How to Report Bad Results to Clients (and Not Get Fired)

Especially when you are still in the early stages of building up a client base, it’s important to put project failure or, more generally, ‘bad news’ into perspective. Your first reaction might be one of panic, but it’s essential to move on quickly and efficiently, to put full focus on keeping your client happy.

Your clients need to be told exactly what has happened, and a straightforward solution to any problems that have arisen. By setting out the situation and offering alternative ways forward, you can maintain the trust of your client, and perhaps even strengthen the relationship.

Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to tackle the problem of delivering news of bad results, with a steady hand and a clear head.

Bad results from the perspective of your client – and your business

If you only have a handful of projects under your belt, it’s easy to forget that failure (to some degree) is a fact of life. According to top project managers quizzed as part of the PMI annual survey, just two-thirds of projects meet their original goals, only half finish on time, a similar proportion finish on budget, and 15% fail completely. If this is the first time you have had to report bad news or worse than expected outcomes to a client, it is unlikely to be the last. A procedure for communicating bad results should come in useful as your business grows.

This is probably not the first time that your client has had to face worse than anticipated results, or a project that has gone slightly off-plan. What’s more, it doesn’t mean that their automatic reaction is going to be to ditch you. When companies decide to switch provider, the reason is very often quality of service (as opposed to issues with the actual work). Mishaps and errors tend to be a lot more forgivable than a failure to communicate or acting dishonestly.   

When to deliver the bad results

As a rule, you should inform your client of a problem at a very early stage after it has arisen. Leaving the client to continue to believe that everything is on track is not only unprofessional, but also fails to give them the opportunity to prepare for it. At the same time, it’s important to try and establish the implications of the bad news before you deliver it.

As an illustration of this, let’s say you have just found out that the contractor you hired has had to pull out of the project. As things stand, it is highly unlikely that you will meet the deadline for the first deliverable. You don’t report this development the moment you hear of it, but neither do you keep quiet only for the client to get a ‘nasty surprise’ on deadline day. Instead, get your team together and work out what needs to be done to cover the shortfall of work. You can then draw up a revised timetable and a proposed new date for delivery.

You’re now in a position to report to the client: you’ve identified the issue, worked out a way to deal with it, and are able to offer the client a clear route forward.

How to deliver bad results

Before arranging to deliver the bad results, draw up a clear explanation of what has happened. Next, work out the options the client is now faced with. Think about the questions the client is likely to raise and be ready to answer them.

It’s useful to arrange a meeting either in person, or failing that, over the telephone, in order to talk through the position and allay the client’s fears. Try to be compassionate without being emotional. To achieve this you have to make it clear that you understand what the bad results mean for the client, the steps you have already taken to prevent the situation from repeating itself, and the efforts your business will put into remedying it. At the same time, avoid ‘playing the victim’ by appearing too frustrated or angry.

After the meeting, set out what was discussed in an email or letter. If the client is faced with several options in light of the bad results, it may be that they will need some time to decide which course of action to take. Set out these options clearly and ask them to confirm their choice in writing. If the client issued instructions in the meeting, it’s still important that you set these out in writing, and ask for their confirmation in order to prevent any misunderstanding.

How to respond when the bad results are your fault

In some cases an adverse outcome will be purely down to circumstance, in other cases, it may have been caused or contributed to by an error on the part of your business. If it’s the latter, avoid the temptation of withholding the facts of what happened purely to show face. The truth of the situation is likely to come into the open at some point, in which case you’ll lose the trust of the client.

You should also avoid trying to avoid taking personal responsibility by shifting blame to other team members. By saying “it was all my assistant’s fault”, you are giving the impression that you’re not managing and supervising your team effectively.

If you document what happened, the steps you took to rectify the situation, as well as the eventual outcome, you have a useful record that you can refer to in the future. In this way, ‘bad results’ become a part of your project management learning curve. For further tips on managing a team and dealing with difficult client situations, head over to our help centre.   

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