Most of us have dealt with The Difficult Client. The one who expects your attention at all hours of the day or is never happy, or often abrasive to deal with.
You’ve probably got your own definition of what “difficult” means in your agency – perhaps it simply comes down to those clients who hold projects up indefinitely by not being timely with feedback.
Difficult clients can put your agency in a tricky spot: you would prefer to maintain relationships and work the situation out, but you’re also mindful of the impact on your business, maintaining your good reputation and delivering a client experience that upholds your standards.
Assuming they haven’t done anything completely intolerable and you’d prefer to find a way to work things out before deciding to cut and run, we’ve got some strategies for dealing with difficult clients and attempting to salvage the relationship.
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#1. Clarify (Everything!) From The Beginning
Difficult situations often could have been avoided if only clear expectations were set up-front. We’ve discussed previously how you should nail down your project terms early to manage expectations and avoid scope creep. Another key point at this early stage of a client relationship is to listen.
“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” – Ernest Hemingway
What expectations does the client have of what is included in the project? Do they bring with them certain pre-conceptions of scope and timelines? It is important that you hear them out early and determine whether there is any disconnect between what they expect to happen and what you usually include in projects of their sort.
Just. Listen. This is a key part of client communication and will help you to deal well with any difficulties.
Your project scope and contract documentation are essential and useful for you to point back to, but remember a lot of clients will not pay close attention to the documents. Listen carefully to what they’re saying and look out for any red flags that indicate they’re not familiar with the scope. It will be much better for you to clarify this early than to have to point out to them part-way through that something is not included.
An example of this is on large projects where your agency provides part of the deliverables, but not the entirety of the project. Sometimes there will be an assumption that you are involved for other phases of the project, when in your eyes you are signing on to specialize only in your deliverable. This doesn’t usually make for harmonious client relations later on, so clear up your role early.
What If We Weren’t Clear?
Ouch. Ok, if you are in the situation where there is a disconnect over roles and expectations because things weren’t clarified well in the beginning, you’ve basically got three options:
- Go with what the client wants, especially if there is potential for a large contract in the future.
- Reach a compromise.
- Have a (possibly difficult) conversation with the customer where you ensure that those things which should have been clear in the beginning are spelt out.
Most of the time, you want to avoid the first option. Even if that client could be a source of big projects in the future, you will be setting a precedent that you don’t want to have to continue if you want your role to be clear and your business to operate efficiently.
Compromising could be a good idea if it’s not going too far for your agency. If a compromise is going to end up costing you money or impacting on the ability of your business to provide good service, then it’s not a good one to be making. That would leave everyone’s least favorite option…
… have that difficult conversation with the customer. Quite often, the magnitude of the conversation is blown up more in your head prior to having it than what ends up happening in reality. Have your facts lined up and make sure you spell everything out very carefully. Again, listen to the customer and get specifics from them about any concerns. Things will go a lot better for you if the customer perceives that you are hearing them out and addressing their concerns.
Importantly, keep a level head and avoid being confrontational. If your customer makes the kind of statement that riles you, try a tactic such as what Mike Michalowicz suggests and (in your own head), tack the statement “from my limited experience” onto the end of it. This can help soften your perceptions and keep you calm in the face of any ignorant talk.
#2. Archive Everything
So many project difficulties can be traced back to that “what I did” vs. “what the customer perceives I should be doing.” Your best strategy in these cases is to have carefully archived every conversation so that it is a simple case of pointing back to what you agreed.
Keep careful records of everything, including conversations you have had over the phone. A good way of ensuring that everything is kept up to date is to use a strong project communication tool to record and summarize everything. So if you’ve agreed to a particular strategy over the phone, head straight to your project software and update it with dates and agreed actions.
#3. Adapt Your Communication
Mike Michalowicz has a story that really illustrates this point:
“Recently, I was advising a client on how to implement better business strategies, when he started to complain about a difficult customer. I sat in on one of their meetings, and I could tell right away that it was my client’s words that were creating the tension, and my client wasn’t even aware of it.
For example, my client said he would “hash out the details” at a later date, and his customer cringed. His customer tended to use less confrontational terms like “bring clarity” rather than “hash out.” I suggested that my client listen carefully in their next meeting and mirror the terms that his customer used. It worked like magic. They were on the same page, accomplishing what needed to be done, with zero conflict.”
This is something you need to be aware of right from your first meeting with the client. Not only is the language you use important to mirror, but the way in which you communicate should be suitable for eliciting the appropriate response from the customer.
For example, you might find that a certain client completely forgets about checking things they need to clarify if it’s left to them to look it up in your project software. That same client might respond very quickly if you were to send them an email with clear bullet points showing them what to do.
Act early to identify your client’s communication style as well as their preferred (and most responsive) communication channels.
#4. Show Them Evidence
Sometimes a client will have opinions about the work you do without necessarily having prior knowledge (or evidence) to back these thoughts up. If your difficulty with the client stems from them having an opinion on how something should be done which is contrary to what you know is the best practice, have some clear data to show them why it should be done your way.
In this kind of situation, once again it is important that you remain level-headed and don’t automatically leap to a defensive response.
Calmly organize information to show them why you prefer a certain strategy. If possible, show them examples of your strategy and how it is working in real-life. This works even better if you can relate it back to the business goals of the client. For example: “if we incorporate X into your web design rather than Y, testing has shown us that conversions improve between 10 to 20%. This potentially means higher sales volumes for your business.”
#5. Know Your Limits
You’ve kept calm, you’ve explained everything clearly and you’ve adapted your communication style to meet with the client, yet you’re still having difficulties dealing with them. It’s generally a last resort but sometimes you’ve got to “know when to fold ‘em.”
If you’ve tried everything else to be accommodating (within reasonable limits), then you need to have clear boundaries for what you will accept in your agency when it comes to dealing with clients. When those limits have been reached, it is for the good of your business and the welfare of your team that you need to let the client go.
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Despite our best efforts, anyone who works with clients is going to end up dealing with difficult ones at some point.
Often the root cause of difficulties can be traced back to a lack of clarity over expectations and issues causing communication break-down. The best way to deal with this is to be absolutely clear from the beginning, then update often to ensure you remain on the same page. Keep careful notes of all conversations and communicate using channels that are suitable for the client.
Keep calm throughout and always have evidence to back your thoughts. A “difficult” client doesn’t have to remain that way; often a good, clear conversation is enough to get the relationship back on track.