I was talking recently with a friend of mine who was struggling to handle the requests of a client. The project had dragged on longer than anticipated, with deadlines missed and more than a few feelings hurt. It reminded me of an adage that was repeated often from my time doing similar work at an agency -- "get on their side of the table."
Every conflict, no matter how big or small, can be boiled down to expectations not being met. Sometimes this is because they were not set correctly -- the client expected the work in six weeks but the vendor already knew it would take eight. Other times it is a communications breakdown that a change of the work to be done also resulted in another constraint changing -- the final bill increased because more scope items were added.
I tried to understand what had happened in this case, but he honestly wasn't sure. One is often left feeling powerless in these cases, particularly if tempers have exacerbated the conflict.
Getting on the client's side of the table refers to attempting to see the situation from their perspective. It's a mix of active listening and shifting the conflicts off of entrenched positions to areas of agreement. If time is the enemy, find ways to wrap up work faster (balanced with changes in scope and budget). If budget is the problem, see where work products can be delivered sooner with responsibility for quality control shifted back to the client. In all cases, you are working with the client towards the best solution and finding what they are comfortable with. The vendor is not the adversary, nor is the client.
One key ingredient is empathy. Imagine if it was your money or your time. What would you want you to do? The reason this project was ever awarded to an outside vendor is because the client was unable or unwilling to tackle it themselves. There is risk in accepting a project of any size.
Most client conflict is preventable, but not all conflict is unavoidable. Communicate early and often time constraints. Agree on the scope, and approach all changes to that scope as a fresh agreement. Account accurately for your time, even if it isn't all billable. It helps improve future estimates.
Above all else, be empathetic. Get on their side of the table before conflicts arise and help clients navigate the trouble spots.