Cultivating Great Clients

From the desk of Gretchen Johnson, President of InterCom and owner of WordPlay Marketing Communications

A friend and colleague reached out to me recently for advice. How do you deal with clients who drive you crazy? she asked.

The best answer isn’t always practical. Don’t work for people that drive you crazy. Unfortunately, we don’t always know what another person is like at the onset of a relationship. And sometimes we just like to eat too much to say no to a paying gig.

So how do we deal with problem clients? This particular friend wasn’t the first to pose the question. Here is my best advice for short-term and long-term solutions.

1. Find out what’s really going on. Sooner, rather than later.

In this particular case, the client was emailing and calling several times a day to ask for changes to their online content, which my friend had agreed to update. Is this new behavior? I asked. If so, why? I suggested she consider these possibilities:

  • It could be that she/he’s getting pressure from a superior and needs help. You could make your client a hero by assisting them in proactively addressing workflow or other internal issues.
  • Perhaps the project is the problem. Is the wrong audience being targeted? Is the messaging wrong? This isn’t a short-term challenge and the earlier you deal with it, the better.
  • Is there an underlying concern about your work? Or the value of what they’re getting for their money? If the core relationship has problems, it may be better to cut bait than to keep fishing. On the other hand, solving a problem together can forge a stronger relationship for the long term.

2. Revisit your original work plan. If expectations weren’t clear, clarify them.

There are many reasons we don’t take the time we should to clearly indicate how we plan to interact with our clients. We want to appear easy-to-do-business with. Statements like, No more than two rounds of client changes, may seem restrictive, or suggest that we can’t hit the creative mark within a round or two. These are lessons we often learn over time. One client’s confusion teaches us to preempt the issue next time. Not every challenge can be anticipated, but when they do arise, nip them in the bud.

I suggested my friend explain how repeated interruptions might result in a lousy end product. “Unless there is something actually wrong ” a serious language problem or an incorrect fact like a price or date ” the changes are best addressed by pooling them. One change can lead to the need for others. Batching changes once a day or a few times a week helps identify trickle-on issues your changes create. In addition to potentially wasting time, interrupting the creative process also stymies it.

Fast Company estimates that each interruption takes more than 20 minutes to get back on track. There is a cost for your time. To track my time, I use a phone app called TimeMaster from On-Core that lets me create client and project profiles. Then I just tap that item on my phone to turn on and turn off a timer for each project. At the end of the month, all my costs are pretty clear. I don’t always pass these costs on, but it does help me analyze my time and provide better estimates for future projects. Your client relationships will improve if you can set up clear expectations going into a project. I’ve seen some companies set up ranges of time/interactions and use a good, better, best approach to their fee structure. For example, We’ll provide 30, 90 or 120 minutes/month consultation as needed in addition to the specific parameters of XYZ project. Those costs are¦”

If the problem is simply that the client is disorganized and unable to provide changes and direction in a manner that facilitates good workflow, you have some options.

  • You can decide the project isn’t worth it and walk away.
  • You can charge them more appropriately for what they’re getting.
  • Or, you can try to find a middle ground. This approach should also result in extra fees, but perhaps you can pool the changes on your end. (Set up a smart email box, for example, for his/her emails, and agree to check them once or twice a day. This allows you to measure and charge for the changes. Ultimately, your client needs to know that you have their best interests in mind, but you’re also a professional and expect to be compensated for your expertise and your time.

3. Build an ideal client base

Some of the best advice I received when starting my business was this: think about the kinds of clients you want to work with. Imagine that every client meets your ideal profile. What would that be? What are their values and ideals? Their goals? How do they approach serving their clients? (Here’s a worksheet that may help you get started.)

This exercise is about more than identifying a particular niche and pursuing clients within that space. It’s about finding relationships that work. It’s about finding clients with whom you can create great results. From my experience, it works. I feel so strongly about this approach that I use it to describe my business. And after nearly 13 years as a small business owner, I find myself surrounded by clients who share my values. Clients who aspire for positive change. Clients I’m eager to work with every day.

Gretchen Johnson is President/CEO of WordPlay Marketing Communications, which specializes in helping individuals and organizations develop messages and tell powerful stories. A common thread among clients is their desire to reach higher ” and connect with and engage their stakeholders ” for the purpose of creating lasting and positive change.