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Making the Most of a Bad Project Client Relationship

I realize this is probably a fairly confusing title. But we do sometimes have those bad client-delivery organization relationships. Either they were bad on an old portion of the project, and you just took over a restart of the project, or possibly they lack confidence right out of the gate on your ability to deliver.

Maybe the project sponsor was stuck in their position against their will, and they’re determined to show you that nothing you can do will make them happy.

Is this a no-win situation? It sounds like it, but it doesn’t have to be. I’m not saying you can certainly succeed. You may be doomed to fail no matter what you do to turn things around, but there are a few steps you can take to show your client that you are determined to win them over. Now, bite your lip, suck it up, and try out one or more (or all) of these actions in an attempt to turn that customer frown into a smile.

Meet face-to-face. The very first action – and probably most obvious and possibly most painful depending on why the client relationship is sour – is a good old-fashioned face-to-face meeting. Or at least a good face-to-face conference call. This meeting is project manager to project sponsor. Ask how things are going, what is going well, what is causing concerns, and how confident they feel in your team’s ability to deliver. In fact, have them go over their top five concerns about the project right now. Then proceed to address each of those concerns. First do this in the meeting with a conclusive answer or a “we’ll take that under advisement”. Then tell them you’ll report to them within a week on how you intend to address those concerns.

Change your project status reporting structure. Change how, what, and when you’re reporting project status on the engagement. This may not sound like anything earth shattering, but trust me it can be vital. There are those clients who get frustrated because they don’t feel like they are regularly receiving the information that will make them confident and comfortable with what is happening on the project. Ask them if they feel like the current status reporting structure is meeting their needs. If not, change it so that it does. Listen carefully, and then act.

Related Article: Are Your Sponsors and Clients Satisfied?

Get your senior management involved. This is one of those situations where you have to take this action before your customer does. Getting someone from your executive team to sit in on one or more project status calls can send a great message to your client. It says, “you are important to us…very important.” Plus, if you do this proactively, the client will enjoy the attention rather than see it as an opportunity to complain or request changes. Being proactive and changing things around a bit on a stale or stalled project usually has a very positive effect on customer confidence and satisfaction. Your attempts to gain executive visibility for the project and the client will not go unnoticed by the project customer.

Perform a scope review on the project. Much like everything else on this list, doing a scope check mid-project is another action to help the project customer gain confidence that what they will be receiving is, indeed, what they want and are paying for. A good time to run back through requirements would be just before testing preparation as it will provide your client with a nice segue into building test cases and test scenarios for user acceptance testing (UAT). But this will also give them complete confidence – or as complete as possible – that you have built the final product with all requirements in mind. This review can also be accomplished – to a degree – by creating a requirements traceability matrix. A good sit-down with the client to review scope is a nice hand-holding gesture and gives them greater confidence in the delivery team’s ability to actually deliver.

Conduct an on the spot lessons learned mid-project. Finally, (or possibly next) halt everything and conduct a lessons learned session on the project with the customer. Discuss the good, the bad, and the ugly on the project so you can improve or take corrective action (if that is even necessary) rather than just learn for the next project. You will gain lots of points with the client just by being bold enough to do this mid-project and attempting corrective action if needed. Nothing says you value the client relationship like doing something of this magnitude.

How to move forward

A bad relationship just may remain a bad relationship no matter what you do. But I guarantee you that it definitely will if you choose not to do anything. Do something about it. Change something, talk to the project client, open up new lines of communication. Just don’t ever bury your head in the sand. That is the absolute worst thing you can do. Within a week, they will be contacting your CEO.

Be proactive, take corrective steps – and those corrective steps should start with one, two or possibly all of the five actions I’ve outlined in this article. Try out these five actions – something will improve. And as you try out each – ask yourself and your team if things seem to have improved. And then, be bold, ask your project client for feedback. Ask if they have seen positive changes. The worst thing they can say is, “not really” or “not yet.” But at least they will have seen action, and that is all good.

What about our readers? When have you had a project relationship that was strained and what did you do to try to turn things around and win back or gain customer confidence? Did it work?

Brad Egeland

Brad Egeland is a Business Solution Designer and IT/PM consultant and author with over 25 years of software development, management, and project management experience leading initiatives in Manufacturing, Government Contracting, Creative Design, Gaming and Hospitality, Retail Operations, Aviation and Airline, Pharmaceutical, Start-ups, Healthcare, Higher Education, Non-profit, High-Tech, Engineering and general IT. He has been named the “#1 Provider of Project Management Content in the World” with over 7,000 published articles, eBooks, white papers and videos. Brad is married, a father of 11, and living in sunny Las Vegas, NV. Visit Brad's site at

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