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Client Conflict: Managing and Moving Forward

December 3, 2019 in
By Christine Gundermann

Conflict, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways…this month we’ve covered many facets of the topic, from positive conflict to strategies for overcoming conflict. So Houston, what happens when the problem is a conflict with a client or customer?

You might shudder at the thought of having conflict with the clients you serve. These individuals are at the core of everything we do. While it isn’t fun to think about, client conflict does arise, and addressing it can seem like a difficult road to navigate. So today, I’d like to share some insights on my journey to overcoming conflict within client relationships, including strategies for turning conflict into an opportunity to build greater trust and a stronger relationship.

In my experience, conflict within a client setting is not unlike team conflict. After all, FMP strives to create trusted partnerships, where clients view our consultants more as internal team members who work shoulder-to-shoulder with them to solve problems. Over the years, I’ve witnessed relationship, process, and task conflict with clients…and these relationships have not only survived, but thrived! I know you probably want all the juicy details, but let’s focus on how best to overcome client conflict.

So, what have been my keys to success? To start, the most common reason for client conflict I’ve seen stems from a lack of common understanding on varying levels (e.g., interpersonal, process, task). While this may seem daunting at first, it is something you can aim to prevent. This brings us to my first tip:

  • Implement a strong onboarding process. Approach the start of a client relationship how you would with any new employee or team member. Take time at the beginning to understand personalities and work preferences. Create a shared understanding of goals, responsibilities, processes, and timelines. And, listen and address client questions and concerns before they snowball into something larger.  

However, even in the best circumstances, this may not be enough. Projects change rapidly and new obstacles are always around the corner. Maybe your point of contact changed mid-way and the newly assigned project manager wants to see things done differently. Or, maybe the project is behind schedule due to unforeseen circumstances, or your deliverables are just not aligning with client expectations. Navigating client conflict requires a delicate touch. However, rest assured that the following strategies are similar for managing any other type of conflict.

  • Have an honest conversation. It’s tough to admit conflict to a client. Often, we see client conflict as a failure. However, I find that having the honesty and integrity to quickly state when conflict is jeopardizing success to be one foundation of great consulting. Simply ignoring it will not improve the situation. Be upfront and honest when you sense disagreement or misalignment. Demonstrate your willingness to overcome it by setting up time to discuss face-to-face. It may not be an easy conversation that you look forward to having, but clients will thank you for it and it will demonstrate your ability to lead the project and your resiliency.
  • Listen and have empathy. It’s easy to forget that just like you, clients have other projects and priorities. When discussing conflict, let your client speak first. Make this conversation about them and not only about you or the project! Listen to understand their perspective and acknowledge their frustrations. I’ve found that sometimes all you need to manage conflict is to make the other person feel heard and validate their point of view.
  • Collaborate to find a solution. As Michael Scott once said, “…with win-win-win, we all win.” To that end, involve your client as an active participant in the solutioning process. The goal isn’t for one side to “win,” but rather to develop a collaborative solution that addresses everyone’s concerns and sets the project up for success.
  • Focus on moving forward. If nothing more than for your own peace of mind, focus your energy on moving forward. Even after you and your client have identified a solution, don’t spend time agonizing over the conflict. Rather, view it as an opportunity to show that you can grow and develop from it…after all no one is perfect! By viewing conflict in a more positive, constructive light, I’ve found it easier to have these open and honest conversations with clients. This has ultimately strengthened their trust in me and FMP.

In an ideal world, you’ll never experience client conflict, but realistically, it’s inevitable. But, conflict doesn’t have to be an extinction-level event for your relationship with your client. Remember that the most critical aspect of managing client conflict is using transparency and communication to ensure a thorough understanding of the problem, and practicing empathy to reach a “win-win-win” solution. Think of these tips next time you sense conflict on the horizon, and put the relationship back on the path to success!

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