February 15, 2018

How to Manage a Tough Client

And avoid the agony of a bad business relationship

A client is only tough if you make them so. And if you choose them so.

Entering into a work contract is like entering a relationship. You court one another, discovering your pros and cons, talking about what you’re good at and how you might be good for one another. Things heat up and you start spending time together, having long conversations, and all of a sudden, it gets serious. You’re ready to sign a contract.

But wait… is this moving too fast? Is this client “the one”?

It’s important to be clear-headed through the process of establishing a contracted project, regardless of who it’s with or how perfect it seems in theory.

When you’re thinking practically and strategically at the onset of a work agreement, chances are, your relationship with that client will stay that way. But if you rush in or ignore red flags, you could end up with a mess on your hands.

Everyone organizational styles are different, but you can set yourself up for success by taking a few smart actions before you draw up the paperwork.

How to ‘hire’ your clients using a dual-purpose discovery meeting

A discovery meeting is the perfect way to get acquainted with a client or team’s project needs. Depending on your industry, you will want to understand what the intended outcome of a project is, its deadlines and scheduled milestones, what resources are available, and what the expectations are for completion.

For this meeting, you’ll want to be the best version of yourself. Dress professionally and keep your materials organized, and come prepared to talk about your work style as well as to ask smart questions about their work style.

During that meeting you have the opportunity to discover who you may be working with as well. You know your working style – does your potential client or team fit into that style? By figuring that out early, you can design an organized project management system that works for all.

Questions to keep in mind during a discovery meeting:

  1. What’s their work style? Laissez-faire, Hands-on, Stressed, Grateful, Overbearing, etc. Does this mesh well with yours?
  2. What’s their team like? Can you work together? Are they open to collaboration?
  3. What’s the resource situation? Can and will they pay fairly, on time? Can they afford your services? Or will you have to sacrifice dollars for the sake of being on the project? Are you willing to do that, really?
  4. What’s their level of understanding with regards to what they “want”?
  5. How well can you work within their established infrastructure?
  6. Why are you taking on this project? Passion. Payment. Reputation. Other?
  7. What’s your life going to be like while you work with them? Is that propelling you forward?

How did that meeting feel for you? Did you leave feeling inspired, drained, excited, nervous?

It’s easy to feel excited when the client is excited. But think realistically before you say yes. Once you’re actually in the day-to-day work on this project, with this client, for this fee, will you feel satisfied?

Determine whether or not this is a client or project that will work for you. If you’re at the stage of your career where any project is a “yes” because you’re just getting started or in a heavy growth period, think about how you can make this work for yourself.

Consider what you learned about the client in your meeting, and consider sharing the differences with them. Politely, let them know where you see red flags or where you’re concerned your work styles might clash. Transparent communication is powerful and has the potential to create a deeper working relationship than if you had decided to “just put up with” the quirks that didn’t work for you.

Define terms that work for everyone

If you’ve decided to move ahead and work with a client, yay! Celebrate this exciting new step, and then get down to business — drafting a contract that is clear and will work for everyone involved. Here are some keys to a good contract or work plan:

  • Objective clarity is key. Collaborate with all parties involved to draft terms, expectations, and an outline of success.
  • Keep documentation current with all parties and be collaborative in your edits, as opposed to sending versions back and forth for “approval.” You can do this with Google Drive, Dropbox, and various other multi-user cloud programs that support document version updating.
  • Create an “Outline for Success”. Separate from your contract, write out what each party involved would view as a successful arrangement and successful closure of engagement.
  • Though it may seem awkward to outline terms for conflict resolution, understanding that there is a safe place to mess up, fess up, and clean up is your guiding light to staying kind when a situation goes south. Make a plan for how this will happen (because it very likely will happen at least once).

It may seem easy to templatize your contract system and give all clients the same terms. However, every client is different and customizing your terms will help you make a plan that will work well for each specific situation.

You can make a template of your own expectations that does not change from client to client. These are your non-negotiables, such as being paid on time.

Then you can work from an old client contract you have (so you don’t have to start completely from scratch) and update the terms to suit your new project. Ask the client to review the contract and present any questions or changes they may have. Working on the contract together creates mutual trust and collaboration from the outset.

If you already have a difficult client, let’s look at what ‘difficult’ means to you

When you already have a difficult client, a contract that doesn’t support mutual and collaborative interaction, or there are no terms outlined for conflict resolution, know that this is not a lost cause. No matter how frustrated you feel or how your client may have treated you, you have the opportunity to recreate your client.

What do I mean by that?

Take a look at some examples to outline what ‘difficult’ may mean to you:

  • Your client has communication issues: They communicate too much, too little, too vaguely, with too much criticism, inappropriately, or unproductively.
  • Your client doesn’t understand the timeline: They’re late or early to an unacceptable degree, they expect too much in too little time, they aren’t paying you according to your terms,  or they disrespect your time by expecting deliverables early.
  • Your client has an attitude problem: They’re rude, passive aggressive, criticizing; they expect you to jump whenever they say so, they call you outside of business hours, they get unruly or over-consume at what should be formal meetings, they speak poorly of you behind your back, or they’re immature.
  • Your client is un-pleasable, they don’t know what they want, or they don’t trust you.

How can you repair a relationship with someone this difficult to work with?

Start over.

This is a bold move. But a necessary one.

It’s time for you to schedule a meeting with your client, as personally as possible. This may mean meeting in person at the office or at a coffee shop, via video conference call, or at the very least, making a personal phone call.

Go one-on-one with the lead on the project or with the person that is deemably “difficult”, whichever is more direct. There’s no denying this requires courage, but this bold move could not only save your project but create a new, trusting relationship with a person you’re seeing as “difficult”.

During your personal meeting with the difficult party, it’s important to remain positive, direct, and completely objective. The conversation requires no personal degradation, no criticizing their performance or the performance of their team, and no excuses. Here’s what to include in this conversation:

  • Highlight the successes of the project: Share what’s working thus far and your gratitude for the opportunity to work with them or their team.
  • Explain the reason why you’re calling: You feel there are difficulties in the project that are impacting your collaboration that you want to address them and recalibrate before moving forward.
  • Give them the facts: Prepare these facts ahead of time and bring them up objectively, kindly, and clearly. State where personal interactions aren’t productive to the project, where are are technical or procedural issues impacting success, any situations in which you have felt uncomfortable, any breaches to established terms.
  • Ask them if there is anything missing for them: Before discussing solutions or dissolution, ask the difficult party if there is anything about the project, procedures, or personal interaction that is not working for them. Odds are, they’re experiencing challenges on their end that, when brought to light, can lead to a peaceful resolution.

  • Offer to collaborate on a solution, including a freshly drafted contract: Assure them that, barring any change to the work, that this is not an ask for more money or a change to the deliverables (unless it is), but more an opportunity to clearly define expectations, preferences, future conflict resolution practices, an an outline for success.

  • Create a follow-up appointment and determine what each person involved in the project will bring to this collaborative document: This is your new way of interacting with the difficult party. Clearly, directly, objectively, and collaboratively. By holding them and yourself accountable with a date and deliverables, mutual respect will grow with each interaction.

When dealing with a difficult client, toleration is not the answer

Using the tips outlined above, I hope you can transform the relationship with your “difficult” client into a productive, collaborative environment where each person involved feels satisfied with the progress and resulting accomplishment. These tips can also be used proactively when establishing a new client relationship, working in teams, even working at home with kids or family members who are obstinate to being told what to do.

Next time you’re presented with a person who seems “difficult”, ask yourself: “How can I understand their expectations, and they understand mine, so that there is no more difficulty?”

Hire your clients wisely, and manage the ones you already have with care and thoughtfulness. When you are clear with your expectations and make an effort to help the other person succeed, you cannot help but make things happen. The more effectively you manage and please your clients, the more new clients you will have — and the farther you will go.

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