How to Interpret the Language of Project Problems

Michelle Hunter by Michelle Hunter

Understanding what problems tell you about your business is the first step to fixing them for good.

Frustrated Designer at Desk

Close collaboration with clients is seldom smooth, especially when doing creative or emotional work. Honestly, though… isn’t most collaborative work emotional? Clients come to us because they believe in the results our work delivers. The process to get to those results? Well, that’s another thing entirely. Project problems are pretty common, aren’t they?

Our clients typically approach us with a relatively clear understanding of their goals, but a rather basic awareness of the work required to achieve them. As experts, it’s up to us to guide our clients to the results they need in a way that is as supportive and collaborative as possible.

Our clients demonstrate belief in our marketing promises when they sign the agreement and pay the initial invoice. Recurring project problems indicate we aren’t delivering on those promises.

Ouch! That feels harsh, doesn’t it? I understand. That’s why it’s tempting to blame project problems on the client. We shake our heads and lament that the client doesn’t get it. We get frustrated and wonder why we keep attracting such “bad” clients and consider changing our offers around – adding or subtracting deliverables – to avoid similar problems in the future.

We pour a little wine and then head out to social media to do a little whining, and then move on to the next project, hoping for different results.

Here’s the thing – – > Difficult client situations and outlier problems are certainly a part of any creative business.

However, recurring project problems are nearly always an indication of a broken process.

Those problems you seem to face over and over? They are opportunities for humble reflection, learning, and improvement.

What differentiates experts from beginners?  Experts are able to interpret the language of project problems so they can fix them for good.

Problem: Lots and lots of questions.

Every client asks questions as a normal part of collaborating with an expert. My clients come to me looking for solutions to the marketing challenges they face. They ask questions to better understand the strategy we create together and wrap their minds around the implementation plan we use to move them forward. These questions are normal and encouraged.

Some clients get stuck in a cycle of seemingly endless questions. This is not normal, this is a common project problem. These clients turn questioning into an art form, bombarding your email or Slack account with question after inquiry… wrapped in polite (or not-so-polite) language.

While a few questions demonstrate curiosity or confusion about a part of the project, multiple questions often indicate a breakdown of client trust.

Minor trust problems show up as indecision or questions about minor details. Large breakdowns in trust are demonstrated by a flood of questions coming increasingly quickly no matter how you respond.

Plagued by problems with questioning?

Look for patterns in the timing, emotional quality, and subject of questions to identify where your processes are breaking down.

  • If questions occur at the beginning of projects, you may need to refine your onboarding process to provide more information and set clear client expectations.
  • Do questions typically arise as you share progress reports with clients or submit work for approval? Explore ways to explain your creative choices, provide context and better guide your clients as they process the information you share.
  • Panicky questions indicate a client doesn’t understand what’s coming next or has concerns about your ability to meet deadlines or achieve goals. Have you shared progress effectively?
  • Fearful questions can indicate the client isn’t confident in the direction of the work or is feeling challenged by a shift in mindset or perspective. Maybe you need to add encouragement or motivation to your process.
  • Notice that most questions are centered around a specific subject? This is a clear opportunity to add client education into your process. Consider communicating the “why” behind your process as clearly as the “how” or the “what.” In my experience, subject-related questions are often as much a quest for context as they are for data.

Problem: Slow pay, no pay, and chargebacks.

From time to time, my clients need to delay a payment or shift a payment schedule due to unanticipated challenges. This is natural, and I typically respond to these requests with generosity and grace. I don’t think of these issues as problems in my business. If you have an occasional slow payment, I wouldn’t worry about it.

If you frequently deal with late payments, missing payments, and chargebacks from credit cards and payment processors, however, there’s a problem you need to address. In my experience, these types of project problems stem from one of three issues.

Poorly written agreements or no agreement at all.

As business owners, we set the expectation for what we charge and how we must be paid. It might feel awkward to set payment terms, but it’s an essential part of doing business. We must spell out our terms clearly in writing and collect a signature if we expect to be paid.

Handshake agreements are difficult to make in a virtual marketplace. Verbal agreements are as good as the paper they are written on. Casual email exchanges are often subject to interpretation and are difficult to use when fighting a chargeback or contractual issue. Do yourself a favor – set some terms, communicate them clearly, and get a signature.

Tying payments to subjective milestones or deliverables subject to approval.

We all want to assume the best in other people. We want to believe that our clients will act with integrity and grace, and willingly make payments when we both agree a subjective milestone is reached. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.

Early in my business, I tied payments to progress milestones and approval of completed work. Things changed when I realized that this system actually gives the client incentive to expand scope prior to reaching a milestone.

Clients can delay a final payment just by holding off on approving work. I willingly gave them a mechanism for postponing payment without any type of awkward payment related conversation. They could ignore emails for a few weeks and buy themselves a little extra time financially. Project problems like these kept me from doing my best work.

Lack of collaboration and/or poor communication.

Sometimes we get caught up in how we prefer to work and our process. We take the creative ball and run with it, moving through our process without points of collaboration. We ask the client to “trust us” and step away for a few weeks or longer to “work our process” without checking in or giving feedback. In these situations, a client can quickly feel that a project is out of control.

When clients feel powerless or insecure about our work, they start looking for ways to capture our attention and share their frustration.

Withholding a payment (or requesting a chargeback) is a pretty effective way of getting attention. If you’re dealing with missed payments and chargebacks, take a look at your client communication policies. Are you reaching out frequently? Are you listening to client concerns and addressing them? Do you make yourself available for client collaboration? You might need to do some work here.

Problem: Scope creep and the never-ending project.

I really enjoy collaborating with my clients. Quite often our work together sparks new ideas and creates a desire to expand project scope. I actually love it when that happens, because it demonstrates synergy and indicates a high probability that the results of our work together are going to make a great case study for my business.

Of course, I have a process for expanding scope and limiting scope creep. Do you? I talk about scope often when collaborating with clients. I say things like “this is in scope for us” or “our project scope covers that idea.” I also say things like “ooh – love that idea…let’s consider expanding our scope so we can do that” and “want to expand scope to include…?”

Issues with scope creep are an indication you aren’t talking about project scope frequently or clearly enough.

Never-ending projects are actually a form of scope creep, and they are totally caused by your process. Do you clearly define project scope in the beginning? Do you hold the client (and yourself) to the agreed upon scope and clearly communicate when everything is complete?

I’ve realized that never-ending projects happen when I add on little things – just one more call, one more deliverable, one little tweak – to make the project better. My perfectionistic tendencies are usually the culprit.

Problem: Ghosting and the invisible client.

Clients rarely disappear on me, although sometimes they disengage in my process and back away from collaboration. When a client pulls away for a time – or disappears altogether – it can be pretty frustrating. My production schedule can get jacked up while I wait for responses that don’t come. I can get frustrated or start questioning my ability. Imposter Syndrome loves to visit me when clients disengage.

While lack of client engagement can feel like negativity and judgment, it’s more often a motivation issue. Your client might be distracted due to unknown factors that have nothing to do with you. Your client may have a constraint you forgot about (such as a planned event or issue inside his or her business) which is limiting his or her ability to respond. In both these scenarios, this project isn’t on the top of the list of things demanding your client’s attention.

Other times, your client is simply overwhelmed and struggling to find the motivation to push through with the work. Maybe he has decision fatigue. Possibly she is struggling to share thoughts or collaborate fully.

Do you revisit goals and remind clients of the value of your work together? Does your sales process include uncovering why the work is important to the client at this time? Recurring problems with client engagement indicate an opportunity to add encouragement and motivation to your process.

Solving problems strategically by improving your systems.

Once you understand the language of recurring problems, take time to review your processes and reflect. Identify ways to shift your systems, add or remove process steps, or improve communication. But don’t stop there… monitor your results. By intentionally improving your process, you’ll eliminate recurring problems from your business.

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