Communicating with Clients When They’re Wrong

Clients drive business, and you need them to exist. As much as they are a lifeline, they can also seem like a hindrance. Instead of enabling them to take the reins and potentially drive a project into the ground, as the project manager, you should set communication standards early on with them and communicate how you are to work as partners to reach an end goal: a successful project that makes them happy and asking for more and makes the team behind creating it feel proud and accomplished.

If and when clients venture the wrong way, it may not be easy to tell a client they are wrong, yet it is important to do so in a way that is respectful and constructive.


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How to Identify When a Client is Wrong

Understanding why something happens can help you prevent it. Nobody likes to be wrong, and often, clients aren’t as receptive to bad news as hoped. While they may know what they want, they don’t always have the means to convey the information to the experts they hired on the project team.

If not educated and guided well, unrealistic expectations can surface. There are two ways you can immediately identify when a client may be in the wrong based on the client’s behavior:

  • They will either be rude or demanding and unwilling to be persuaded — this can be very easy to identify and extremely difficult to manage; or
  • They can subtly state a direction in which they want to go in that you know as an expert to not be in their best interest.

If either of these scenarios sneaks up, do these things immediately:

  • Think like a client and determine what their motivations are: Try to see it honestly from their perspective.
  • Confirm the error is indeed theirs: Leave no stone unturned on your end and ensure that no one accidentally dropped the ball.
  • Understand the implications of the delay in response: What are the negatives of not having a conversation with them right now?

The Role of the Project Manager

The project manager is the glue that keeps things cohesive and orchestrates all things running smoothly together. This role is imperative to minimizing issues and sniffing out the conflicts before they actually arise. An engaged project manager is tasked with:

  • Identifying conflict, issues, and setbacks before they become too big and confirming who the responsible party is
  • Detailing, navigating, and negotiating reasonably with the customer, if they are wrong
  • Outlining a plan
  • Offering alternative solutions and leading them through a plan — this may involve compromising, with both parties giving and taking some
  • Changing the client’s perspective if possible, when it is in their best interests — considering time, cost, and end result

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How a Project Manager Can Communicate the Impact of a Client’s Actions

The project manager can communicate the result of certain decisions and requests to a client. Any conflict of interest can be escalated in an order of priority of channels, such as a simple to-the-point email, a phone call, a virtual meeting, or an in-person encounter.

There are multiple ways a project manager can communicate the ramifications of a client’s wrong way mentality:

  1. Tell them they aren’t right without telling them they are wrong. Remain calm and polite, and simply explain that while they think or desire one thing, it is actually this other way.
  2. Detail the issue and the impact it will have on deliverables moving forward. Use clear language and stick to the facts. Don’t sugarcoat the situation. Use data to back your explanation.
  3. Ask questions to get all of the details about why they see it the way that they do.
  4. Listen to everything the client has to say and note what their reservations are and the reasons behind them. Allow everyone to speak that is a stakeholder in the outcome.
  5. Provide honest and constructive feedback on their response and the reasons behind your advice and direction. Explain that their option is good, acknowledge that you understand why they’ve chosen it, and then ask permission to explore alternatives.
  6. Provide metrics if you can. Financial predictions, end-user case studies, and time and budget actuals are some of the hard facts you can use to support your side.

How a Project Manager Can Prevent Differences of Opinion

Spending time at the beginning of a client project on these key points can help reduce the possibility of strong differences of opinion:

  • Clearly define the project’s scope in the contract.
  • Use effective tools for communication and transfer of content.
  • Implement a consistent reporting process and cadence from beginning to end.
  • Ask the right questions upfront during project discovery and kick off.
  • Make sure everyone involved in decision-making is in the know from the beginning, and have a known process for those that join later on.
  • Detail the project pipeline process to avoid delays in timing, turnaround, response, feedback, and fixes.
  • Set boundaries on response and turnaround, detailing what is acceptable and what is not.
  • Don’t be afraid to say “No” when you believe the issue is not in the best interest of the project or your clients. But be ready with a calm clear explanation and a proposed solution.

Every client project runs the risk of hitting snags. Insofar as being a PM is concerned, what matters most is finding ways to prevent problems in the first place, working through them when they arise, and planning to prevent problems from happening again.

While there may be differing opinions of success between a client and a project team, it is to the benefit of the project manager to hear both sides; educate the client on the best path forward; and gracefully collaborate, compromise, and negotiate a successful solution.

Anne Meick

Anne Meick is an author, copywriter, and digital project management consultant, leading digital teams and projects in highly regulated industries. She is the founder of Writers' Connection and blogs on writing, editing, and book publishing.