Working with “difficult” clients

Published On: January 1, 2015Categories: News

Anticipating what makes a client difficult for you can
help to resolve problems before they swell.

So you have a client you don’t like to work with. Have you taken the time to figure out why? What is it about working with this client that bothers you?

Is it the client’s lack of communication? Or too much communication from the client? Is it the pace at which he or she makes decisions? The way they change their mind and then change it back? Is it their budget (unrealistic, too low or non-existent)? Is it that, after months of planning, your client is still exploring the internet for inspiration and ideas, resulting in the need to rework plans in weeks or even days? Is the client telling you the job is yours, while still comparing you to others, then expecting you to offer your level of service at someone else’s prices? Maybe it’s because they don’t seem to respect your boundaries. Maybe it’s because you’re a morning person and they’re not. Maybe it’s something else entirely.

While the specifics are different, these situations have one thing in common. The problem is usually not the client that causes you stress or difficulties; it’s something about the client’s actions or reactions. Identifying what can provoke a reaction in yourself, and determining ways to manage your response to those triggers, can help put you on a path toward smoother and less stressful vendor-client relationships.

Recognizing your problem client

I’ve been in the event business for more than 15 years, and in that time, there have been a few clients that our company, J J L Events Inc., didn’t want to work with, and for a variety of reasons. Most of these situations resulted from a reaction (either ours or theirs) to a situation, rather than the people themselves. And many of those same situations arise for marine fabricators, as well (as they do for many businesses).

It could have been the way the client preferred to communicate (for example, rarely responding to our communication, or sending too many text messages), their expectations (an unrealistic time-frame or budget) or their perspective (how they viewed a situation, with or without all the necessary information). It could be anything, really—and it’s different for every event professional. The type of person (or personality) I find difficult or challenging might not be the same type of person that causes your headaches.

Among my colleagues, each has a different response when asked what type of client or situation challenges them:

  • The client who becomes a good friend because of the amount of time spent working together. The relationship grows beyond a business transaction, but can suddenly become strained when money is discussed. It can be a painful lesson to remember to keep money part of the conversation regularly.
  • The client who has concerns but doesn’t speak up, so there is tension simmering with every conversation, until the concerns reach a boiling point. Getting to know your client and recognizing when they are becoming stressed gives you the opportunity to try to resolve potential issues before they become problems.
  • The client who is not sure what he or she wants, and it becomes your problem to determine what the customer wants and how to provide it. This can be an opportunity to showcase your strengths and creativity as a marine fabricator.

What type of client challenges you? What are you saying about that person? What are you admitting about yourself?

Recognizing what kind of customer behavior or temperament can bother you is a step in the right direction to figuring out how to better work with different types of personalities. And what bothers you with one client may not bother you with another client. The circumstances and your frame of mind are factors, too.

Anticipating difficulties

For me, the initial visit is a good time to get a “feel” for the client. Do our conversations flow easily? Is the topic of money uncomfortable? Can the customer articulate his or her expectations? Are we in sync when we’re discussing ideas for the project? Do we understand one another, or is additional explanation necessary? Is there anything that seems not quite right?

This analysis isn’t about figuring out how to encourage them to sign a contract; it’s about whether I can recognize any potential problem areas between us. I try to take a step back before I need to, so that when I’m in the middle of the usual stress of work, I am somewhat prepared in case the client begins to fall into the “difficult” category.

When stress levels are rising, it is very difficult to set aside emotions and step apart from the person or situation; to see the problem from a different perspective and in a better context. Maybe your customer has had a bad day, or something has been misunderstood, or maybe they are having similar issues with you. Sometimes the problem is not about the project specifically, but that’s what suffers.

I like to be able to chat with our clients to make sure that the plans we’re making on their behalf are what they had in mind. It’s frustrating when emails, voice messages and even text messages go unanswered, especially when a decision needs to be made. It’s their seeming lack of concern regarding these details—the things that help make a project special one—that can be bothersome. When that happens, what often works best (even in this day of 24/7 electronic communication) is a face-to-face meeting, where we can hammer out lots of details at once. When I send clients a list of questions or an agenda, they can consider the details and issues before we meet and our conversation flows smoothly. I am sure they get my message, and I know they care about the decisions.

We know—and you should, too—that we are good at what we do, and we realize this isn’t about us. By paying attention to all the details, you can communicate good news to your customer and be confident that things are going well.

Managing your response

I haven’t found the answer to the question, “What’s the best way to work with a difficult client?” Every customer and situation is different. But here are some suggestions that can be applied in many circumstances:

  • Use empathy. How would you want to be treated?
  • Without assigning blame, determine why there is a problem (emotions/mood, mistake, miscommunication, a bad day at work, etc.)
  • Offer counsel, work out a compromise or
    negotiate. Remember it’s not always about
    the job at hand.
  • Always be respectful of those involved. Whatever your responsibilities are, you
    probably don’t know the whole story.
    And you would want to be shown respect, regardless of the situation.
  • Be aware of your emotions, and how they
    contribute to the problem.

Now, when you have a customer you don’t
like to work with, because you’ve taken some time to figure out why and to assess what it is that bothers you, you are better prepared to
manage the situation.

Melynda Norman-Lee is event project manager
with J J L Events Inc., Toronto, Ontario.