s much better for them to know what’s happening than to be left wondering whether you will be on time or deliver the quality they anticipate.
  • Be inclusive: Reinforce the understanding that you are working together as a team, both internally and with the client. Rather than refer to people on your team by name, use the terms “us” and “we”, and talk about “the team”, which is inclusive of both your own colleagues and the client’s. This will support a sense of mutual responsibility and joint engagement.
  • Seek criticism: Don’t be afraid of feedback. If you think you are intuiting a potential client misunderstanding, follow your intuition and check in with the client. Ask open-ended questions and gently probe if you feel they are holding back anything potentially negative. It may take more effort, but listen for subtle reservations and clues. It’s better to uncover a problem and address it earlier than to let it grow and have it come back at you from an unanticipated direction later.
  • Make an appearance: It’s much easier to fall back on phone calls, or worse yet emails, to try resolve issues or clarify misunderstandings. Expend the effort to make personal contact if at all possible. Not only will you be sending the message that you care enough to make the effort, but the client will have the opportunity to see the sincerity behind your words.
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