Managing Client Expectations & Difficult Clients
I want to address an issue that I know a lot of creatives and business owners deal with…difficult clients. Have you ever had one of those? That client you dread seeing emails from or that client or customer that just does not respect your boundaries or your process, and they are completely unrealistic in their demands.
The good news is, the more experienced you are in your business, the less difficult clients you usually have because you learn how to weed them out. But sometimes one slips through your radar and it’s important to understand how to manage them AND how to prevent issues from cropping up in the first place. Today I’m going to give you some tactics and strategies that I’ve learned over the years in working with both hundreds of engaged couples as well as consulting clients in both, setting yourself up for success on the front end of the process AND what to do when the working relationship takes a detour and jumps the tracks and you need to get it back on track.
First you HAVE to set expectations on the front end, as soon as you begin working with a new client. You can do this within your proposal or contract or (my preferred way) you can explain your expectations and boundaries in a welcome letter or guide AND review them together either in person or on a call, whatever type of interaction you usually have with your client. Because let’s face it, people don’t usually read, or if they do skim through it, they aren’t going to remember it, especially once weeks or months go by. So it’s important to actually talk them through everything and this also gives you the opportunity to explain WHY your process is what it is and WHY you have these boundaries and expectations in place. This also gives them a chance to ask questions so that there’s no confusion, no negativity and your working relationship is off to a great start.
Before we dive into the actual boundaries and expectations you need to set, you must explain the process of working with you from beginning to end. People need to know what to expect because people are a lot calmer when they know what’s to come and how it all works.
This is why doctors insist you take a childbirth class BEFORE you have a baby. When you’ve never done something before, you want to feel informed and prepared. Because as humans we are really uncomfortable by the unknown. You don’t want your clients to ever feel uncomfortable in working with you. You might have sold them on the features and benefits of working with you during the sales process but very often people don’t explain the exact steps of how the work is going to get done.
On a further note, your process is YOUR process. You get to dictate how it goes. So often I see business owners start letting the client steer the ship or they start letting the client dictate what works best for them on how and when the work should get done. Yet how you run your business is up to YOU. Your client is paying for a solution to their problem, and for RESULTS, but they don’t get to dictate HOW that solution happens because that’s your job. Make sure you have a clearly defined process or methodology and stick to it. You’re steering the ship, not your client.
Once you’ve taken the time to walk your client through the entire process of working with you and hopefully gotten them really excited to get started, now is when you should talk expectations and boundaries. And here are the most important ones I’d recommend including:
1) Your communication policy. How and when will you communicate? Will you handle everything via calls or meetings? Will you just hop on the phone anytime or are all calls prescheduled? Do you offer email support as a part of your process? Are they allowed to text you or Voxer you? What about messing you on FB? Personally, I don’t do texting for clients. I reserve that for family and friends only. I also abhor FB messenger. I can’t keep track of messages coming in from 87 channels so when it comes to clients, it’s either email or Voxer. Decide how and when you will communicate and how often they should expect to receive updates from you. Don’t leave people hanging or they get upset. Also, what is your response time for your communication? Will you respond to all communication within a day? Within 2 days? Only during normal business hours? Again, clearly lay out exactly what your client can expect.
2) Your hours. When do you work? When can your client expect you to be working? There is nothing wrong with working only two days a week if that’s how you run your business. But make it clear to your client that your working hours are Tuesday and Thursday from 9 AM to 6 PM and that’s when they can expect to hear from you. In addition to when you work, your working hours, explain what your meeting hours are. For the longest time I was so afraid to tell wedding clients that I only took meetings 1 day per week. But my studio space was 45 minutes from my house and once I had kids, I couldn’t be driving out there 3 or 4 days per week. If they wanted an in person meeting, it was going to be on a Tuesday, and if that didn’t work for them I was happy to jump on a video call instead. Once they understood I wasn’t trying to be difficult and that I was just trying to maximize my time so I could do my best work for them, they got it. The important thing is to communicate these boundaries on the front end.
3) What happens if there is a problem? If something isn’t going right or if they aren’t happy with something, what’s the process for that? Would you prefer that they email you? Schedule a phone call? Be sure to give them direction as to how you’d like to handle it if something unexpected arises.
Hopefully, by explaining your full process to your client and communicating your expectations and boundaries, it’s smooth sailing from there and everything moves forward swimmingly.
But what if it doesn’t? What do you do if things get off track?
You need to course correct. The best way to do this is almost ALWAYS in an actual conversation with your client. Tone is very hard to detect in writing especially in the way that people usually write via email or text so always always always, pick up the phone or schedule a time to hop on a video call.
Let’s say your client is unhappy or they don’t like how something was handled or they are confused. Whatever the issue is, you want to get ahead of it with a conversation. Don’t just hope that it will go away. The first thing to do is remind your client that you are ON THE SAME SIDE. You both want the same outcome (hopefully). You don’t want them thinking that you are the enemy for any reason so begin by reminding them that you are on there you team and you want them to be happy.
Then LISTEN. Don’t interrupt, don’t talk down to them, just let them get whatever it is off their chest. If you know you can resolve things right then and there, do it. Give them a solution. If it’s something that might require some additional time or work on your end, schedule a follow up conversation. Whatever you do, don’t cop an attitude or get negative, that makes things worse. You can course correct while still keeping things light and happy.
Reiterate your boundaries and expectations if you have to, while also remaining light and happy. Sometimes an issue crops up with a client because they aren’t respecting your boundaries or process. Remind them that those exist so that you can do your best work for them so they need to be followed.
Once everything is resolved, it might be worth it to follow up in writing. That way there is a paper trail in case an issue crops up again in the future. Just recap what you discussed and what the resolution was. Again keep it positive.
Now once in a while, hopefully in an extremely rare circumstance, there is no possible resolution and it might be time to cut ties with your client. How do you know if it might be that time? Personally I feel that if someone does any of the following, it’s time to cut ties:
- Disrespects you as a person
- Repeatedly doesn’t respect your boundaries or processes
- Your client is just NEVER going to be satisfied or happy, no matter what.
But by screening your clients well, setting clear processes, expectations, and boundaries and by working to mitigate any issues as soon as they crop up, you and your client with enjoy a productive and positive working relationship!