Why you shouldn't "let go of difficult clients"

I recently read an article entitled “Letting Go of Difficult Clients“, written by Amy Berger and featured in the August 2006 issue of The Costco Connection. I do not agree with the views she expresses there.

While there are times when a relationship with a client has to be severed, none of the conditions presented by Ms. Berger in her article are truly qualified. What’s more, they encourage a sort of irresponsible attitude, where consultants who don’t comprehend the meaning of the client-consultant relationship and the level of trust that’s involved with it, fire clients on a whim, severely endangering the projects with which they’re involved.

Let me go through her article and explain what I mean:

  • “The client seems ambivalent.” This is perfectly normal. I don’t know of many people that can afford to spend thousands of dollars without carefully considering the options. I also don’t know of many people whose schedule allows them to do the things they’ve planned all the time. Unexpected circumstances always come up and delay things. If you fire a client based on a delay that couldn’t be helped, you’ll end up looking like a heel. If you hang in there, you not only get the contract, but also gain a deeper level of trust with the client.
  • “You can’t tell who’s boss.” Exactly how can you help someone’s immediate and unexpected transfer? Sure, if you want to lose your contract, go in there and blow off steam about how “disorganized” they are. But if you want to keep the contract, you go and meet with the new principals, and agree on how to move forward.
  • “Your communication styles don’t mesh.” Since when have two people’s communication styles meshed completely? Let’s get serious! There are husbands and wives who don’t manage their communication well, and they live together day in and day out. It’s your responsibility as a consultant to be flexible, and work with the client to ensure proper communication.
  • “The client is overinvolved.” Most people take some time to get sold on a new idea. The more different this new idea is from what they’re used to, the more time it takes for them to understand it, and it takes yet more time for them to trust it. If the client doesn’t get back to you immediately with feedback on what you present him or her with, wait, and occupy yourself with other projects in the meantime. Give them gentle reminders from time to time, and express your availability to discuss the project further if needed. Eventually, they’ll come around, or they’ll move on. But let that decision be theirs, not yours. Exactly what do you lose, as a consultant, if you spend a minute or two a week crafting a short message to remind the client of the project? You only stand to gain a contract, and your gentle persistence will help soothe the client’s fears.

Let me give an example to illustrate this last point. Two years ago, I started working on moving a client’s offline, paper-based business, to an online website that would automate the tasks she did by hand, saving her countless hours of drudgery. She was used to the paper process, understood it well, and knew it worked. But she also knew she needed to make a change, because managing it on paper took up too much of her time. When I put forward the idea of a website that could do all she did on paper and more, she was reluctant, but I gently persisted, and with the aid of mutual friends, she was finally persuaded to go forward with the project.

Within a year, she started to see the benefits, and got excited. But it took two years for her to realize the full potential of moving her business online, and now she finally admitted that I’ve changed the way she does business. She told me she now realizes how easy it is to run her business this way, and has started to look for a house in a different area, because she no longer has a need for a physical presence in the area that her business serves.

What’s the moral of this story? If you expect a client to change their views based on one presentation or a meeting, you’re kidding yourself. It takes time, months and even years, for people to make sense of something that’s completely new to them.

Now here are the circumstances when you can start thinking about firing the client:

  • He or she doesn’t pay the bills. I’m not talking about delays of weeks. That’s normal, and with big businesses, that’s even expected. Something tragic may have even happened that has severely limited their finances. But when they keep saying the check’s in the mail, and it never arrives, that’s when it’s time to get serious. Verifiable lying is always a good indicator of a client that needs to be fired. Besides, the problem of non-payment is easily solved by always asking for a percentage of the project upfront. That way you’re guaranteed at least a part of the payment, and if need be, you can get the other part with the aid of a mediator or a lawyer, although I’ve always tried to avoid those routes. Our society is litigious enough as it is.
  • He or she abuses your time. By this I mean several calls a day for weeks on end, that you know are unnecessary, and that review the same objectives, time and time again. There’s nothing wrong with checking on your progress, in particular if the deadline is looming or the project’s critical, but when you start to screen your phone calls because you fear he or she might be calling and they’re going to waste your time once again, that’s when it’s time to re-evaluate your relationship with the client. I’m not saying you should fire them right away, but you should try to set boundaries. They can be as simple as limiting the contact to 1-2 phone calls or emails a day, or more complicated, depending on your relationship. Only when that doesn’t work is it time to think about severing the relationship.
  • The language or behavior gets abusive. It’s normal for a client to get upset, or feel frustration. People have different temperaments, and some get upset more easily. Change is usually one of the most common reasons, because it prompts fear. People fear the unknown, and when they’re afraid, they get upset more easily. Technology is another frustration-inducer. It’s hard for an older individual to catch up with the younger folks who’ve grown up with technology and can speak its language. Don’t misjudge a client’s frustration for truly abusive behavior. Instead, look for a pattern. If the behavior is always angry and abusive, then this client’s not for you, and I daresay, not for anyone.

But if you messed up, and the client calls you, and he or she is angry or frustrated, whose fault do you think it is? Theirs or yours? Don’t try to escape providing good customer service by blaming the client! That’s my fear when I read Amy Berger’s article. On one level, she’s encouraging consultants to provide half-hearted service by bailing out when they feel like it, and that’s just not right. It pays to always examine thoroughly what’s going on before jumping the gun and firing the client. You’ll find your relationships with your clients get much more rewarding that way.

Oh, and if Amy or any of you still feel like firing your clients willy-nilly, send them my way. Tell them to go to Exprimare and to contact me. I’ll see if I can help them.