No Surprises: The Right Way to Talk About Project Risk With Your Clients

Daniel Walsh Environment • Consulting • 5 minute read

You might be surprised by the title of this post – after all, assessing and communicating risks is an important part of working in the environmental consulting industry. We often pride ourselves in our ability to accurately determine environmental risks using the latest empirical and modeling techniques, and we’re paid to communicate these results to our clients.

Rather than focusing on environmental risks associated with contaminant releases, incomplete data, or a poorly understood geologic setting – the stock in trade of the environmental consulting industry – I want to talk about “project risks” – risks associated with unforeseen difficulties that cause a project to fall behind schedule, exceed the desired budget, or produce results that are inconclusive or conflict with a client’s business interests. 

Why communicate project risks?

We would all like projects to go as planned. Unfortunately, in the real world, many things can go wrong. In some cases, a new influx of data may contradict earlier findings, necessitating additional data collection and analysis. In other cases, external forces such as regulatory or legal actions may force a change in course.

Since project delays can have financial implications for clients, the ability to communicate project risks effectively is one of the most valuable skills a consultant can cultivate.

There’s another reason to make sure project risks are effectively communicated: to protect the foundation of mutual trust that consultant-client relationships are built upon.

Deliver Next-Level Environmental Service

Execute better, exceed expectations & win new business with Arkit.

If a client is taken by surprise by a delay or complication, their trust will be undermined, putting future collaboration at risk. By communicating project risks effectively, consultants can ensure that their clients have an accurate, realistic understanding of what might go wrong so that they are prepared for challenges.

During my time as a communications consultant, I’ve picked up some tips for effective project risk communication. Here are six I’ve found to be particularly useful:

1. Understand your client’s approach to risk

If you’ve gotten to the point where you’re ready to communicate project risks to a client, you’ve probably developed a good understanding of how the client business operates. Make use of that knowledge!

Is the company looking to expand and willing to take risks? Or is it risk averse – not in a good financial or business position to undertake risky projects? The best way to understand your client’s approach to risk is to have a frank conversation early on in your relationship.

2. Communicate risks positively

When explaining project risks to a client, it’s important to frame them in a positive light – if your company completes 80% of projects within the original timeline, that’s good news!

Explain and quantify possible causes for delays, and make sure to highlight why your company is more adept at reducing risks than your competition.

3. Avoid planting false hope

I’ve seen it many times – a client is behind schedule, poorly organized, or encountering some other kind of difficulty. They want a consultant that can make their troubles go away.

Unfortunately, there’s only so much a consultant can do when a company runs into trouble – and, in these cases, the possibility of project failure due to external factors must be realistically considered and communicated to clients during the planning phase. It’s always better to exceed expectations than to fail to meet them.

4. Question you client’s decisions

If your client wants you to conduct your work in a way that you see as high-risk, don’t be afraid to propose well-reasoned alternatives. Consulting is one field where the customer isn’t always right – if they were, they wouldn’t need to hire you!

Pursuing high-risk projects just to please a client and win a contract doesn’t pay off in the long run. Ultimately, you will be seen as more valuable if you are able to provide innovative advice and consistently reduce risk.

5. Keep your client focused on the right risks

Many clients are busy juggling projects, each of which may involve several contractors. The more risks you present, the less likely your client is to pay attention.

To find the right balance, many successful consultants work with their clients to develop a risk communication plan, which provides criteria for deciding which risks should be presented right away which should be monitored by the consultant but not communicated to the client.

6. Use experts to build credibility

As a liaison between your company and your client, you may find yourself discussing project risks outside your area of expertise – and clients can often tell. Using the wrong jargon or failing to understand the culture of a given specialty may undermine your client’s trust.

To avoid coming across as a jack-of-all-trades, involve relevant experts within your company in the risk communication process. Nothing convinces like words spoken by a professional!

Further reading

If you want to dive deeper, take a look at these links for further reading - “Communicating Project Risks” from the Project Management Institute, and “Communicating Risks in Managing Projects” from the Sound Idea Digital Blog.

There’s a lot more to be said about project risk communication, but I hope these six tips got you thinking a bit more about effective strategies, and can help to avoid project surprises, and protect your valuable client relationships.

Connect with us - we're on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.