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7 tips for dealing with difficult clients

7 tips for dealing with difficult clients Nanette Marcus

In a perfect marketing world, your client's C-suite leadership would never change, clients would promptly return your emails and phone calls, invoices would be paid completely and on time, and no one would ever question your campaign strategies. Sadly, that isn't the case. However, you don't have to let those obstacles stand in the way of your success.

We reached out to some industry veterans to find out their best tips for handling difficult clients.

Find common ground

Reid Carr, president and CEO, Red Door Interactive

If you've been in this business for any length of time, you will face your share of challenging clients. The key that I have always found is to find a common understanding of how everyone is measuring success and then building pathways between the two sets of expectations (ours and theirs). I usually find that the high-level sets of expectations are fundamentally in alignment, but the steps toward getting there -- the how -- are in question.

Sometimes clients have a very particular path they expect to traverse to get to the desired end-state; however, we believe that we were hired because we know what is best. We can make the mistake that we think that our clients are operating in a vacuum and don't have other forces pulling on them. We have to be sensitive to their world.

The more we break down the rationale behind all the small steps in our plan without being tied to the simplest, most direct path, the more we can come to an agreement about our approach. Often we find out that difficult clients have other powers they are trying to appease or have other motivations beyond those at the surface level. Once we get into the "why" discussion and work hard to read between the lines, we can better understand the dynamics they have to work within. We can help them solve not only the big problems, but also all the ancillary ones that have little to do with why we were hired in the first place. Those little obstacles, if we always try to run through them, will make everything a struggle, but if we see those obstacles as a part of the problem to solve, we can turn that difficulty into why we maintain a long-standing relationship. We have the map to getting circuitously, yet most efficiently, from point A to point B.

Listen instead of getting defensive

Adam Kleinberg, CEO, Traction

Don't get defensive. When clients are unhappy about something, I have often seen people's first instinct be to start preparing their defense in their heads before a frustrated client even stops talking. The problem with that is that if you're thinking about how you're going to defend yourself before your client has even closed their mouth, you probably weren't doing all that good a job at listening. And listening is the most powerful tool you have. Listening matters because there's no way you can solve a problem if you don't know what the problem is. And good listeners are rare in this business.

This idea comes full circle. Think about anyone you have ever described as "being defensive." It's not something you say about people you like. Now think about people who actually listen to what you have to say. You're more likely to like them. If you're more likely to like them, you're more likely to trust them, to have a relationship with them, to treat them respectfully. Your clients are humans, too, and they feel the same way.

Make it clear from the start

Mark Naples, managing partner, WIT Strategy

How we do what we do is something we regard as a major competitive differentiator. Prospective clients know on the way into any engagement with us that reporters and analysts depend on this differentiator. For example, among the hundreds of companies and other people we've worked with, we've fired two CEOs for lying on the record. Honesty is obviously paramount in any relationship. But, confidence well above that basic expectation is paramount in a business like ours.

We once had a client go rogue on us, and she was quoted in a Wall Street Journal article that ultimately cost her her job. We use that and the guys who lied as examples to make clear to prospective clients that, if they are to work with us, they have to engage on intellectually charitable and transparent terms, or else we will leave immediately while they will suffer whatever consequences arise, whether we get to bill for the last 30 days termination or not. The relationships our business relies on are too important.

Focus on building trust

Doug Robinson, CEO, FreshDigitalGroup

One of the main issues in any relationship is building trust. People do business with people they trust. If you want to generate repeat business, high-quality referrals, and more profitable sales, then focus on developing a network of clients who trust you.

To do that, you need to:

  • Learn to listen. Be a good listener. Never assume, and don't hesitate to ask questions until you understand your clients' needs fully.

  • Have a good understanding of the business. It's important to know what solutions have worked in the past for your clients and to have ideas about how to improve them.

  • Show your passion for their cause. However, for integrity, you also need to be a critical friend.

  • Make referrals. This one is powerful on many levels. Support your clients, partners, and suppliers through this habit, and you'll find some of the richest personal interactions you can ever enjoy in business. 

  • Remember who's the star. It's tempting to think you're clever when you solve a seemingly intractable problem, but a successful business is always run by those with humility and who remember that the customer is always the star of the story.

Know when problems are out of your hands

Kevin Ryan, CEO, Motivity Marketing

Having spent most of my life in the agency world, I've found that "difficult" can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Some of my best long-term business relationships have stemmed from challenging beginnings, while others were irrevocably toxic and should be cut out like a cancer. I have worked with thorny client and vendor relationships, and most of the time difficulties arise from ignorance on one or both sides of the equation. Digital marketing is complicated and inherently challenging to anyone who doesn't understand it. A lack of standards in the space contributes to the problem, and definitions of products and services vary wildly. In other words, difficult situations are unavoidable. Most of these difficulties can be addressed with proper communication and an exhausting commitment to ethical behavior and over-communicating.

In 20 years, I've seen all forms of bad behavior. Clients demanding either gifts or kickbacks for contracts. Media vendors offering a variety of "incentives" or enticements to buy ads that included all manner of sins. Self-declared expert consultants attempting to discredit your work to line their own pockets.

One of the most difficult situations arose from a scenario just like the one I described. I lost a client relationship once because the CMO -- one of several in a two-year time frame -- of a major clothing brand hired a consultant with his own agency. (We call that a conflict of interest.) The consultant was hired to evaluate our work. Campaign performance was beyond acceptable, but the new "client" found fault in everything we did. Constant requests to review our work were accompanied by disrespectful treatment of my people. To an outsider, it might be an easy decision to cut the client loose. And in retrospect, I probably should have, but that's easier said than done when you are on your own and you have bills to pay. In the end, the client decided not to honor their agreement, and to this day, still has a few very large outstanding invoices.

I managed to connect with a couple of their other partners, and it will come as no surprise to you that they owed quite a few companies money. You see, quite a few of these companies hire out work and incur enough debt to make it prohibitively expensive to collect the money. In a nutshell, legal fees to collect an $80,000 debt will cost you more to collect that debt with no guarantees. And they know that.

Lesson learned? As hard as it may be, one of the greatest skills you can learn as an entrepreneur or in business is the very fine line between difficulties that arise from challenges with a potential resolution and those that simply cannot be resolved. Oh, by the way, this company still operates today and continues to do these things.

Have patience during the changing of the guard

Lori H. Schwartz , managing partner, StoryTech

It's very difficult for any resource and their business unit to gain momentum when there is frequent leadership change. With each change comes a new leader with a new vision or strategy, and everyone has to start from scratch. Coupled with the fact that new leaders often bring in their own teams, along with long periods of uncertainty where even the best intended resources are jockeying for positioning.

What this has done for the marketing industry is create a culture where to succeed, it's sometimes best not to rock the boat, but to deliver on very specific KPIs so that you don't get noticed negatively or positively -- simply seen as a competent team player. The reality is that most KPI-based management processes have people working in silos, and they're not encouraged to work across teams. This makes it very difficult to navigate in today's disruptive marketplace where a lot of the new technology and new consumer behaviors require "buy in" from multiple business units at any brand or agency.

The digital world and all that it's driving does not work in silos. That being said, this makes it very difficult to move new ideas, new processes, and new services through a company when you're trying to sell in a new idea. You often get stuck in the "I want to do this" mentality with a client without ever getting sign off because you are being cautious, you are uncertain, or frankly, because the P&L that you are responsible for is a moving target. So in my opinion, it's less about having a difficult client and more about encouraging leadership stability and giving the C-suite more time to establish results rather than encouraging a culture of musical chairs.

Look for opportunities amongst the challenges

Denise Zimmerman, president and chief strategy officer, Netplus

It's not personal. They didn't answer your last three emails or calls, but it's not personal. Difficult clients are more often than not a product of difficult or challenging circumstances. Timely responses to questions and other needs has become an increasingly pervasive challenge as demands on time and resources are more stretched and diverted as ever.

Here are a few tips to deal with this for joint successful outcomes and deeper, more productive, long term client partnerships.

First, consider your client's broader business climate. Were they recently acquired?  Is there new leadership? Open up a dialogue about it. Demonstrate interest and support relative to their internal challenges, how it impacts them, and their ability to respond and succeed overall.

Consider alternative forms of communications or even ways to get the work done. Text messaging and even direct tweets have proven to be effective for some and welcomed.

Make sure there are clear, timely, and transparent communications about the ramifications of delays and lack of response. Timely updates to project plans and timelines need to be shared and distributed clearly outlining the impact to manage expectations as well as motivate action.

In sum, seemingly difficult clients may present opportunities to elevate the relationship and outcomes. Here's to more happy clients and great work!

Nanette Marcus is senior editor at iMediaConnection.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet.

"Business people arguing" image via Shutterstock.

Nanette is iMedia Communications' executive editor.   In addition to her roles at iMedia, Nanette has served as a specialist in content marketing, editorial content, public relations and social media for various clients. She's contributed to...

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