I've been in this boat before – but only in terms of taking over troubled projects so it's more of the “rescue” mentality than the “I caused this” mentality... trust me it's a better mindset to go forward with. To do so, I've always followed these five steps...
Clarify their demands. What is the issue or issues? What got the project to this point? Do you think it can be saved? Does the client think there is any chance? Does the team think you can collectively save it? If there is a chance, it's worth a try – that's why you're there. Plus, completing a $500,000 project vs. giving the client their money back is a $1 million dollar difference... even if you have to give away a bunch of free work to turn it around.
Step back and meet with the team. Stop the project for a week or a month, if necessary. Meet with your team to strategize and consider options. What are your three best options for turning it around to a successful outcome? Put together detailed plans including a project timeline, resource usage and budget for getting there based on each of the strategies or options you come up with.
Propose strategies toward a solution to the client. Next, take strategies, plans, timeline and budget info to the client and discuss. They need to see the budget either way – even if you are going to do the work for free. If they see you plan to give away $125,000 in work to make this right it might help make them more cooperative on working toward a successful outcome. They will understand how hard you are trying to make this right. Now, jointly assess with the client and team and prioritize the strategies and prepare to move forward with the best chosen solution from this discussion.
Move forward with the joint chosen strategy. You have your strategies prioritized and have jointly decided which path to start on to hopefully improve the situation or entirely fix the issues on the project. At this point, incorporate the chosen strategy timeline, resource forecast and budget into the actual project timeline, resource forecast and budget and consider it “back to work as normal.” Move forward with confidence, but be prepared to meet more regularly and communicate more heavily so as to stay on top of progress and ensure it's making a positive difference.
Followup and assess. Is it working? Is progress being made – and by that I mean favorable progress. Is the client's satisfaction level improving and their frustration level decreasing? There is no reason to keep moving forward if you aren't making reasonable progress. If that's the case, then at least you can say you took great steps to try to fix the problem and it just didn't work out. But if you can see good progress and the customer's outlook has improved, then keep moving forward. Have frequent discussions with the client to ensure they are happy with the progress – that's what it's all about.
Summary / call for input
The bottom line is this – you can make some of your clients very happy. But there will be those who are never happy or those where the issues got out of hand and you just can't move forward. Throwing in the towel is sometimes your only option. But you certainly want that to be the rare experience and you never want to go down without a fight. So work hard with the customer to keep them and figure things out. Don't be hesitant or embarrassed – it happens to everyone and your project client will likely appreciate your efforts to “right the ship” so to speak. And if you are able to do it – then it's a win-win.
Readers – how do you feel about this list? Have you had clients be so frustrated that they asked to cancel the project and possibly even get their money back? How did you respond? What actions did you take? Please share your experiences and discuss.