No matter what industry you are in, no matter what type of services or products you offer, you have likely had a client that drove you crazy. You know the one. It’s the client who makes you debate answering the phone when you see their number come up on caller ID; the one whose emails you put off reading, because you know it is going to cause you problems; the one who gives you more stress than all the others combined.
While it can be an option to decide to part ways, in many cases those difficult clients can end up being your best clients if you follow a few simple rules.
1. Communicate. I agree with this OPEN Forum article that puts communication at the top of the list. It’s not just about sharing information, either, it’s about how you choose to frame the information. Choose your words – both on the phone and in written communication – carefully. Sometimes, it can be as easy as paying attention to how your client phrases things, and then trying to match it to ensure you are both thinking the same way. Other times, it’s about ensuring you stay professional and polite, no matter how many times you have to repeat the same information or go over the same action points again.
2. Establish your boundaries and stick to them. As this Small Business Trends article points out, if your difficult client insists on calling you off hours, take the time to sit down and establish the days and times you will accept their calls or answer their emails – and then stick to it. Let the off-hours calls go to voicemail and stop checking email once the day is over. This is easier said than done, and for some businesses, you need to be available off hours in case of emergencies. But set your boundaries for those as well – define what you consider an off-hours emergency, such as a Website going down, or a last-minute meeting they need your input to prepare for. You can still allow the calls to go to voicemail after hours,then listen to it and decide if it fits your emergency criteria or not. Same with emails. Check them if you need to ensure it really isn’t an emergency, but do not respond until business hours if it isn’t.
3. Involve them in the process. Your particular brand of difficult client might be a micromanager, who feels like they need to see, change and approve every step along the way of any given project or job. This can get frustrating, feeling like the client isn’t trusting you to do the work they are paying you for. One way to counter this is to involve them completely, not just in sending them final drafts to approve. Send them your proposed ideas and how you are considering implementing them. Ask for their feedback in the pre-planning stages. Ask more questions up front, before you begin, to set their mind at ease that you are paying attention and are focused on helping them get exactly what they want and need. With luck, once they see how you work, and how you arrive at your final destination, they will be more willing to step back and trust you to get the job done right.
4. Don’t be afraid to say “No.” As Inc. points out, the customer is not always right. If you disagree with the direction the client is pushing for, if you think the changes they are requesting be made to a project, are going to be wrong, don’t be afraid to say so. However, be prepared to tell them why you disagree. It isn’t enough to just say you don’t think something will work; take the time to explain to them exactly how and why the problems will occur, and back it up with your experience and knowledge – which is what they are paying you for. Granted, in the end your client might still insist on doing it their own way, but that brings us to the final suggestion:
5. Document everything. Clients are often busy too, and frustration and problems can crop up simply because they don’t realize that, along the way, you did exactly what they told you to do. This is especially true if you disagree with your client and point out reasons why you believe a different idea or direction would be better. You need to have the documentation to show them, when they come to you upset about poor results, that this is why you objected in the first place. Take notes on your phone calls, complete with date and time, on decisions made and any advice you gave. Archive your emails and text messages. This is not an invitation to throw something in your client’s face and say “I told you so,” however. It is more an opportunity to offer solutions – even if those solutions are the same ones you suggested in the first place.
At the end of the day, everyone has difficult clients. But most of them aren’t going out of their way to be difficult. They are often busy, have “always done it this way” or simply don’t understand how the solutions you are offering will work together. By taking the time to work with them and be a partner, you can get past the difficult stages and turn a client you once dreaded speaking to into your best and most loyal advocate.