It happens to all of us. And it brings out the best of us. In the course of delivering measurable results to a valued client, every consultant has faced problems like deliberate or not-so-intentional scope creep, delayed or improper client feedback, undercover political issues, unreasonable or utopian expectations, or a midstream change in client priorities and budgets. Not to mention the frequent changes in the client team engaged during this course!
These conflicts may slow down or actually kill the project because of all the above reasons which add cost to your delivery and hence the viability of the project as a sound business proposition. This creates frustration for us and our clients as well.
So, what do we do? In managing winning client relationships-the golden rule applies: Analyse the conflicts carefully and confront the client with plausible solutions.
Such conflicts need to be handled very carefully and a few instances will actually hone our related skills. It would mean that we focus on identifying challenges as soon as they arise; approaching the problem as if we and the client are on the same side of the table and working together to evolve a solution.
It also means taking the time to see the problem from the client’s perspective. Ask ourselves some questions:
- Has the project scope crept because the client has realigned his objectives differently than the ones that were initially agreed to?
- Is there a political undercurrent to the change in client’s perspective of priorities?
- Is the change in the client-side team affecting the definition of priorities?
- Is there a separate approach to identify what is in the client’s best interest?
- Is there a solution that would help both – the client and us?
In my recent work experience, I had to face a situation which I find worth mentioning. We had started with a web portal ideation and design project and a lot of work had gone into consolidating the objectives, means and project milestones in terms of timeframes, costs and revenue estimations. The project had started and half the work was done with the rest in progress.
At this stage, our management decided to involve additional members in the interaction circle whose mandate was to guide the project further and ensure better delivery.
Over the one-month period, this new team asked me to add many features and components and suggested we include additional research. For me, that meant adding 50 percent more work to the project with related vendor cost overruns.
Being a ‘never-say-no’ spirited guy, I said “of course”. Then, after a couple of days or so, I realized how much time it would take, and I got resentful. Every time I got a call or email from them, I felt a pang of irritation and despair as all was within my organization and I was helpless.
Finally, I faced the committee and suggested extensions in timeframes and budgets, which were never looked at from the right perspective and we came to a stage where the project was called off. The conflict ended, but with no positive outcome.
Yet in another case, I was finishing up an assessment of a potential new venture and after intense discussion, with newer people entering the debate at a later stage, we decided not to pursue the venture we’d been pursuing.
I continued to receive calls from a few of the people I’d interviewed early in the process, asking about partnerships or memberships. Initially, I was forced to be unresponsive, but later on I conveyed to them that the venture was off. It created a lot of distrust and some of my valuable relationships suffered a setback. I was starting to sense conflict between various people around me.
Before it hit a boiling point, I brought the issue up with my project sponsor and, after a day or two, he responded by saying that although the venture was interesting, there was little patience in the group and the group had been looking at other priorities which needed immediate funding.
The learning for me from these experiences was immense.
- The client should be encouraged to involve people right from the start of the project and not in between. Their roles need to be properly scoped.
- The team involved should not act as pure ‘department representatives’ but should be able to comprehend the ‘big picture’. E.g. You cannot have a CFO in the project purely for cost-cutting, but he should understand the dynamics of the project and help build commercial model alternatives as needed. He should be a capital building attitude and not a pure accountant.
- The client side team should definitely have one supreme ‘commander’ who caps the changes or new scope additions to ensure that all are on same page.
- The consultant should encourage the client and ensure that this is in place before he goes ahead with the project.
Conflict is usually a symptom of a bigger issue, for example, a major change in strategy-a problem being faced by the client or the change in financial status of the client etc. We as consultants have an opportunity (even a responsibility) to analyze these conflicts thoughtfully.
Occasionally, these “symptoms” can identify clients who are not worth keeping-perhaps they are unreasonable or irresponsible. A detailed and specific project proposal up front can be useful in resolving misunderstandings, which are often what “conflicts” really are. But in my case, even this did not work.
That said, identifying conflicts when (even before) they arise and respectfully trying to understand the source from the client’s perspective can lead to stronger, more honest relationships, and possibly even new projects.
So, the next time we find ourselves in a situation of conflict with a client, don’t despair. Size up the client carefully. It could make a world of difference.
‘Client Qualification’ as a practice has more dimensions today in modern business world.