Foolproof Strategies for Dealing With Difficult Clients [Part I]

I hate to brag, but I am one of those lucky people who absolutely loves going to work every day.

My job can be crazy, hectic, stressful, and challenging—but at the end of the day I head home happy, and in the mornings I wake up energized to go back. As a content developer, the only real constant is change. Regular contact with my clients is a huge part of the work we do, and is usually a pleasant and world-widening experience. But, for one reason or another, some clients seem determined to bring our well-oiled web marketing machine to a grinding halt.

Some clients are too controlling, attempting to micromanage and monopolize our time. Some are too distant, never returning calls and ignoring emails no matter how urgent the subject line. Whatever the cause, there will always be client relationships that push us to the very edge of our patience and abilities. For those of you that have yet to face these uniquely frustrating hurdles, or those that are currently stumbling and seeking a better way, I offer you some tips from my own hair-pulling, tooth-grinding, jaw-clenching experiences.

May you never need them.

Do Your Research

The rise in DIY culture, crowdfunding, and e-commerce have made it easier than ever to start your own business. Many clever entrepreneurs have launched empires from the comfort of their couch with nothing more than the deft use of social media and a single eye-catching idea. Our culture lauds startups and makers with the kind of admiration generally reserved for action film heroes.

While there are many wildly successful proposals out there that deserve every scrap of praise they receive for their creative approach to entrepreneurship, there are even more duds. Kickstarter campaigns show an average success rate of 43%. In a recent report it was revealed crowdfunding is, for the first time, poised to overtake venture capital in 2016, with an estimated $34 billion crowdfunded versus VC’s $30 billion. It stands to reason that there are also plenty of charlatans and nitwits out there, looking for their piece of the pie. Research is your best defence against tethering yourself to a story that goes viral for all the wrong reasons.

There is nothing wrong with taking on a startup as a client, but before they even walk in the door you need to be sure that you’ve done your research on the background of any principal members of the organization, as well as their company background as a whole. Ask questions about their experience and their goals. Beyond startups and small business, established companies can also have their fair share of organizational issues and power struggles. Remember that you are not trying to win a prize, or in this case a contract, at any cost—you’re forging a mutually beneficial business relationship, and you need to know exactly who you’re building that relationship with.

Engage with ethical clients to avoid future legal complications and PR quagmires. While many firms thrive on handling the ‘biohazard cleanup’ of damage-control PR, it strays into an ethical gray area that, at least for Applied Interactive, is a little too far down the rabbit hole for my comfort.

Manage Expectations

Let me start by making myself clear: strive for excellence in every way you possibly can. With that being said, you should avoid letting your ambition, or the ambition of your client, cloud your judgement.

Enthusiasm may be a key component in a successful marketing campaign, but it remains critical to stay in touch with reality. If your client has 100 Facebook followers today, don’t promise 100k by next week— especially if this achievement will do little to propel your campaign in the right direction. Discuss your clients goals, both in terms of overall scale and basic strategy. These kind of goals can create fantastic pressure to achieve, but make sure you’re setting the right goals, and using the right tools, before you go out to slay your giant.

Begin by setting attainable goals, and aim to surpass them. You and your client must both understand that success cannot be dictated or demanded overnight, but can be achieved by working hard and staying the course. Clients can get antsy when initial momentum begins to plateau, and may begin to suffer Tug-o’-War syndrome: the need to constantly shift control and directives from one person to another, rather than allow momentum to build and utilize that inertia to make a major impact when the time is right.  

When a client makes a sudden change or acts irrationally, and you believe their instruction will be detrimental to the project, be respectful but clear in your recommendation. If a client, still in the second month of their first website, begins micromanaging content and scrambling your SEO strategy based on a single blog they read last week, explain the reasoning behind your hesitation. In can be difficult to establish trust in your expertise when you work in a field that is constantly evolving, but you should make it clear to your client that your intentions are always in their best interest.

Base Decisions On Facts, Not Feelings

As a Star Trek fan, I think of the example set by Commander Riker. Even under threat of a court-martial, Riker stood his ground when he knew he was doing what was in the best interest of the crew. While your client is still the captain of the ship, it is your duty to provide honest feedback and protect the integrity of the business as a whole.

The core of content marketing sometimes gets lost in all the strategy and gameplay, but at the end of the day our job is simple: do whatever it takes to assist your client, build a strong relationship, and grow and advance their business. When clients throw out roadblocks it can be frustrating, and make that task seem impossible. But with a little patience and the right tools you can bring your client relationship from adversarial to advantageous, and perhaps even learn something from your client, too. Always remember: at the end of the day you are both working toward the same goal, and are on the same team. Still feeling like your client relationship is out of control? Stay tuned for Part II and learn how communication is key to getting your client back on track.

Do you have stories or examples of difficult client situations? How did you resolve them? We love to hear your tips!
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