We’ve all had that gut drop moment. The second where we realize something’s wrong, and we don’t have the tools to fix it ourselves. Client conflict can be as small as needing to correct a final draft, or as big as a misunderstanding over-scope. It ranges from easily resolvable, to intricate and possibly contentious—and that can make it scary to confront. But it’s not impossible!
Client conflict, like all conflict, is an issue of communication. And the medium of communication can make a huge difference when your goal is to solve a problem. So, when your next client conflict surfaces, use this guide when deciding how to reach out and seek a solution.
Text or email for:
Detail-oriented questions or changes
We’ve all gotten a text message, personally or professionally, that we “heard” just a little differently than it was intended. Same goes for an email from a supervisor, co-worker, or collaborator. And that’s because text-based communication is a poor conveyor of tone. It’s an easy go-to method for its convenience and relative stability, but it’s also easy to hide behind because of this. That hiding can take a small issue and magnify it into a much larger issue in no time at all.
For this reason, I reserve text or email as a communication tool for client conflicts that aren’t sensitive to tone. As an example, a “final” version of an article I wrote came to me from my editor with a stray typo in it. I emailed back quickly to let her know where it was. That communication was one that wouldn’t be colored by tone—a simple issue with a simple fix. The straightforward nature of written communication matches the black-and-white nature of these issues.
PRO TIP: If you have common, small issues that arise, create email templates that you can plug in when the problem arises. That way, you won’t have to wrestle with the wording in the moment. The advanced planning will further prevent tone from coloring your communication.
Phone calls for:
When I worked with students on a regular basis, my catchphrase was, “There’s no such thing as a quick question.” Overwhelmingly, a quick question either (a) merited a bigger conversation, or (b) was a quick question—but then merited follow-up questions. In either case, what seemed like a way to be polite, misrepresented the scope of the issue. I’ve been in similar scenarios over email. A “quick question,” ends up triggering a long back-and-forth thread. What could be solved on the phone in five minutes, instead turns into a protracted game of fact-finding tag.
It’s not always easy to pick up the phone and call. (This isn’t generational discomfort, by the way—lots of people have trouble speaking their mind this way.) But when it comes to client conflict, I’d rather have a fast, clear conversation than sift through emails to find the answer to a question. This is particularly true when a project is unclear in concept or strategy. Client-contractor relationships rest on the question: “What is this project designed to do?” And if the move you’re trying to make is essential to that question, I advise picking up the phone.
A caveat: It can be nerve-wracking to conduct conversations that affect scope without a record. I recommend two possible fixes for this. You can include a clause in your contract about your client consenting to phone calls being recorded. Alternatively, you can follow phone calls with a summary email, detailing what you talked about and the action that will result.
PRO TIP: Nervous about making your point on the phone? Write down some notes and key phrases you want to say before you make the call. This way, you can keep yourself on task and hopefully prevent the conversation straying away from you.
In-person or video chat for:
Scope challenges or project termination
The goal is always for client conflict to be solvable, but sometimes bigger conversations need to be addressed. When these moments come, they should be faced—literally. Conversations about a client-contractor relationship ending need to happen in person. As we’ve discussed, text and email fail to convey tone. If work conditions or expectations are untenable, that needs to be discussed in person. Phone, too, can be ineffective because body language and nonverbal cues matter. And while it may seem old-fashioned, there’s something timeless about looking someone in the eye in times of difficulty. Issues like mission or scope creep, timing of payments, or needing to walk away from a project all beckon that treatment. I include video chat as an option because the increasingly global nature of client-contractor relationships means in-person meetings aren’t always possible.
Issues that require an in-person meeting to resolve, often have been simmering for some time. They rarely appear without warning. As such, I’d recommend trying to address the problem with the other listed methods first. Big problems, particularly ones that result in termination, shouldn’t arise for the first time in person. This type of meeting should be a last resort, with several prior attempts at resolution prior.
PRO TIP: Include periodic checkpoints or project progress reports in your contract with your client. These check-ins should include updates on the project, as well as with the process of the project. If communication is lagging, resources are needed, or other problems exist, these progress reports should address that.
Remember: Communication is Key
Client conflict is going to happen; it’s a risk that exists anytime we enter into a working relationship. But being attentive to how the relationship grows and develops can help us manage problems as they arise. As you seek to resolve these problems, remember that strong communication is key.
Aim to address these issues in the moment, with the method of communication most fitting for the issue at hand. The result? Far stronger relationships between you and your client, longer and deeper engagements, and better testimonials when your time draws to an eventual close. What’s more, bad working relationships will either improve faster, or come to an end on better terms. In any case, you’ll be a stronger worker for your ability to communicate effectively and efficiently through client conflict.