By Sarah Shiffman and Nic Irons

If you work in any role that requires you to provide a service to clients, you’ve felt that gut-lurching feeling when something in a project you’re working on goes totally sideways.

Whether the issue ranges from a slight complication to “it’s the end of the world,” slip-ups, misunderstood deliverables, forgotten deadlines, or soured relationships are just a part of the client-partner…partnership. But, because it’s a partnership – and hopefully one built on authentic human connection – there are ways to mitigate the damage when something goes wrong. There are also ways to ensure that a client-agency relationship is strong enough from the get-go to withstand these kinds of mishaps.

This blog covers our thoughts, tips, and strategies for managing client relationships when expectations are missed. We start by looking at warning signs: how can you know when a relationship is souring or when deliverables are heading slightly off base from client expectations? We also talk about what to do if project expectations are missed, including the right way to take accountability and ensure success from that point forward. Finally, we wrap it up with some of our tips for maintaining strong client relationships so that you can weather any storm.

Signs and signals

Mixed signals and misunderstandings usually don’t happen out of nowhere. Our Senior UX/UI Designer, Nic, and Executive Creative Director, Kevin, share some signs that your team’s understanding of a project may not be fully aligned with that of your client.

  • Shifts in client communication. Clients all communicate differently: some are super comment heavy, some leave vague feedback, some prefer a phone call. If you notice a sudden shift in the way feedback is communicated–e.g., a super in-contact client becomes distant–this may be one of the first signs that a bigger issue is forming.
  • Meetings get shorter (or don’t happen at all). If a client becomes visibly disengaged in meetings – they start cutting meetings short, don’t have as much to say, or have to frequently cancel – this may be a sign that something is off.
  • A client takes work “back.” If you’re working on something for a client and are waiting on round one of edits, you can usually expect to be the one to execute those edits. If a client, especially a long-term client, pulls the project back “in-house”–i.e., they decide to do it themselves, and not because of something innocuous like budget cuts or time restraints–that may be a sign that expectations were missed.
  • Previous feedback is contradicted. If you’re a few rounds into edits and clients begin to contradict feedback that they gave in round one, it may be a sign of large strategy changes or missed communication. If you/your team keep making edits and still feel no closer to being done, it’s probably time to step up the communication game and re-strategize.
  • Projects become more vague. If it’s becoming more difficult to nail down timelines, project scope, or to schedule meetings related to a project, it may be time to step back and have a check in with the client. This is especially the case if scheduling and communication was previously pretty seamless.
  • Under-delivering on expectations. Internally, work that doesn’t match a team members’ usual standards may be a sign of disengagement. “The more I have to be involved on the creative side after the strategy has been set, the less engaged I know my team is on a project (for whatever reason),” says Kevin.

Communicate, communicate, comm….

No matter what kinds of signs you’ve noticed, or if something just feels “off,” it’s important to keep lines of communication open–ideally with key decision makers.

  • Ask open-ended questions to allow your client space to express themselves
  • Be transparent, open, and honest with your team (never ignore something or let it fester)
  • Practice active listening
  • Consider what outside influences may be impacting the relationship (more on this later)

It’s professional, not personal

If and when you notice these kinds of signs, the key is to not take it personally. If your work didn’t quite hit the mark, don’t immediately assume you’ve done a terrible job. It’s okay to feel disappointment, but try to take it as an opportunity to learn and grow your skills. Your next deliverable will be way better.

It’s a team effort; it’s a team responsibility

Take accountability, but don’t place blame. This may seem obvious, but don’t pin issues on one person. Errors happen, and they aren’t intentional. It’s the job of the entire team to put forth an effort to fix the situation when things go awry.

Example: The case of the new designer

We experienced a case of “missed communications” with one of our design clients that taught us a valuable lesson about working as a team to keep projects prosperous. In this case, team dynamics shifted on our end, and a new designer took over a previous designer’s work. First, our new designer wasn’t kept up-to-date on the client she would now be working on, and had missed out on opportunities for mentorship. Second, we didn’t allow proper time for the “getting to know you” stage with the client, which led to them feeling a little neglected and unheard.

The situation culminated in deliverables not quite hitting the mark – not because our new designer wasn’t putting the work in, but because the client and designer simply didn’t know each other well enough yet. Once we focused on relationship building and open communication in what our new designer called a “DTR” (define the relationship), this client relationship survived to see another day – and continues to be a thriving partnership for us all. Because everyone on the team stepped up and took their part of the responsibility, we were able to move forward productively.

Look deeper: what’s really going on?

Clients and agencies are made up of people, and those people have families, health issues, and complex lives outside of work. Sometimes it's simply a rough life season for a member of the team, and that has nothing to do with work. Other times a client’s company is facing budget cuts and personnel changes, and the people you're connected with don't know what changes are going to happen.

It’s important to approach tough times with as much grace as possible for everyone involved.

Culture of acceptance & understanding

Making the best of missed communications is a whole lot easier when you have a great team around you. If your culture is one of open communication and understanding, team members feel safe coming to their project lead with their feelings. Designers and clients can get on a call together and say, “Something feels off – what do you think?” We can have casual, productive conversations that forego blaming or vagueness. The work – and the process of getting the work done – is better when you trust and respect the people around you.

Relationships matter

The better the relationship, the easier it will be to handle mishaps and miscommunications. In our earlier case study, for example, we recognize that one of the primary reasons we were able to bounce back from missed expectations is because we already had a very strong relationship with that client. When you focus on building relationships that are based on understanding and compassion, communication can prosper even in difficult situations.

  • Let your client get to know everyone who will be touching their project. That way, you’re not just a faceless entity – they know exactly who is working on the output of their project.
  • Focus on understanding the client’s needs and reading their signals. It’s our job as agency partners to be able to take cues from our clients, ask the right questions, and be open to their ideas.

Above all, encourage honest evaluation and open feedback exchange. Everyone has a unique communication style. Learn what your client’s is; encourage their communication in whatever form it takes. Share your own ideas and feedback in return. Your whole team – and your client's – will be stronger for it.

Interested in moving to the JAMstack? Let's talk.

Want to stay in the know on what we know?

Sign up for our email newsletter. Nothing spammy about it. Just a monthly rundown of what we’re sharing.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.