How to Deal with Difficult Clients

How do you work with a really difficult client?  While it seems like a daunting task, it’s important to always begin your process with any client with clear communication. That is the easiest way to set the ground work for a successful client relationship. But that doesn’t mean that you won’t still run into trouble, so here are some ways to help you navigate even the most challenging of expectations.

Understand Their End Goal

Whenever I begin to work with someone, I make a strong effort to understand what their end goal is.  If you have an idea of why the person wants what they are asking for, and understand their thoughts on how or why certain things need to be achieved, then you can allow yourself to integrate your expertise, and have a base understanding of their flexibility with the process.  It’s important to ask thoughtful questions at this point and if you sense that they feel your questions are contrary to their plan, emphasize that you want to have a thorough understanding of how you can maintain their end goal throughout multiple scenarios, and prioritize everything accordingly.  

For example, if someone says they must have fire dancers at their event, but the venue does not allow it, don’t just say “we can’t do that.”  Ask why they specifically want fire dancers.  Would they be interested in an alternative light/dancer performance with LEDs?  Is there a significance to this type of entertainment, or might they be open to something else?  Who has the final approval on entertainment options?  Understanding the goal and chain of decision making can helps you identify your client’s workflow and thought process.

Be Clear About Your Communication Process

You don’t always have a say so in who you are working with.  Depending on your company’s organizational style, if they have been passed on to you, it’s good to make sure you get as much detail from their original contact as possible, and even if you have to apologize, review all of the details in the beginning of your interactions with them to make sure they feel good about the plan you have for them.

At the earliest stage, make sure you’re clear about the expected frequency and preferred style of communication.  Do they prefer weekly zoom or phone calls?  Do they want email updates?  What kind of information will they be anticipating in each update?  While you should have a plan for regular checkins and consistent communication that reflects your business’ process, it’s also important to make sure that the client has the same interpretations of what is being offered so they do not feel that they are waiting on deliverables.  

It is always a good idea to recap any phone or zoom conversations with an email within 24 hours of the discussion and include next steps and who is responsible for which deliverables.  If you need something from the client before you can proceed to the next step, make sure to note that in the email and put a note in your calendar to follow up a few days before it’s due.  

Manage Timing and Expectations

We know that there’s always that one client who expects all of your time because “they’re paying you.”  While that may be true, never forget that your time is not unlimited and it’s important to consistently maintain boundaries.  Do not answer emails late at night and on your scheduled days off (like weekends and vacation), unless you plan on doing so consistently.  And in case you were uncertain, you shouldn’t.  When you interact, it sets the tone for your clients.  Being overly available makes them feel entitled to continuous access to you.  If necessary, set away messages at the end of the day or before your weekend.  Sticking to your set availability keeps clients from over-reaching.  It’s important to ensure one client does not prevent you from getting work to your other clients, who have also paid for your services.

Be Aware of Pressures, Deadlines & Budgets

It’s not always you.  One of the best lessons I learned in managing difficult people was from the GM of my first restaurant job.  I watched him deal with every complaint under the sun. As a new manager, I asked him how he dealt with all of it.  He explained to me that mostly people want to get their frustrations out, and you need just listen to them, let them get it out of their system, and not take it personally.  Secondly, he would then ask “what do you think should be done?”  This allows you to get a sense of their expectations about a potential solution.  I have found that this mindset applies in nearly every situation. 

As an event planner, you may find that people are upset because of pressure from their boss or higher-ups, or perhaps they are having personal issues.  That’s why it’s important to iron out the end goal at the beginning, so then in those scenarios you can ask “do you feel the goal has changed from our original discussion?”  “Would you like me to make some adjustments to our current plan?”  One of my most successful questions for changes in event details is “what do you want the guest experience to be?  How do you want them to feel?”  The reason this works is because whether it’s a wedding or a VIP client appreciation, most people are truly spending money to ensure that the guests have a particular experience that reflects well on them.  If what the client is proposing to change does not match that goal, reinforcing the guest experience is a good way of explaining how you might want to work through new ideas, or changes. Remember, you are the planner, that is why they are paying you and it is important to stick to your guns! If you don’t believe something will work, explain why and be prepared to present an alternative.

Be Concerned & Interested

We know what we’re doing (most of the time), and the client hired you as a planner because you are the expert.  However, when a client brings you an update or is generally being difficult, while the instinct is to roll your eyes, show concern with the understanding that this person, who does not have your expertise, believes they have a problem.  Expressing to your client that you genuinely understand they feel there is an issue is the first step in keeping the relationship civil. (Going back to my old GM’s advice of letting them air out their frustrations.)  Ask questions and make sure you get to the heart of their issue.  

Present Alternatives with Reasoning

I find that when I have a reason behind an alternative, it’s usually not a problem.  Especially if you can demonstrate that it’s either a money saver or better for the guest experience.  “I love that you want to do customized gift boxes for the group.  Based on your budget, we can substitute the group’s menu option with the 3 course meal instead of the 4 course meal to accommodate the cost of the custom option, or we can offer a standard gift box which is less expensive.” 

I think that alternatives are the most important option.  Don’t just say “no, it won’t work.”  For some of you this may seem obvious, but I’ve seen the less enthusiastic planner say “no we can’t” and move on when they had an opportunity to improve the client experience.

Swap Out Teammates

What if you have a client that pretty much hates you?  While it’s rare, it’s happened and I’ve found that when someone is unhappy with you, they just want to speak to someone else.  Regardless of the reason, sometimes you just need to give that person a breather.  If it’s a long-term project, it may even be a scenario where you evaluate the value of this person’s business, or if you are not in charge, have a further discussion with your boss about how to continue in a way that maintains a good client relationship. If you are stuck with this client, with no other people to add to the mix, start by asking what you can do today that would make them feel better about working with you. If it is something you can not provide, you should again work with your boss and let them be the other person. If your boss doesn’t do this already, encourage them to have a conversation with you and the client together where your boss talks through a plan, ensuring the client that you will be executing the details per their discussion. While you might never be your client’s favorite person to work with, it is still in good form to show that you want to do your best to create an effective working environment and get them what they need.

Say No If You Need To

As an entrepreneur I can do this, but I know not everyone can.  However, there is a level that goes beyond an unhappy customer.  If you feel a client is harassing you, is inappropriate or goes beyond standard “tough client” behavior, it may be time to cut them loose.  You will certainly need to talk to your boss about the situation, and assess the most appropriate action moving forward.  Hopefully you or your company has evaluated the client in the prospective stage to determine if your business is actually a fit, but we all know that situations can change.  If you have exhausted every option, and worked to appease all situations, you might just have to cut ties.  It sucks, but you’re allowed to do that.  And I emphasize this to my ladies in business.  Do not put yourself or your team in a situation that feels unsafe or uncomfortable.  No client’s dollars are worth that.

Article written by Jessica Dalka – Twitter: @JessicaDalka | Instagram @ChicagoPlanner | linkedin.com/in/dalka


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