Benjamin Disraeli, prime minister and diplomat

Diplomacy Wins

Keeping your project and your billing on track while accommodating the logistical, cultural, and accounting “quirks” of your team and/or client can require Disraeli-level diplomacy skills. Who Handles Diplomacy? Larger firms and agencies have account execs or “talkers” by some other name to deal with diplomacy on behalf of the team. They are there to […]



January 7, 2014


Keeping your project and your billing on track while accommodating the logistical, cultural, and accounting “quirks” of your team and/or client can require Disraeli-level diplomacy skills.

Who Handles Diplomacy?

Larger firms and agencies have account execs or “talkers” by some other name to deal with diplomacy on behalf of the team. They are there to do chat sessions, explore emerging opportunities and keep everyone comfortable while the designers/developers/analysts focus on delivery. Big companies or those with a lot of stakeholders tend to need these people. It boosts engagement costs, but its the only way to work ideas and actions through maze-like org charts or high-touch/low-time exec teams.

Smaller firms and agencies tend to rely on one person to handle both delivery and diplomacy. This can be a problem because a good project manager may not naturally have the key traits and skills of a diplomat. In fact, many of the best program, project or product managers are aggressive and deadline oriented to the point of obsession. Teaching them (or yourself) to stay calm in the face of client disconnects or threats to budget is essential if you are going to keep them in a client-facing role.

Here are some common challenges for vendors and agencies, and some ways to diplomatically handle them:

[twocol_one]Too Many Revisions

Your SOW and schedule assume structured reviews and revisions to be handled at set intervals, but your client team keeps making requests for ad hoc revisions and expecting you to come through. This is stretching your resources and you worry that you’ll burn your budget before completing the SOW.

[/twocol_one] [twocol_one_last]Diplomacy:

  • Start including estimates of time involved with each change requested. This will remind them that there is a clock and bank related to everything you do.
  • Remind them that there is a review meeting and a subsequent revision on the horizon.


[twocol_one]Scope Creep

New ideas and new needs come up all the time. This can be a good thing for you and the client because it leads to better understanding and a more robust solution. If handled correctly, it can also lead to more business for your firm. The problem arises when the client wants to stuff new requirements into an already full schedule, or wants to add requirements without more budget.

[/twocol_one] [twocol_one_last]Diplomacy:

  • Basically, don’t panic and don’t say “No” until you sure what is being asked of you.
  • Figure out if something is new (creep) or just more detailed (clarification) It’s fine-line between the two but make sure that you are clear about how much of a change is really being asked for.
  • Get into the details: Seemingly simple requests can turn into nightmares, while things that sound hard end up being quick and easy. Make sure you know if the new requests are mountains or mole hills.


[twocol_one]Payouts & Payment Schedules

This is not the same as costing or pricing. It’s one thing to decide on how much you will get paid. It’s another to figure out when you’ll get the the payments and how much each will be. Some standard situations are that you want a larger down payment than the client, you want to set payouts based on dates instead of deliverables, or your net payment terms are shorter than what your client generally agrees to.

[/twocol_one] [twocol_one_last]Diplomacy:

  • Start by explaining what they get with each payout. If you need to ramp-up quickly, then they should expect a larger upfront payment. Long discovery periods, or start-to-finish dependencies with other work makes getting a big down payment harder to argue for. Make sure your client knows when the money will be needed.
  • Use mini-milestones as payment triggers. Look at the deliverables in each phase and identify 2 or 3 that could be treated as milestones. You won’t be getting a big check up front, but you’ll be able to get payments more regularly across the project’s lifetime. Breaking it down into sub-sets can give you cashflow while reducing sticker shock for clients.
  • Bill early: some clients will take forever to pay you regardless of your terms. Put your invoices in front of them as early in the billing cycle as possible, and keep them informed about when the next one will be coming.



I’m always surprised by how badly this can go. You get to the end of the project and think you are done, yet a client insists that you missed a piece. I’d say 50% of the time it comes down to a missed email: you didn’t send out the Final final version; you forgot to respond to a question, or you forgot to forward a presentation to a decision-maker. The other half is disagreements about the structure of a deliverable. Note that this issue often leads to the situations discussed above.


  • Make sure that you actually delivered what you said you would. See my point about email. Documents get lost and people forget things. Go back through email and make sure that the key stakeholder received what they were supposed to.
  • Sit down with your client and ask them to explain what they expected (See the section on Scope Creep). You and your client may have very different ideas about what constitutes training or reports. For example, you might consider a PowerPoint deck as a final report, but the client is looking for a Word doc or PDF.
  • If it’s not going to take a lot of time, then just take the (small) hit and finish on good terms. Honestly, it’s often better to spend 2 hours doing another revision to a report or diagram, than squabbling with the client.
  • If your discussions don’t clear things up, and the additional work is going to be costly, then look for alternatives. Maybe give an additional readout to Executives, or show someone on their team how to compile the report.


Keep Calm & Keep Talking

Every suggestion above comes down to 2 things: 1) Understanding what needs to be done & 2) Being able to talk it out with the client. Both of these require you to stay calm and not escalate before taking clear stock of the situation. Client’s are rarely trying to screw you. Most want ongoing relationships with vendors that they can trust. Start off by assuming that it’s a misunderstanding, not a Machiavellian scheme to kill your margin.

Ask questions, keep smiling and be honest about the costs and stakes.


  • Benjamin Disraeli via Tablet Magazine
  • Dilbert “Infinite Loop of Changes” from (I tried the embed code, but had to hack it to show the image. Please don’t sue me).
  • “Y U No Pay Me” from MemeCrunch

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