How to Cushion “Bad” News and Keep Your Client Relationship

If you’ve been reading Freelance Folder for a while, you already know that the client isn’t always right. In fact, sometimes the client is wrong–very wrong.

Just because the client is wrong doesn’t mean that you should always dump the client, though. Not all clients who are wrong are demons from hell. In fact, most of them are good people who you probably want to continue to maintain a professional relationship with.

So, it falls upon you, the freelancer, to break the “bad news” to the client without destroying the freelancer/client relationship. This type of honesty can be tough, but it’s often necessary. In the end, your honesty will benefit both you, as a freelancer, and your client.

In this post, we’ll describe some situations where you might need to break bad news to a client, and we’ll identify some steps you can take to “cushion” the blow and preserve your relationship.

Types of Bad News

Of course, not every client mistake requires an intervention on your part. Some client differences are minor and others are merely a matter of different working styles or different tastes.

However, there are some instances when you really need to kindly correct a client mistake so that something worse doesn’t occur. Some examples of mistakes that I believe should be corrected include:

  • The client’s pet idea is really a flop
  • The project will cost much more than the client can afford
  • The “fixes” the client made to the site actually broke the code
  • The client wants something that is not legal or is unethical (or will otherwise get them into trouble)

You can probably think of your own examples.

The right thing to do, especially when you want to continue to do business with this particular client, is to come clean and point out their mistake.

Of course, pointing out a client’s mistake is a difficult thing to do. There’s always the chance that they won’t take your suggestions very kindly. However, if you neglect to do it and the project blows up in their face (as it is likely to do), they will wonder why you didn’t warn them.

That’s why it’s important to find a diplomatic way to break the bad news. That’s where “cushioning” the bad news can come in handy.

The Cushion

Usually, it’s a good idea to use some sensitivity when approaching your client about something he or she doesn’t really want to hear. Sensitivity can reduce the “shoot the messenger” syndrome (the unfortunate tendency to blame the bearer of bad news for the bad news).

Here are some techniques you can use to cushion the blow when delivering bad news:

  1. Start off on the positive. Even if the client did something dumb, think of something they did correctly and mention it before you break the bad news to them. You can say something like, “that was a really good idea to use a Panda in your logo, but I don’t think many people will understand why it is neon green.”
  2. Give your client the benefit of the doubt. Don’t be accusatory in your remarks. Don’t assume the client has bad motives. Most likely, they are just uninformed. You can say something like, “I really do understand why you may want to collect personal information from everyone who visits your site, but legally you need to let them know that you are collecting the information and what it will be used for.”
  3. Be sympathetic. After all, your client is only human. You can say something like, “I’m really impressed that you’re studying programming. Most business owners don’t make the time. However, your fixes to the site actually caused a few problems–let me show you.”
  4. Look for win-win situations. You may need to compromise. For example, you could say “it’s true that these are really difficult economic times, but $1,000 just will not cover all of the work that you describe. Perhaps we could do X and Y this month for $1000 and finish up with Z next month for an additional $500.”

Personally, I’ve found that most clients really do appreciate an honest approach if it is handled with sensitivity. Usually, honesty is better than trying to overlook or ignore the problem.

Of course there are times that you might need to be more blunt with a client.

When You Might Not Want to Use the Cushion

The cushion approach is designed to preserve client/freelancer relationships. In some instances, however, you may wish to discontinue that relationship. However, you should still think carefully about how you confront your client about a problem. In most cases, it’s best not to burn bridges.

Once in a while, the cushion approach doesn’t work because the client completely filters out the bad news and only hears the good in your communication. If this happens to you, you may be working with an individual who is immune to the cushion approach and a more blunt approach may be needed.

How Do You Break Bad News?

I’ve shared a few communication strategies that I use to discuss difficult problems with clients. How do you break bad news to your clients?

Share your strategies in the comments.

Image by thecomicproject