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When Your Creative Project Client has had Enough

June 9, 2014    |     by Brad Egeland     |     Project Management, Agency Management     
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We try to be nice, we try to accommodate every need and whim. And we try to always stay on course, on time and on task. But sometimes it just doesn’t happen. We stray from the schedule, we run into many unforeseen issues (maybe our fault, maybe something beyond our control). Or maybe we run way over the expected budget. As project managers we are trying to please everyone all of the time – and that just can’t happen.

But most of all we want our clients to be happy with how the project is going. And once in a while we lead those projects with clients that we let down time and time again for any one of the reasons mentioned above. Or possibly dozens of other possible scenarios. Does this sound all too familiar? If so, what do you do? How do you take a creative project gone awry with a very unhappy client and begin to turn things around? What if the client is ready to pull the plug on the whole engagement? You can’t let that happen!

I can’t recommend anything that will guarantee that you’ll save the day in situations like this. But I have had my share of projects hit the wall in terms of issues and client satisfaction and I can recommend a few potential actions to take that may help you get the project – and the client's satisfaction level – back on track. Here are my top five practices to try first…

  • Practice complete honesty with the client. If there’s one key thing I’ve learned in dealing with the client, it’s to always be as up front and honest when major issues arise. The client isn’t dumb…they’re smart. And they know when they’re being snowballed.  Include them in the issue discussion as early as possible and tell them everything – make them part of the solution. They may still pull the plug on you, but by involving them in the solution you’re getting them to invest in it and that will increase their confidence and decrease the likelihood that they’ll quit on you.
  • Call in fresh expert talent. Bring in a subject matter expert on the problem and have them address it directly with the client. The client needs to see that you’re on it and have an expert on it before they ask for your head on a platter.
  • Visit the client where they are. Don’t wait for the next time you’re scheduled to be onsite to kick off a phase – go immediately.  It may require a major brainstorming session to work through the issues – we’ve all been in that type of war room situation at one time or another. I did this very successfully with a huge Fortune 500 investment and banking firm a couple of years ago and with a major airline just before that – both on highly technical implementations that were experiencing ongoing performance issues and setbacks. Getting together face-to-face – even though these had both been remote projects up to that point – helped save the day. If the client sees you making that kind of a presence – especially if it’s at your expense – they’ll know you’re serious about resolving it. And that weighs heavily with the client.
  • Get senior leadership involved. This may happen anyway if the client is mad enough. But if you’re proactive about it – if you go to the CEO before your client does – it may save your job. And when the client sees how important they are to your company with the CEO adding his involvement, that will say a lot to them about how you’re trying to resolve the situation and the priority you have put to that resolution.
  • Give away some work.  You’ll probably need executive buy-in for this, but push for giving the client free work as compensation for the major issue at hand. You probably want to save this as a last resort, but it will almost always rescue a project – at least temporarily - that is about to be canceled by the client. If they know they’re getting some work for free, they will usually stick around for a while to see if you can resolve whatever major issue has hit the project.


It can be scary when you are losing control of your creative project management and the client is seeing red. As project managers, our very careers are based on the successes we experience and the failures we stumble through. Anytime we can successfully turn things around on a very troubled project with a very frustrated client, it is something to celebrate. Hopefully, but focusing on these five actions first when the chips are really down, you can find yourself getting the project back on track.

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