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How to Have Hard Conversations with Clients

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There are many situations that can prompt difficult conversations. Sometimes, new or potential clients have a strong vision of how they want their project to look, and are not willing to compromise when a development team tells them that their ideas are not feasible. Other times, clients want to force a change in scope, or need to be informed of an incident that will impact their project.

Facilitating Difficult Conversations with Client

These conversations aren’t always difficult, but their oppositional nature means that some conflict is likely. Despite our fears, many strategies can be put in place to ensure a positive discussion, and a successful continuation of the relationship after the conversation is over.

Even without a pending conversation looming, these are good tips to keep in mind when dealing with any client.

Set Expectations

Setting expectations with clients is one of the most important things to do to ensure a positive, long-lasting relationship. It’s also a skill that can be a challenge to learn. However, the more you work in development and the more projects you have under your belt, the easier this will be.

Right from the beginning, be realistic about timeline, budget, and every other aspect of your client’s projects. Don’t give in to the temptation to promise features that can’t be delivered, or set an unreasonable timeline. There are many reasons for late projects, but the best account and project managers take delays like these into account, building a timeline and project framework that are ambitious while still accounting for potential roadblocks.

Once the timeline and project framework are put in place, make sure your team is on the same page as the client. It isn’t enough to design these features and hope the client understands. Organize a dedicated meeting to go over the final project details, so you can ensure that expectations are clear from the beginning.

Pick the Right Setting

If a situation comes up where a tough conversation is warranted, make sure you’re choosing the right setting. Don’t bring up difficult topics in the middle of a group meeting, or out of the blue. You’ll want to make sure you’re setting both yourself and the client up for success. Try to choose a moment where you have enough time, and never rush a hard conversation.

However, be aware that getting an unexpected meeting request or email out of the blue referencing a “problem”, “crisis”, or “hard conversation” can make some people very anxious. Be honest, but don’t hyperbolize the situation before you’ve actually discussed it.

Be Honest and Direct

When you’re introducing the problem, try to be as honest and direct as possible. Lay out the situation at hand, sharing as much information as you have. Anything you leave out now can easily be revealed later, and this delayed release of information can quickly lead to mistrust.

This is especially critical if the conversation involves a mistake made by yourself or someone on your team. Own up to your mistakes, apologize sincerely, and start the process of moving forward with positive, concrete actions.

In these situations, maintaining trust is the most important factor at play. A working relationship won’t be broken down by one mistake, but it can be ruined with lies, deceit, and defensive behaviour.

Practice Active Listening

To help move the conversation forward in a more positive direction, practice active listening. This means hearing out your client’s concerns and listening without immediately jumping in to respond.

Keep in mind that if you’re bringing the topic up, you’ve probably already had lots of time to process it. Giving the client space to ask questions and being patient as they come to a full understanding of the situation is critical to a successful resolution.

To make sure they feel heard, ask them questions like “How can I help you feel more comfortable?” or “What do you need to move forward?” You can ask for their input on what resolutions would work best for them.

Avoid Explanation Overload

After a while, clients don’t want to hear more explanations. They want to hear what you’re going to do to fix the situation. Even if the issue or problem was your team’s fault, don’t bend over backwards explaining every nuance of how it happened. Transparency is great, but not if it leads to an erosion of boundaries between your team and the client.

Focus on Solutions

To move towards a resolution, the next step in any conversation needs to be focused on solutions. Before you even start the conversation with the client, come up with a few different options for ways to move forward. Once you’ve explained the situation and heard all their concerns, you can introduce the proposed solutions and ask for their input.

This puts you back in the driver’s seat and shows your client that you care about making things right.

Moving Forward with Positivity

The process of working with a development company can make many clients feel vulnerable since it typically isn’t an area where they have expertise. By being honest and direct, listening to them carefully, and working towards a resolution together, you can ensure that a hard conversation won’t derail your long-term relationship.

Want to learn more about facilitating great relationships with clients? We have lots of experience both doing it, and writing about it. Come visit our articles page for more information on our no-nonsense approach to client relationships.