In working with clients, you navigate a complex set of personalities and interpersonal dynamics. This comes with the territory and is also what makes agency work so interesting and even rewarding. Some of your clients will be amazing people who open new doors and help you to build your business.
Some of your clients, on the other hand, may be less than ideal—especially if they engaged your services when your agency was not well positioned to attract ideal clients.
You know the ones I’m talking about; They leave you with a knot in the pit of your stomach when you get on or off the phone. They constantly change their minds about what they want without acknowledging the work you’ve already done on their last great idea. These clients can drain all of your resources: your people, your finances and your emotions.
While it can be frustrating to feel trapped in a spiraling relationship with a non-ideal client, it’s important to recognize these interactions for the improvement opportunities that they provide. If you want a thriving, innovative agency, pull lessons from these client experiences and adapt your practices.
The most obvious thing that you can learn from non-ideal clients is how to look for better client relationships in the future, but there’s also plenty to learn from the situation at hand.
There are many important steps you can take to improve the relationship from your end, mostly by focusing inward. In the end, it’s likely that you’ll respectfully let the client go in the near future, but first try these try these ways to manage non-ideal clients:
1. Know What You Can Control
The first step to managing a non-ideal client situation is recognizing what is within your control. The answer is you. You cannot control what your client does or how they respond to you, but you can control what you do and how you respond to your client. Recognizing what is and is not in your control is the first step to managing the relationship.
2. Set Boundaries
Often, what’s perceived as a “bad” client relationship is really a lack of communication and poor boundaries. Do not make yourself available at all hours of the day for unlimited amounts of time. Clearly communicate when you are available and stick to it.
3. Position Yourself
One of the most common causes of volatile client relationships stems from a foundational positioning problem. If you haven’t clearly identified who you are and what you do within your field, you’ll find yourself taking on clients that pull you in multiple directions. No agency can be all things to all people, and lacking a clear sense of identity makes you vulnerable to splintering without truly focusing on any one area. Spend time determining what your niche is and make that value and position clear to potential clients.
4. Use Affirmative Language
No one likes hearing that things aren’t going to go their way, but if you are dealing with a difficult client, there is likely going to come a time when you are going to have to deliver that news. Maybe they have asked you to do something outside of the scope of your agreed upon contract. Maybe they are asking for you to do more work without additional pay. Whatever the case is, the conversation will go much smoother if you focus on what you can do instead of focusing on what you can’t do. Instead of saying, “I won’t be able to provide that service without additional pay,” say something like, “I’d be happy to discuss an additional contract for that service after I finish completing XYZ.” By drawing attention back to the work you are completing, you refocus the conversation with positive language.
5. Refer with Purpose
This one connects back to your positioning. Know what it is you do well and what’s worth your time and energy to pursue. If a client requests services outside of that expertise, have a list of references where you can send them instead. It will help you differentiate your service from others while still providing the client with the expertise they need.
6. Onboard Clients Meaningfully
You’ve surely heard the saying an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and that is definitely true when it comes to managing client relationships from the onset. If you invest a little time into creating a smooth and meaningful onboarding process, you can manage client expectations and set up clear channels of communication from day one. Check out this conversation between Sara Bacon, CEO of Command-C, for some ideas on how to onboard clients effectively.
7. Earn Respect Early
One of the best ways to prevent volatile client relationships is to show your value proposition early on. If you demonstrate yourself to be a valuable and reliable asset to your clients’ goals, they will recognize the importance of maintaining a smooth working relationship with you more readily. Make sure to provide clear deadlines for deliverables and meet them consistently with high-quality work.
8. Ask the Right Questions
One of the most common reasons that clients become unmanageable is because they aren’t sure what it is that they want. If you stop and think about it, this makes sense. If they were completely able to articulate what it is they wanted and how to do it, they’d likely be able to do it in-house or simply hire a commoditized firm solely to handle execution.
They’re depending on you, whether they recognize it or not, to steer them in the right direction and help them determine what it is they need. While some clients will be happy to take this advice directly, others need a more subtle guidance. Honing the art of asking the right questions about why they’re looking to make a change, what they want and how they will use it will help you plant ideas in the client’s mind that makes your job easier—and improves their overall impression of your work.
There will be times, like right now, when you find yourself in a non-ideal client relationship that you need to maintain through a period of transition.
Remember that these experiences are put in front of you to help improve as an agency leader, and to help your business evolve to reach its next level. View these opportunities and learn all you can from them—before moving on.