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Ask Allen: How do I tactfully regain control of business projects from overbearing clients?

My firm is working with a client on a project. The client told me to set it up as my own; I did this. Now the project has become quite tedious with the client, rather than our firm, being in charge. How do I regain control of the project and guide the project rather than upsetting him, while making him feel that he is somewhat in control?

Living in Chaos

You have presented a not too uncommon, but complex and delicate, problem that occurs in certain industries. Not knowing details of your industry or specific circumstances of the project, I will make the following general assumptions:

  1. The industry deals with long term implementation which involves the client; e.g. construction, architecture, telecommunications, etc. industries.

  2. Project implementation occurs in stages over a period of time and includes participation by various members, and possibly departments, of your company.

It perhaps is best to address the answer to your question in two phases: (1) what should have been done and (2) what needs to be done to get the project back on track, while maintaining good customer relations.

What should have been done.

Implementation plans are part of the overall sales/contractual arrangement, and should be explained in detail at or before contracting. All parties need to be aware of “who does what, with which, and to whom,” as I am fond of saying. Communication is paramount, externally with the client and internally among company department heads and personnel. It is almost imperative that long term implementation projects be discussed in advance and that everyone is of one accord. This is an education process for the client, who may or may not have any particular idea as to how things are to proceed and who is responsible for doing what.

What might be done now.

The above scenario was evidently not effectively in place prior to beginning the project. I suggest the following:

Meet with the client and

  1. Thank him for his business and for the confidence that he has placed with you and your firm.

  2. Tell him that some of your people may be confused as to whom to look for guidance and changes. Take full personal responsibility for any misunderstandings that company employees or you may have had.

  3. Tell him the standard procedure for projects of this nature, outlining the authorities and responsibilities, establishing the project manager, etc. and the established procedure for handling modifications from the original project. In other words, educate your client as you should have done prior to contracting.

  4. Ask him or her to deal directly with you to handle any problems that he or she might see, and be the single contact person until the project is fully implemented.

  5. Make sure that the appropriate people in your company know the procedure and advise the client to contact the proper supervisor, you, etc. if the client approaches them with changes or other requests.

  6. Set up target dates to “check off” items and give status updates with the client. Make sure he or she gives you his or her input (satisfaction level) at each progress point. You need to be aware of problems before they occur, if possible, and certainly at the earliest possible time. Relay the client’s problems, suggestions, and comments to the appropriate people implementing the contract.

I believe that the above steps, if successfully implemented by allowing the client to participate with you in this manner, will result in not only a satisfied client, but also redound to your benefit in that client recommending you and your firm to others for future business.

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