Building great client relationships is central to successful project management, and you’ll inevitably need to deal with challenging clients at some point in your career.

It’s not a nice feeling fronting up to a meeting with an unhappy client. But by building your client management skills and having good processes in place, you can reduce the risk of finding yourself in this situation in the first place.

What is client relationship management?

Client relationship management is the strategic process of managing interactions with clients to foster positive working relationships. It touches all aspects of the relationship between a company and its customers.

The end goal of client management is to maintain excellent customer satisfaction while successfully delivering the project. By meeting (or exceeding) the needs of customers, you’ll:

  • Get repeat business: 91% of customers say good service makes them more likely to purchase from a company again – Salesforce.
  • Avoid customer loss: 82% of customers stopped doing business with a company because of bad service – Zendesk.
  • Avoid new customer acquisition costs: Acquiring a new customer is anywhere from 5-25 times more expensive than retaining an existing one – Harvard Business Review.
  • Increase profits: A 5% increase in customer retention can increase profits from 25-95% – Bain & Co.
  • Get recommendations: Happy customers are 38% more likely to recommend you to their networks – Qualtrics XM Institute.
  • Stop bad word of mouth circulating: Unhappy customers tell twice the number of people about their negative experience that happy customers do about their positive experience – CCMC.

Client relationship management may take the form of:

  • involving clients in establishing project priorities and timelines
  • communicating changes ahead of time
  • surveying people to find out how they’re feeling
  • proactively checking in on their needs and satisfaction levels.

Good client management centres on solid communication, one of the critical soft skills required for project professionals. Project managers who build exceptional communication skills will be well placed to succeed in client management, leading to great future career opportunities.

What does a client project manager do?

For smaller projects, a project manager will most likely be responsible for managing the client relationship. For larger projects, a dedicated resource might be assigned to the job.

A client project manager is the point of contact between the project team and the client. Their role is to be the buffer, ensuring the client is happy and the project is progressing as planned. They maintain a strong link with both parties and communicate regularly to identify and address issues before they escalate.

The client project manager’s average day might include checking in with the project team to make sure the deliverables are on track, communicating progress with the client, gathering feedback in a survey form and planning a post-project debrief meeting.

What client management skills do project managers need?

Project managers need to build their behavioural skills to master the art of client management. To be a good client manager, you need strong skills in the following areas:

  • Communication: high-level communication skills required to excel in this role.
  • Empathy: ability to understand your client’s perspective. Patience: active listening and staying calm when emotions flare.
  • Persuasion: you might need to influence the client or the project team.
  • Time management: you’ll need attention to detail and prioritisation skills.
  • Problem solving: have a creative approach to get things back on track.
  • Conflict resolution: ability to amicably negotiate and resolve any issues.

Our top client relationship management tips

  1. Communicate clearly and as often as is appropriate: find out your clients’ communication preferences. They might want a daily report or a weekly status update meeting. Have a project schedule they can access any time, but don’t overload them with unnecessary detail. And be responsive when they reach out to you.
  2. Respect their time: you were probably hired because they didn’t have the internal resources to complete the job in-house. So don’t make them feel like they’re spending so long talking to you that it would be easier to do it themselves.
  3. Don’t forget the phone: we want a paper trail, and email seems fast, but sometimes a five-minute call can save three days of emailing back and forth. You can always confirm the outcomes in writing if needed.
  4. Know their needs and deliver on them: this might sound a little obvious, but as a client manager, you need to understand what makes your clients tick and what they are looking for from you. This will help you anticipate their needs and respond quickly, which they’re sure to appreciate.
  5. Know their industry and help them know yours: take the time to understand the ins and outs of their industry. It will help build trust. Avoid using complex project management jargon so your messages don’t get lost in translation.
  6. Be transparent: don’t try to cover up issues, be honest about what’s going on in the project and own any mistakes. Show them how keen you are to make everything right. Your client is much more likely to be understanding if you’re upfront.
  7. Set expectations and stick to the plan: at the outset of your project, ensure you have an agreed project scope. Don’t make promises outside the scope, and make sure the client understands exactly what you’ll be delivering and when. Stick the course or update the plan if needed so there are no surprises. Make sure the clients understand their role and have a plan for dealing with client delays.
  8. Set agreed KPIs to measure success: agree with the client what success looks like because your idea of success and theirs might be different. Track and celebrate great results together.
  9. Seek feedback: there’s no better way to find out how the client feels than to ask them. It’s good to do that informally, checking in as the project progresses. But equally, having a formal feedback process can capture valuable data too. The most important thing is to listen to any issues and take steps to respond to any concerns.


What to do when things go wrong

Despite your best-laid plans, there will always be times when issues arise. Here are some tips to get things back on track:

  1. Show urgency: if your key stakeholders are concerned about something, address it as quickly as you can. Let them know what steps you are taking to resolve the issue. If anything, over-communicate at this point. You want them to see how you’re doing everything you can to make things right.
  2. Stay calm: as hard as it might be when someone is screaming down the phone at you, keep your cool. By keeping a professional demeanour, you’ll be able to get your point across and encourage them to cool down. Mirroring their hostility will only escalate the situation. But of course, feel free to have a private rant later to release the tension.
  3. Involve your project sponsor: although you don’t want to be running to your executive leader for every minor issue, if you’ve tried and failed to resolve your client’s concerns, then adding another voice and perspective to the conversation can help. It can also help a customer feel important and heard when the executives take time out to listen.
  4. Learn from any mistakes: Bill Gates said, “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” First, focus on finding a solution, but when the dust settles, work out what went wrong and how it can be avoided in the future.


Client management skills are important

Having excellent client management skills will build your reputation as well as your company’s. For you, that can mean advancement opportunities and for the company, repeat business and new customers. If you’re keen to build your client management skills, take a look at the AIPM endorsed courses available, or check out our mentoring program for members to access guidance and advice from experienced industry leaders.