Managing Difficult Clients in Tough Times

The long arms of the recent recession seem to leave no stone unturned when it comes to business management and client care. One side effect of the recent downturn is a certain loss of freedom around client management, especially for small businesses. Where small businesses and service providers used to be able to pick and choose clients – at least to some degree – this is no longer the case.

While the bottom line is always a top concern in any company, one of the perks of owning a business has always been that during good times, business owners could decline projects from difficult clients. With businesses closing everywhere you look though, even a difficult account is worth its weight in gold. So how do you successfully, effectively manage a tough client or project? Here’s three steps to help you set the tone.

Step One

Communication is definitely key in this situation. To begin with, make sure that all of your brainstorming sessions are recorded. If they’re conducted on the phone, use a recordable conference call line and consider having the call transcribed if it’s not too long. Create a punch list that is confirmed both verbally, before the call ends, and in a follow-up email, specifically outlining who is responsible for what and what each party’s next steps are. Remember to keep phone calls short so that frustration will not show if a conversation gets tough.

Step Two

Make sure that the client submits all follow-up or ancillary instructions in writing, through your formal inquiry system – either obtaining a “trouble ticket” or a confirmation from you or your team. Verbally exchanged instructions can be a virtual minefield to navigate and can lead to ever-widening circles of misinformation and misunderstanding.

Step Three

Keep the boundaries clean and clear. If you do not work on weekends, and that is in the policy and procedures that you have provided to your clients, don’t respond to random emails with questions or updates during that window. Although you may think you’re providing great customer service, it definitely sends a mixed message. Obviously, real emergencies are a different story, but 99% of life or business will, hopefully, not fall into that category.

Another important boundary to keep in place is who does what. If you have a perfectly capable team in place and they have been empowered to handle IT issues, for instance, redirect your difficult customer to that team or individual. If you make yourself the “go to” person for everything under the sun, you will quickly find yourself mired in the day-to-day and unable to navigate the larger issues that really ARE under your umbrella (like funding and new business).

Finally, remember that from a client’s perspective, they are not difficult to deal with. Tough clients most likely consider themselves detail oriented, or perhaps even moderately controlling. But difficult? No. Most of us do not see that in ourselves. Remember, all clients need to be treated with the same level of courtesy and patience. Navigating the ups and downs of tough clients or projects not only protects your income stream, it also builds your referrals and your reputation. It says that you are an exceptional vendor and THAT is a reputation worth fighting for.

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