I recently had a chat with a friend who’s been dealing with a very difficult client all summer long. The conversation triggered a review of my own past experiences with challenging clients and the advice I wish I could go back and give myself. First and foremost, think that there’s really no such thing as a challenging client. There are however clients that you may not have figured out yet, and clients that require you to step up your own game.
The most common problem client, as in the case of my friend, is the person who keeps throwing a monkey wrench in the project. These types of clients tend to occur most frequently in creative fields like video production, advertising, marketing, web design, etc. You can double the tendency of this inevitable clash if they’re creative themselves, since most creatively driven sole proprietors are terrible at managing their own creativity.
A typical pattern of behavior for this type of client includes changing the direction of the project with unscheduled stops. Say, for example, you’ve worked on a project with routine check-ins. At random inspired moments, said client will request an unscheduled change and perhaps later complain about how long the project is taking as a result.
I’ve seen this type of client conflict the most in my own experience as a consultant. The trick to deal with this client is to have a system of measures in place.
The first half of the solution is to have a defined contract. Contracts should always detailed timetables and flexibility options. Let’s say they’re allowed three changes and they’ve met all three so far. Your job is to inform that of each change they’re about to use up and to make them sign an additional work order for more changes (which they have to pay for if applicable). This makes them realize the value of the work you’re doing, since for these types changes are as free-flowing as the wind. A properly worded contract will make it more difficult to have obscure changes and the tendency to have them will be reduced.
The second half of the solution is to have weekly newsletter emails from your company. This is your opportunity to essentially tell your clients things that would be otherwise rude to say to their face. So here, in your email, you can have a couple paragraphs that give “tips” on smooth project management. One tip could be the diminished project value when timetables and flexibility options aren’t respect. Throw in a couple of facts from studies and reports, and you might have gotten their attention without having to be so blunt about it.
The second problem client is the one with emotional outburst about how their project isn’t valued. Late night emails questioning your commitment and laced with subtle threats to find another vendor are usually triggered by irrational conversations that have been running through their minds. This happens, often enough, because it’s so easy to shoot of an unfiltered email, even a rude email, from the fictitious safety of the wall your computer screen.
To address this, you definitely want a blog post and an email campaign that shares an article your content strategist has drafted about the “damaging effects of emotional emails”…or something along those lines. There’s a strong chance it’s going to get read.
Next, you want to have weekly check-ins and progress reports for your client because you won’t know if they’re this type of client unless it’s too late and you’ve gotten this random passive aggressive email. Progress reports should be delivered routinely whether or not you’re actually meeting in any other way. The progress reports let the client know you’re on top of their project and that it’s a priority for you.
The trick to having happy clients is to anticipate their needs and solve their problems before they even know they have a problem. And of course, it’s to learn from your experience and that of others.
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