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8 Best Practices for Saving a Consulting Project or Client

Sometimes consulting projects go sideways, or south or downhill. Or all three. If you’ve been in consulting a while, you’ve faced an unhappy client. It happens.

How you handle the situation makes all the difference to your consulting practice.

(FYI, this builds on an article I published January, 2015.)

For instance, one of life’s little pleasures is a freshly detailed car. A couple of years ago, an automotive cleanliness consultant (a.k.a. detailer) gently removed the thin film of grime and buffed some new-age, uber protective coating onto my sedan.

Shortly after, as I tootled down the highway, I couldn’t help but slow down and admire the deep, burnished glow of the metallic black hood…

…Until I was passed by a tractor-trailer emblazoned with a pastoral scene featuring freakishly large cows glaring down at traffic while they munched organic grass.

The artwork was actually catchy; however, either the heffers inside the trailer were enjoying one hell of a road trip or a large vessel had burst. My evidence?

Pouring from the rear of the trailer was a white waterfall of calcium goodness. An impressive flow that hit the pavement at 70 miles per hour and frothed all over my gleaming black car. My first thought was, “Milk? Seriously?!”


My next thought was that this was emblematic of consulting. Every once in a while a project wanders off the rails. Last month, one of the consultants I work with forgot a few consulting basics (see this article) and her $500k/year client summarily dismissed her. Yikes.

The fact is, even the best designed consulting projects can stumble. Sometimes we fall short—we’re all human and fallible—or the client and consulting team mix signals or some exogenous land mine blows everything up. It really doesn’t matter why. What matters is how you recover.

Eight best practices will help you rinse off the sour milk of a troubled project and shine brighter than ever in your clients’ eyes.

Respond Rapidly – When you find out the client is unhappy, address it immediately.

Never Become Defensive – This isn’t about blame. Simply show that the problem can be rectified and won’t be repeated. Years ago, a client of mine pointed out that I had missed a couple of milestones. I acknowledged the error and pledged more diligence in the future. He subsequently awarded me multiple, six-figure projects.

Avoid Excuses – Be diligent about not making excuses; this is harder than it sounds. One way to make it easier is to ask for more information. When you’re listening you can’t be defending yourself or making excuses.

Apologize – Whether it’s your “fault” or not, contrition can have a huge, positive impact. One of my clients recently flew to a client’s office to hand-deliver an apology note after a relationship crumbled. He didn’t immediately win the business back, but I’ll bet he has a great shot with that prospect sometime in the future.

Collaborate on the Solution – Ask them what would make them happy and offer suggestions. Left to our own devices, we often overcompensate or come up with an answer that isn’t ideal to our clients. They know what they want. Ask them.

Offer Amends – If you’ve caused harm, even inadvertently, offer some form of restitution. The senior staff at a consulting firm had a huge blow-up after a work session I conducted with them. We all knew it wasn’t my fault. However, since my process may have brought the issues to a head, I offered some extra work with the team at no cost. For a small amount of effort, I built a bushel of goodwill.

Anticipate Crises – Put tripwires and alarms in place so you’ll be alerted before a problem occurs. In other words, your client experience approach should include plenty of opportunities to solicit client feedback.

Create a Safe Space to Vent – Your client should know they can air any grievances and you’ll handle it with poise and grace.

Have you used any of these approaches? Have you tried others that worked?

  1. Robin Goldsmith
    February 8, 2017 at 9:32 am Reply

    Finding a third party whom the client respects to intervene on your behalf can help too.

    • David A. Fields
      February 9, 2017 at 9:19 am Reply

      That’s a great idea, Robin. Sometimes a neutral intermediary who’s respected by both sides can help tamp the emotional flames.

  2. rick maurer
    February 8, 2017 at 9:51 am Reply

    now you tell me!

    good information, i hope i never need it (again) but it is good to know that those tips are handy thanks

    • David A. Fields
      February 9, 2017 at 9:22 am Reply

      Rick, when you’re in this for the long haul you’re going to hit a couple of speed bumps. It’s always good to know what to do when a relationships sours.

  3. Lori Silverman
    February 8, 2017 at 10:53 am Reply

    I always go to my client contact first and ask what the best route would be given the nature of the “issue.” There are times when you’re merely the scapegoat, especially if you’re working on a highly sensitive initiative. Your client contact can navigate the waters and let you know culturally how to proceed and with whom. Now, if it’s the client contact who’s coming to you with a concern, then yes, I concur with your list of possible interventions.

    • David A. Fields
      February 9, 2017 at 9:25 am Reply

      Lori, that’s a smart approach. usually the very best, first step is to have a candid heart-to-hear conversation with your client. Thanks for underscoring that point.

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