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  • Writer's pictureDeb Zahn

How to Manage Tricky Consulting Client Conversations

Updated: Dec 2, 2022

Every consultant I know has had to tackle tricky client conversations. And more than a few times! You can do a lot to avoid having those conversations, but some are just unavoidable.

It’s rarely fun, but you manage those conversations so that they are far more likely to end well. That’s why I call them tricky conversations instead of difficult conversations. They don’t all have to be difficult if you know what to do!

There are many reasons why you will have to have tricky conversations. Common examples are:

  • When a client asks you to do more work and doesn’t acknowledge that the increase in scope has budget and/or timeline implications

  • When you go over budget or it looks like you are going to

  • When you can’t do something in the timeframe a client wants

  • When you make a mistake

  • When a client is not satisfied with your work or deliverable

For all these tricky conversation triggers, there are some basic principles and approaches that will enable you to handle the conversations like a pro.

Respond Quickly

If there’s a problem or something that you know must be discussed with the client, don’t wait. Address it as soon as you can—even if the circumstances are not ideal. For big issues, there may be good reasons to wait until you are face-to-face with a client but only wait if it truly does not make the situation worse.

This can be a tough one because no one wants to deliver bad news or tell the client something they aren’t expecting or don’t want to hear. But delaying only prolongs your stress and may frustrate the client when they find out. At the very least, you want to show your client that you care enough to bring the issue to their attention quickly so that it can be solved. It is a way to show them that you prioritize their value over your discomfort.

Prepare for the Expected

Sometimes tricky conversations seem to come out of nowhere. We didn’t know that something was an issue until the client said something or until something arises in a meeting.

However, much of the time, we can anticipate that we are going to have to have a tricky conversation. As examples:

  • If you know that a client tends to ask you to do work beyond your scope, then you know you are going to have to talk to them about scope, budget, and timeline implications.

  • If you know that you don’t have much time for more work, you know that you are going to have to tell clients no or put limits on what you can do for them.

  • If you make a mistake or know the clients didn’t like the deliverable you gave them, you know you’re going to have to talk to them about it.

For those situations, it is critical that you prepare so that you can do your part to have a productive conversation and try to get back to focusing on value for your client.

Please don’t wing it! Even if you are good at winging it. By preparing, you can eliminate or minimize exacerbating the issue, such as by not being able to answer a client’s questions if they want to more fully understand the issue or the implications.

Preparing also means you’ve thought of and practiced the best way to talk to them about an issue. Again, that shows the client that you care enough to understand what is happening and how to articulate it clearly so you can have a productive conversation.

What you must do to prepare to talk to the client will look different depending on the particular situation. Gather all the information you can to understand what the issue is, what happened, why it happened, who was involved, what the impact was, and what it means to your client. That may involve gathering and analyzing data, doing some fact finding, talking to people involved, creating projections, etc. It may involve reviewing your scope, budget, and timeline to see what the impact of the situation has on your ability to deliver value on budget and on time.

Normalize Common Conversations

There are certain conversations that you should normalize from the moment you start talking to a potential client about an engagement. Normalizing means that you talk about something on a regular basis and set the expectation with the client that that is a normal thing to do. Normalizing can help take the emotional charge out of some conversations, especially when that emotional charge due to something the client did not expect.

The most important conversations to normalize are about the scope, budget, and timeline of your engagement. Why? Because these are the three elements of an engagement that often change. When they change, you could end up in a tricky conversation—that is, unless you have made it feel normal to talk about them.

How do you normalize talking about the scope, budget, and timeline? The key is calm repetition.

First, you include language in your contract that indicates you will have regular check-in conversations with the client about those aspects of the contract. (Make sure to include doing that in your budget!)

Second, at the onset of the engagement, tell the client that you will check-in with them about those elements, tell them how often you will check-in, and tell them that you will alert them if there is anything that changes one or more of those elements.

They may not remember reading that in your contract so repeating it is important. Sometimes I’ll say, “For example, if you want our scope to change, I’ll tell you what that means for our budget and timeline so you can make informed decisions.”

Third, I schedule those regular check-in conversations. If my client’s schedule changes, I reschedule them as soon as possible. If I can’t get them on a call or in a room, I tell them that I will email them an update. Even though telling them live is better, keeping the regularity of the communication is more important than the form of the communication.

But if I do update them in an email, I always tell them I did it and talk about where we are with those elements the next time I see them. If there are any issues, I tell them on a call or in person that I need to give them an update so that we can make some decisions. Usually that’s enough to get their attention.

Fourth, if it looks like the scope, budget, and timeline are going to change—for whatever reason—I remind them that I told them that I would alert them. If it is something I had time to prepare for, I am ready with information and evidence of the implications and, if possible, present them with alternatives for them to consider. If it is something unexpected, such as when a client talks about work they want me to do that isn’t in our scope, I tell them there are possible budget and/or timeline ramifications and, because I usually can’t say what they are on the spot, I tell them I will take a look a get back to them.

The other conversations to normalize with clients are about progress and value. Your client wants to know that your work is progressing toward the outcomes they want and that what you are doing for them is valuable.

Don’t assume they know either, especially if it is a complex project that has a lot of people involved or a lot of moving parts. You can address progress and value during your check-in conversations or other appropriate settings. Be specific and show them instead of telling them. Have information, data, and examples that show progress and value. Normalizing these conversations will hopefully mean that your client never has to ask “Are things progressing?” or “When am I going to see results?” or “Am I getting my money’s worth?” It’s your job to make to make sure they never have to wonder and never have to ask.

Listen and Empathize

If your client is talking with you about an issue or what they want, listen to them very intently. Don’t think about what you are going to say next while they are talking. Switching a tricky conversation to a productive one requires you to practice active listening. Active listening involves fully concentrating on what they are saying as well as their emotional responses so you truly understand what they are saying and what it means to them. When you are practicing active listening, you respond to what they are saying and feeling (instead of just what you are saying and feeling). You also can and should ask questions to gain a deeper understanding of their point of view and emotions.

It is also important to empathize with the client’s point of view. They have more stake in what is happening then you do. This is their business or organization, their livelihood, their success, their reputation, etc. Understanding and empathizing with their point of view will show them that you care about what matters to them and aren’t just in it for yourself. That is key to keeping and building trust, which is at the heart of all successful consulting engagements and businesses.

It doesn’t mean that they are always right, however. This principle is not about being a “yes” person. True empathy means that you understand their perspective, care about what is at stake for them, and will drive toward getting them the best outcome, even if you don’t agree on what it is or how to get there. Which brings me to my next point…

Tell It Like It Is

One of the things that separates excellent consultants from the rest is having courage to be honest with clients. If a client tells you something that you know is not supported by the facts, will likely lead to poor results, or will cause harm, tell them. Do it skillfully but tell them. If they decide not to listen, you will have to make a judgement call. Do you let it go? Do you keep pushing for a better choice or at least a less bad choice? Do you walk away? That is for every consultant to decide.

For me, if it is something that will cause harm or is something I think is unethical, I will not be involved. That’s a hard line for me. If it’s not that clear, then I decide on a case-by-case basis depending on the particular situation and variables. But no matter what, I tell the truth.

This principle also means that you should say what needs to be said without adding a bunch of extra stuff to it. If there is a problem or if you made a mistake, tell them what the situation is without downplaying or catastrophizing the reality of the situation.

The key is to tell them the truth calmly and show them that you care. Give them the information they need to understand the situation without overexplaining. Overexplaining muddies the explanation and creates stress for clients. Consultants who overexplain are often just doing a “stress dump” on their client, meaning they are offloading their stress by hurling words at the client. That’s not fair to the client and won’t help the conversation be a productive one.

Have Solutions Ready

Tricky conversations switch to productive ones when you start talking about solutions. In some cases, you may have already solved a problem and are just informing the client what happened and what you did to solve it. In other cases, you will be prepared to present them with what you think the best solution is or options are for them to consider. Having solutions ready shows the client that you care and want to get them to the best outcome.

If it’s a surprise conversation and the solution isn’t obvious, the best thing to do it to get the information you need to develop a solution or options. Ask questions. Listen deeply to the answers. Empathize with their point of view. Then tell the client what you will do to get to a solution and by when.

No matter what, don’t play the blame game instead of focusing on solutions. If the client thinks something is your fault that isn’t, there are skillful ways of saying that but do not spend a lot of time trying to shift the blame. Simply turn the conversation back to solutions because that’s what ultimately matters to your client. They may not feel it in the moment because of heightened emotions, but, more often than not, they will get back to a focus on how to get the outcomes they want.

Do What You Say You Will Do

Follow up is critical! Often it is easy to just leave a tricky conversation feeling relived that it’s over and wanting to put it behind you. But now you have to do what you said you would do to solve the issue, fix the mistake, or move forward with the client in a productive way. If the situation is urgent, demonstrate to them that you act with urgency to resolve it.

Keep communicating with your client until they show that they think a situation is resolved or you are back on track. If you aren’t sure, ask them. Communication is critical to building—or rebuilding—a trusting relationship with them. That trusting relationship will make all the difference in terms of whether or not you have a successful engagement with them, whether they continue to work with you on future engagements, and whether they tell other potential clients good things about you.

But What Exactly Should I Say?

If you want more help navigating tricky client conversations, I have a guide that can help you! Tips and Scripts for Tricky Client Conversations will give you short scripts that you can use in each of the tricky conversations I listed in this article as well as more tips to master your ability to manage those conversations.

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