Becoming self-employed takes a lot of confidence and patience. Nevermore so then when it comes to situations with “problem clients.” While we all wish self-employment was filled with the perfect, ideal clients, unfortunately, anyone who has been self-employed for a while inevitably has clients they would consider less than ideal. You may be more than familiar with that anxious feeling when you see an email from them in your inbox or when caller ID announces they are phoning you.
These are the clients you spend way too much time trying to please, but never really succeed at it.
They may pay and they may stick with you, but the relationship feels more draining than mutually beneficial. Rather than accepting this troubled situation, however, you can take steps to improve it. If you've found yourself in this situation, give one of these five suggestions for converting your problem client into an ideal client a try.
#1 – Set Expectations
Many client/customer relationship breakdowns result from a lack of clarity when initial expectations for the relationship are set. A review of most “problem” clients will reveal that their expectations and yours were not in alignment as the relationship evolved. The simplest way to correct this often core weakness is to take a timeout with the client, explain that you believe you did not set proper expectations, and ask the client to engage in resetting them in a way that is more satisfactory to both parties.
This is where a clear contract at the beginning stages of the relationship can be extremely helpful. Make sure both sides understand what's expected and that you are both on the same page. Then, follow up periodically to help avoid any miscommunications or misunderstandings along the way. Sometimes the issue could literally be caused by one party thinking something means one thing, while the other thinks it means something else entirely.
#2 – Communication
Typically, a communication breakdown contributes to the creation of the “problem” client (and can also often solve it). If you and/or your team are accustomed to communicating in a certain way with your process, you may need to see if that communication mode is out of sync with that of your problem client. Some clients need more face-to-face communication. Some don't want any. Some only want to deal with one point person from your team. Others may want to interact with the others who are doing work for them.
A simple solution is to ask the client, either in person or by having them fill out a form, how they want to communicate, how often they want to communicate, with whom they want to communicate, and in general, which single way of communication (phone/email/in person) would be their preferred choice to communicate vital information.
#3 – Talk About Money
Does a problem client ever give you a hard time over money? Perhaps you should explore the compensation arrangement. If a client is stuck on either how much they are paying (i.e., too much in their mind), how they are paying (hourly billing, retainer, project basis) or when they are paying, then they may be stuck on a money issue.
A client who is stuck on a money issue, but is reluctant to bring it up is likely to transfer that issue to somewhere else in the working relationship. A straightforward discussion about money with the client that leads to a new, more client-friendly arrangement may clear the air and free the relationship up from the anxiety that was there because of the client's unhappiness about the financial arrangement.
#4 – Communicate with the Decision Maker
Frequently, problems arise with clients because there are too many people representing the client side in the decision making process. If you can narrow your primary relationship to one key decision maker, you will have at least reduced the number of problem people to one. Often, by insisting upon dealing with a key point person, you are freeing that person up to be the main decision maker, empowering them in a way that will make the relationship much clearer on both sides.
You may find that the client may also desire to deal with just one person on their agency's side. If you take the initiative to make this a one-on-one work relationship, you will find that the work gets done more quickly and effectively. You can adapt to one person's style rapidly. This often turns a problem client into an ideal one.
#5 – Increase the client's engagement
If the work that you perform for your problem client continually gets kicked back to you with vague criticisms and comments such as “This is not what I had in mind,” it's time to engage the client more fully in the work. Ask them to provide examples of work that they like that is similar to what they are asking of you. Schedule more face-to-face meetings when projects begin and elicit greater detail from them about what results they are seeking. Give them assignments so that they feel they have contributed directly to the end result. Not only are they more likely to approve of work in which they feel fully engaged, but they will likely believe that you have become a much better service provider.
How have you dealt with problem clients in the past? We'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!