Delivering Bad News to the Project Client

delivering bad news to the project clientDelivering bad news. It’s never easy and never fun – unless you happen to be one of those individuals who enjoys the shock value in such communication. I don’t. And I’m guessing most of my readers feel that way too – we are, after all, professionals. Maybe when we were kids and happened to have a chance to tell on one of our siblings…ok, that was fun sometimes…but…

Now consider this. You’re a professional leading large multi-million dollar projects for big corporations. Your job and your reputation depend on good news, successful projects, on time deliveries, and happy customers. Do you want to be the person sharing bad news with high priced clients? Well, yes. No matter how hard you want to try to avoid it…if the bad news is out there to be shared, you must do it. You can’t sugar coat it either. These people are more than your clients…they’re your partners in this engagement. It’s their money you’re managing and spending and you must tell them. But you must do it professionally. If it’s done right, you’ll have them in your corner supporting you for the rest of the project. But timing and honesty is everything, so do it and do it right. The only time I waited far too long to share bad information was at the direction of my PMO director and it was a very bad plan – the customer ended up losing confidence in our delivery organization and canceled the project after spending more than $1 million. Ouch.

In general, I’ve found it helpful to follow these four steps (three if the level of severity or financial/schedule risk is too low to involve senior management) when discovering and then sharing bad information with a client….

Analysis of the situation with your project team

For the purpose of this article, I’m assuming the bad situation was discovered by the project manager or someone on the delivery team – not the customer. If the customer discovered it, then everything changes. No matter who on the delivery team identified the problem situation, the first course of action needs to be a group meeting with your team to brainstorm on the problem and quickly come up with one or more potential courses of action.

Discuss the problem and proposed solution with senior management (if appropriate for the level of severity)

Next, meet with your senior management or PMO director to discuss the problem and the potential courses of action. Get their buy-in before taking it to the customer. They may even want to be part of that customer discussion, which brings us to the next step.

Discuss the problem and proposed solution with the project customer

Next, as the PM leading the project, you’re in charge of all communication so it should be you who initially reaches out and informs the customer of the issue – don’t let your supervisor do it. When I led the Las Vegas PMO for a midwestern organization and the company was shutting down due to some issues with our CEO/Owner, it was me and not my VP that went to my clients to inform them of the situation. Fun times…but it had to be done and it ultimately led to the biggest client offering me a lead position with their organization.

Following that initial contact, hold a more formal call with the customer to discuss the problem in detail and present the potential courses of action that you and your team have come up with. Try never to just bring problems to the table – always bring potential solutions as well. Brainstorm with the customer on the top corrective action choice and make sure everyone is in agreement on next steps.

Implement the proposed course of action

Finally, move forward with the corrective action and keep this as a separate status item on an ongoing basis on the status report and as part of the weekly status meeting until the issue is resolved.


We can’t always just bring good news to our clients. We can, however, make the bad news more palpable by thinking it through carefully and also bringing swift corrective action possibilities that help engage our customer in the solution. It’s their money you’re playing with – hiding problems from them will not make them go away. And they may end up having the best solution to the problem anyway because they truly do care about your team’s success on the project.

How about our readers? What tactics do you employee when analyzing difficult situations and sharing bad news with the project client? Let’s share and discuss…

Brad Egeland
Brad Egeland

Noteworthy accomplishments:
*20 year provider of successful technical project management leadership for clients across nearly every industry imaginable
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*Noted for successful project management and financial oversight for $50 million Dept. of Education financial contract/program
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