The Upside to Working With Difficult Clients: Lessons Learned
So you’ve just had an awful client experience. This isn’t about one or two hiccups or disagreements—that’s just ordinary professional relationship wear and tear, this was bad. Really bad. As communicators, we know that sometimes things like this happen; we just can’t see eye to eye, despite the fact that we’ve been hired to help reach a mutual goal.Well, what can you do now? A little perspective can’t hurt – take a little scroll through Clients from Hell for the comic relief, and then sit down and perform your own little post-mortem to divine the lessons learned.
Was it a personality clash?
There are countless reasons as to why you may not get along with someone. When people clash, it often has to do with different communication styles. Did your client overstep boundaries and text you frantic demands at 2 am? Did your client not quite understand your social media report metrics, and get defensive and nit-picky as a result? Did your Account Executive make a blunder in an early meeting that set the stage for a lack of trust? Or, was your client, honestly, just kind of mean?
Work is the last place that you want any kind of conflict as it takes away from your ability to do your job, and to do it well. Instead of focusing on the frustration you are feeling, use this situation as a stepping-stone to avoid future conflict. Get clear on what actually went wrong, and evaluate how professionally and quickly you were able to cut ties and move forward. Take the answers to these kinds of questions back to the drawing board and develop or clarify new policies to that you can set better expectations, and have greater self-awareness about what types of clients are the best fit for you.
Did you ignore red flags?
You’ve already gone through a not-so-pleasant experience with a client, so identify what it was that drew you to them and their project in the first place.
Perhaps you were working with an incredible fashion house or that up-and-coming beauty line all the editors love. So what. Companies are made up of people, and your ideal client is never going to be a nightmare hiding underneath an impressive brand name. If you made the mistake of choosing to work with a client based on name recognition, ignoring signs of internal strife or unrealistic expectations during the proposal process – canceled meetings, endless rounds of approval on a contract, even sales expectations – it’s time to call this a lesson learned.
Did you stay too long?
In public relations we’re so used to saying “yes, yes, yes,” that we forget that it’s also okay to say “no.” Dealing with a difficult client helps us realize what kind of professional relationships are worth saving, and what kind we’re better off tossing. After all, you can’t make room for a wonderful new client if your current roster is bringing you down. And you can’t risk your media relationships for clients who refuse to send samples, don’t show up for interviews and aren’t interested in developing something newsworthy you can pitch.
Its natural for our first instinct to be that walking away is giving up, an admission of failure. So we stick with clients and projects we dislike and aren’t passionate about. But it’s ok if you realize, in the first few months of working together, that you and a client just don’t fit. Be honest with yourself about who you want to work with, and who you don’t.
Working with difficult clients teaches about what you like and don’t like. Sometimes these relationships can be ultimately very gratifying, as you grow in your own professional skills and learn how to navigate difficult situations and strong personalities. But sometimes, it’s just a bad match. Learn what kind of clients are a fit for own business goals by taking the time to constantly check-in with yourself. Finally, develop an ideal client profile that clarifies what you are looking for – both in terms of industry, budget and personality – and use that to guide your outreach efforts.