Client Relationships at Risk: What Pitfalls Lie Ahead and How Can You Steer Clear?

Discover the key challenges in client relationships and learn effective strategies to avoid or overcome them. Gain valuable insights for successful client management.

We've all been there – those client relationships that start off with such promises, like a budding new romance. The air is thick with optimism and the potential for a long, fruitful partnership that will be the envy of the consulting world. Fast forward a few months and the honeymoon phase has ended. Suddenly you're arguing over scope creep, missed deadlines, and unpaid invoices. What happened to the magic?

The truth is, that even the best client relationships will face challenges. It comes with the territory when you're working closely with other humans who have their own goals, pressures, and idiosyncrasies. The key is being proactive in identifying potential issues early and having a game plan to avoid or mitigate them.

Common Client Relationship Challenges

Before we get into specific strategies, let's lay out some of the most common challenges that arise in client engagements:

Misaligned expectations

This is probably the biggest root cause of client conflicts. If you and the client are not on the same page about deliverables, timelines, roles and responsibilities from the get-go, you're doomed. It leads to frustration on both sides.

Scope creep

The insidious beast known as scope creep is always lurking, ready to derail your beautifully planned project. Suddenly the client is asking for "just one more little thing" which snowballs the engagement way beyond the original parameters.

Communication breakdowns

Poor communication or lack of responsiveness from the client can really throw a wrench in things. You're left in limbo, not sure how to proceed. On the flip side, if you're not communicating proactively, the client may feel left in the dark.

Shifting priorities

In large organizations especially, internal priorities and politics are always shifting. Your project may suddenly take a back seat to some new executive initiative. Or your main client contact may leave the company, leaving you without a champion.

Payment issues

Ah yes, the dreaded "check is in the mail" situation. Late or missing payments put a real strain on the relationship, especially for smaller firms with tight cash flow.

So now that we've thoroughly bummed you out with all the potential pitfalls, take heart! There are proven strategies you can employ to minimize the risk of these quagmires and keep your client engagements on track.

Strategies for Avoiding Client Challenges

Obsess over alignment from day one
The LGP team cannot stress this enough: ALIGN! Get your MSA, SOW, project plan – whatever documentation you use – reviewed with an eagle eye and a magnifying glass. We are talking granular details here:

  • Specific list of deliverables with acceptance criteria
  • Roles & responsibilities for each party
  • Timelines and milestones
  • Communication and status reporting cadence
  • Change control and sign-off process
  • Payment terms and schedule
  • Intellectual property ownership
  • A governance process for escalations

All of this needs to be hashed out, put on paper, and signed in blood (OK maybe not that last part) before any real work starts. We know, this takes discipline and some tough conversations when everyone just wants to dive in. But trust us, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure when it comes to preventing client blow-ups down the line.

Communicate, communicate, communicate
This one may seem obvious but never underestimate the power of massively over-communicating. Some tips from the LGP team:

  • Establish a regular cadence of status check-ins. Could be a weekly call, daily standups, or just a quick email summarizing progress and next steps. The key is consistency and predictability.

  • Summarize key decisions and action items after every interaction to keep everyone aligned and accountable. People hear what they want to hear, so get it in writing.

  • Be proactive with sharing potential risks/roadblocks and plans to resolve them. Nobody likes surprises, especially clients.

  • Celebrate milestones and quick wins along the way. An email or presentation touting progress does wonders for solidifying the partnership.

  • Hop on a plane/train every so often for some good old fashioned face time, even in this Zoom era. Nothing beats in-person rapport building.

Manage scope like a hawk
You know the saying "Give them an inch and they'll take a mile"? Never has that been truer than with client projects. LGP's top tips for preventing the dreaded scope creep:

  • Refer back to the almighty SOW. If it's not explicitly called out as in scope, it's out of scope. Period.

  • Create a scope change process where anything new has to go through an approval gate. This should include assessing the impact to the timeline, resources and budget.

  • Be willing to push back and say no when needed. You can position it as "we want to stay focused on delivering against the original scope excellently vs. getting spread too thin". Clients will ultimately respect you keeping things on track.

  • If a scope change is truly valuable, price it separately as a "Phase 2" and get ink on paper before starting any work.

Secure a client-side champion
Healthy client relationships are always anchored around a single point of contact who will go to bat for you internally. Some ways to cultivate that person:

  • Invest time in understanding their world. What are their goals, both professionally and personally? What pressures are they under? A little empathy goes a long way.

  • Make them look good. Give them easy sound bites and presentations to share progress and wins with their leadership.

  • Be seen as an advisor vs. just a pair of hands. Offer your unique points of view and challenge their thinking respectfully. You're the expert they hired after all.

  • Build rapport beyond the day-to-day grind. Grab a coffee, talk about your weekend plans, and remember their birthday. In short, treat them like a human vs. a client.

Always be forecasting
Project problems tend to sneak up on you. Avoid this by keeping your finger on the pulse and looking around the corner:

  • Create a weekly projection of budget burn vs. percent complete. Are you tracking to run out of hours before the work is done? Raise the flag early while there's still time to course correct.

  • Keep a pulse on the client's business overall. Are budgets being cut? Did your champion leave? Knowing the tea leaves can help you get ahead of the impacts on your work.

  • Build a cushion into your project plan. Pad deliverable timelines to account for the inevitable client back and forth.

Bonus tip: When in doubt, overdeliver
Yes, yes, we know overservicing is a dirty word in consulting. But sometimes, going a smidge above and beyond can make a world of difference in how the client perceives you and the relationship. Just keep it reasonable – we're talking things like:

  • Spend a few extra hours polishing the deck so it really sings
  • Throw in an extra insight or POV that ties to their business
  • Offer to present the work to additional stakeholders to help socialize it
  • Send over a relevant article or benchmarks in between deliverables

You get the gist. Be seen as a committed, valued partner vs. a nickel-and-diming vendor and you'll have a client for life.

Conclusion
Well, folks, we've covered a lot of ground here. Hopefully, the LGP team has given you a framework to proactively identify and sidestep those pesky client challenge landmines. As good as these strategies are though, we'd be remiss not to point out that even the most buttoned-up processes sometimes can't prevent relationship issues. Humans are messy, business is unpredictable. All you can do is put your best foot forward to minimize risks and then roll with the punches.

Remember, done is better than perfect. An ugly baby delivered is better than a pretty one you're still pregnant with 12 months later because you're waiting for the client to align on the perfect shade of blue for the cover page. Ship the work, bank the win, and live to consult another day.

And if all else fails? Two words: happy hour. Nothing that can't be fixed by getting a few drinks in your client and hashing it out the old-fashioned way. The LGP team has bailed many a project out of the fire with a well-timed marg. and queso summit.

So go forth and conquer those client relationships! And remember, if you need a squadron of straight-shooting, scope-defending, deck-polishing strategy mercenaries, you know who to call. The LGP team, reporting for duty.

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