Having (some) tough clients can make you a better agency.
We agencies all dream of polite and understanding clients, who know what they want, set reasonable goals, are communicative and write checks quickly.
But in the real world, many agencies find themselves dealing with certain clients who change requirements regularly, set extremely high targets, ignore our advice, chase shiny new things, give sudden deadlines, are unable to reach when we need, panic when things go wrong, and never admit any problems on their side.
"Firing a client" is easier said than done, and in many cases, it’s not an option. In the spirit of "What cannot kill you make you stronger," let's look at the bright side--having tough clients in your work portfolio is a positive force that can make your agency better.
There are two types of tough clients: the high-demanding clients, and the unreasonable clients. Both can have positive impacts to agencies, if handled properly.
Tough clients who set extremely high requirements often force us to work beyond our existing capabilities and achieve new heights. It sharpens our skills and expands our limits and experience.
Most of us know how Apple employees thought of Steve Jobs; most of them were terrified by his "reality distortion," but they realized that helped them create better products.
Tough clients ask tough questions, and in the process of providing answers you gain a whole new level of knowledge and understanding about the field. We need to look deeply into the client’s business, as well as the nature of our services, to figure out what really makes sense and is achievable, and what does not. Even when we have to say NO, we know exactly why and it makes communication a lot easier.
Dealing with tough clients forces us to think carefully about the level of "acceptable fairness", and master the art of communication to maintain that balance. We know how to build rapport in advance, and use that positive influence to speak with clients when we need to push back. We know how to avoid "thin-skin" reactions and deal with tough situations smoothly to keep the work flowing towards the goal and maintain the client relationships.
And dealing with tough clients makes working with other good (but less-tough) clients feel like a vacation. We’re more appreciative of the good clients we have, as they remind us to treat our teams and clients fairly because we know how unfairness can make us feel.
Here are a few ways to make working with tough clients easier:
Set boundaries early on BEFORE any problems arise. At an early phase, clients are more likely to accept boundaries. This will help you gain a strong foothold to work with them later. When conflicts arise, it’s often too late to set barriers.
Build positive client relationships BEFORE you need them. Find allies on client teams who can listen, understand and lend a voice when you need help.
Understand your client team's pressures and goals, and move the project toward helping them achieve their goals. Know WHY they need to make tough requests. Sometimes you go an extra mile to make their life easier. At the moment in need, clients will be flexible to make your life better.
Communicate early, communicate often. Have a clear plan to achieve the goal, and frequently communicate that plan with the client to ensure they’re on the same page. If something goes wrong, make sure you know about it very early on, since fixing problems early is much easier.
Let clients know all the little results you achieve along the way, as those small achievements and successes will help neutralize some tough situations down the road.
Share stories about some tough experiences you’ve had in the past in casual conversation. That’s a gentle way to remind clients not to act the same way.
When clients go off-track, show them the potential outcomes of their choices, and let them decide. Clients will be responsible for their decisions.
When clients panic due to some sudden events, remind them that making quick assumptions or accusations may not be the right approach and it’s better to take time to figure out what is really going on.
When you need to push back, state clear reasons WHY, and offer alternative options that can potentially be more acceptable for both sides.
Handling tough clients is more of an art than a science. Getting it wrong can drain resources and bring endless headaches. But with the right approach, we can turnaround difficult situations, build healthier client relationships, do better work and become better agencies.