Getting Your Project Back on Track When Customers are Unhappy

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Image Courtesy of Max Pixel

Sometimes, your dream job can become your nightmare.

The Difficult Customer

You have worked hard and long on a project, you are proud of your work, and you believe that you went above and beyond what was requested. The anticipation of seeing the excitement and joy on the face of your customers as you present everything you have done is killing you.

During the presentation, you notice that your customers aren’t smiling. In fact, they are looking upset. Almost furious. Clearly you had basically delivered a dud. You start to become annoyed yourself. You put a lot of hard work into this and all you are going to get is flak. It seems unfair. You are starting to think about giving your customers a piece of your mind and telling them that they can take their business elsewhere.

You finish your presentation, and then your customers begin to yell. A lot. They scream about firing you and finding someone better. They fume about how it looks like they have hired a bunch of jokers instead of a group of professionals. They yelp about how you didn’t meet any of the criteria that had been agreed on, and they won’t pay for any of the work until it is corrected. You are almost on your last straw and ready to storm out.

You can’t storm out. You are dealing with some difficult customers, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t work this out and still emerge from the project victorious. In this article, I’m going to talk about what you are going to do instead.

What Are You Going to Do?

Dealing with difficult customers (or difficult business managers in your own company) is unfortunately a regular occurrence. As much as you wish you could only deal with nice people who told you exactly what they needed and set realistic expectations, the reality is that you are going to have to be prepared to deal with people who are quite unreasonable and will make no effort to be nice.

It is like any relationship that you have with someone. When things are going well, it is easy to keep the relationship happy and productive. When things start going bad, however, you may have to step up your game and even make amends to repair the relationship, even if you actually did nothing wrong. In the above scenario, you are in the worst possible place to be. The first step is damage control.

Damage Control

The purpose of damage control is to acknowledge that you didn’t deliver. Even if you believe that you actually did, you need to give your customer that acknowledgement because what they got didn’t match what they were hoping to get. It happens a lot. Customers don’t always describe what they want in clear terms, but unfortunately it will always appear to be your fault when you miss the target. By simply acknowledging it, you remove it as an issue. No one is disputing fault. This allows you to move on to the next step, which is to address the shortfall. This crucial step is hard because it takes a lot to swallow your pride and accept blame for something when you don’t feel like you deserve it.

Next, you should capture as much feedback as possible that your customer can give you. Ask questions and try to capture what they were hoping for. This is a normal part of the iterative process of developing any kind of product or service, and the fact that the client isn’t happy doesn’t really change it. The client still wants the solution to their problem, and your job is to figure out how to get it to them as soon as possible. It is not the time to push back and tell your customer that it will take longer and cost more. You need to first understand the scope of the work that is left. Once you do that, you can begin to formulate how you plan to address the issues you have documented.

The Action Plan

For this next step, you may need to break away from your customer. You need some time to organize the feedback into small, tangible tasks that you can easily estimate how long they will take. These tasks need to be prioritized, because as much as the client wants all of it, the truth is that you will both have to meet somewhere in the middle — you are going to get them some of what they want, addressing the highest priority items first. They are going to have to let some of the things they want slide until later. Try to incorporate into your plan a way to deliver work items in small regular iterations (one or two weeks ideally) so they can get something really quickly.

Once you have organized these tasks, estimated how long it will take to do them, and prioritized them, it is time to present the plan to your customer. Review all of the items at a high level and demonstrate that you intend to address everything they were asking for. Your plan should include a schedule of releases or deliveries so that it is clear when you will be done with each item.

Your customer may not like your plan. You may have to rearrange some items that you thought were lower or higher priority. They will most likely push you to deliver items in less time, but you need to be firm about your estimates. Instead of giving in and making promises you won’t be able to keep, it is better to simply work with them to really prioritize which items they want or need the most. Often customers request a lot more than what they actually need, and when you ask them to prioritize, that is when they will see that there really is a narrow scope of things they must have as opposed to what they really want. For now, you are focused on the things they need.

Execute the Plan

Eventually, you will come to a consensus, and you are ready to execute your plan. This may have been a painful exercise, but it actually was a really useful one. Your customer has changing needs, and you will occasionally have to have these interactions to alter course and bring your customer closer to what they are after. They aren’t always going to be happy when you come up short, but with a little interaction and a plan, you can get back on track.


Everyone has had to deal with difficult customers at some point, but there is a simple way to handle the situation. You need to acknowledge complaints about work that is delivered. Capturing the gap between what is delivered and what is expected is vital. Your action plan details how you are going to address the issues, what will be delivered, and when. Then you execute on that plan. Just as you would if you were dealing with a happy customer. Stick to the plan and chances are much better that everything will work out in the end.

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I'm a technology enthusiast, always searching for better ways of doing things. Lately that has been all things React. I also write a lot on Medium. :)

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