How to Handle Client Misunderstandings and Miscommunication
by Brad Egeland
Misunderstandings and miscommunication are bound to happen with clients, but it's how you handle them that's important. No matter who's at fault, these are the three areas you should address when clearing up a problem with your client.
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No one likes to admit they are wrong. No one likes to make mistakes. And I don't think any of us are really excited about rework. Especially if its free.
Consultants are supposed to be the experts, so if you're the consultant and you make a mistake on one of your consulting engagements it can be painful. And embarrassing. And possibly costly.
Likewise, our clients can make mistakes and miscommunicate and overlook details that cost the engagement time and money. Pointing those out to the client - if we discover them and they don't - can be painful, too. Then what? Do you charge them more to fix the problems that were caused or do you give the fix away for free as a show of good faith? Your goal of course is to keep the customer, but usually not at "any cost."
The bottom line is that, on each side of the fence, mistakes can happen. Should we always point fingers and assign blame? No, I don't think so. If you and the client are truly working togethe --.really have a effective working relationship and actually respect one another --then certainly no blame needs to be ascribed. You just know and move on. At least that's how it should always be.
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So, instead of focusing on the mistake or miscommunication from that perspective, try handling the problem by staying true to these 3 concepts.
Strategize the best and lowest cost options before going to the client. Normally I would say brainstorm this with your team. However, if you are an independent consultant like me, 95% of the time I am the "team." Either way, you must come up with some solutions or at least actions that will get you and the client down the road to a “fix” of whatever the complication or miscommunication is. Think them through – especially from the perspective the the “at fault” party, if there is one. Is cost a necessary consideration? How should that be handled? Prepare some options before going to the client to discuss.
Discuss options with the client. These options you come up with may solve the problem or they may not. At the very least they will probably serve as a good stepping stone and an opening up of the communication lines to get progress made on whatever the problem is. I have a client right now who owes me money because their request was they wanted to pay half of a two month agreement up front and then half of it one half of the way through. Reasonable enough.
So, at the end of the current month, I invoiced them for part 2 of the payment. Now my direct contact is stating that they are waiting for their review of the latest material I've provided as well as the out-of-the-office supervisor's approval of the payment. There was nothing stipulated in our agreement or the initial invoice that stated anything other than “2nd payment halfway through the two month agreement”. And they have been happy with services so far...no problems. It's probably more due to a timing / cashflow issue at the moment more than anything else. There isn't much I can do to expedite the payment as my goal is to keep them as clients and not take any drastic action, so offering some options and opening up discussions is the best I can do at this point. Obviously, there was miscommunication and misperception involved in the process – no matter how thoroughly it was documented via email and on the initial invoice.
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Consider price. If you can do some work for free in the face of mistakes, that is the best way to go. If the mistake is due to your oversight, then it goes without saying that the work is going to have to be free. The only exception is if the client thought you were doing 'x' and you thought you were doing 'y' and those are far enough apart that you're going to need compensation, then you'll need compensation. Any leeway you have to make that more affordable for the client, though, would make it easier to swallow and to make for a better lasting long term relationship. Price is always an issue...be careful in this part of the negotiation process when trying to resolve.
Mistakes happen. It's what you do with them and how you respond to them that likely define the rest of the consulting engagement and whether or not you do any future business with this client. And depending on the outcome, you may or may not want to....but it's usually easier to keep a client than find a new one to replace him...so I try to keep them. Good luck!
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