Reposted from Forbes Agency Council, June 3rd, 2022
Carol Levine, APR, Fellow CPRS is co-founder and CEO of Toronto-based public relations and corporate communications agency, energi PR, and a though leader on Forbes Agency Council. Here Carol joins fellow Forbes Agency Council PR, media, creative and ad agency executives on their Expert Panel to share trends and tips. To learn more about energi PR visit www.energipr.com and follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Regardless of their industry, most professionals will encounter challenging customers at some point in their careers. In the agency world, scenarios where customers aren’t satisfied with creative proposals or the results of a marketing, advertising or PR campaign are ubiquitous. In these cases, the key to ensuring a good outcome and a positive client experience is clear and open communication, which can be a tricky thing to achieve for some agency pros if emotions are triggered.
Some people are more adept at handling so-called “difficult” clients than others, and their colleagues can learn from their ability to defuse a negative situation and turn it around. Below, 16 members of Forbes Agency Council share concrete ways to improve communication between every member of an agency’s team and their clients to ensure that all interactions are smooth and productive.
1. Schedule Regular Meetings After The Kickoff
Regularly scheduled meetings can help agency teams manage client expectations, understand roadblocks and ensure that the client is served and supported. Touch points provide an important opportunity to build trust and solidify client partnerships. Too many companies schedule an initial kickoff meeting but don’t follow up with subsequent meetings, which can lead to a breakdown in communication. – Steve Ohanians, WebEnertia
2. Meet Face To Face To Show How Much You Care
Sometimes, the difficult client is being like that because they want attention—like a crying baby. When I sense a client starting to go down the difficult path, I try to arrange for a face-to-face meeting or a lunch where I can show them how much I care. If they know you care about them as humans and their success as professionals, they are a lot more likely to stay loyal to you and your agency. –Nancy Marshall, Marshall Communications
3. Establish Clear Standards And Boundaries Up Front
Difficult clients usually result from not establishing standards and boundaries early in the relationship. Fix issues by being clear and up front. Clients should know exactly what is appropriate and what isn’t. They should also know everything that’s included in your service and what’s not. Setting clear and measurable standards can go a long way in gaining a client’s confidence and empowering employees. – Robert Simpson, PR Associates
4. View Each Client Interaction Through An Empathic Lens
By truly listening to our clients and empathizing with their challenges and pressures, we can better understand their psychology. When our team views each interaction through that lens, we become positive problem-solvers, adding value rather than exacerbating a negative mindset. Build a dialogue rather than a one-way relationship. Communicate with thoughtful clarity and preempt any potential issues. – Paul McDowall, Clarkmcdowall
5. Know Clients’ Real Needs And Remember That They Are People
There are two principles that are critical to managing client relationships. 1. Understand what a client needs to achieve, not just what they want. 2. Understand that clients are people who have good days and bad days. It’s easy to get frustrated in client service work, but if you strive to stay positive, understand that feedback can be beneficial and give the benefit of the doubt, things usually work out. – Nathan Miller, Miller Ink, Inc.
6. Have Regular Client Meetings With The Whole Team
One concrete way of improving communication between team members and agency clients stems from having regular client meetings. These provide an opportunity for each agency team member to verbally contribute their insights or updates to a portion of the meeting. This helps the client become familiar with the whole team and allows the team to be comfortable interacting with the client. –Valerie Chan, Plat4orm PR
7. Ensure Team-Client Personality Matches On ‘Difficult’ Projects
Start by rethinking the composition of the team that is handling the client or the process itself. A personality match is mandatory in order to adequately serve the account. In the creative services industry, there are “difficult” projects that are often driven by short turnarounds; rush jobs often create worry and fear if the team member handling it is not used to the fast pace. –Goran Paun, ArtVersion
8. Show That You Won’t Tolerate Poor Treatment Of Staff
Mutual respect and tolerance are critical soft skills for managing all relationships, and especially those with difficult clients. Agencies need to demonstrate to their teams and clients that they will not tolerate poor treatment of staff. Let team members know you have their back and, if warranted, will kick a difficult client to the curb. The bottom line is, everyone is expected to act professionally. – Carol Levine, energi PR Inc
9. Focus On Exhibiting Empathy Over Expertise
The best advice I’ve given my colleagues when it comes to dealing with “difficult“ clients is to lead with empathy. When a client is being difficult, your expertise will never lead to a positive conclusion without first understanding the issues your client is dealing with. Once your client feels that you understand the situation, only then can you work together to resolve it. – Roger Hurni, Off Madison Ave
10. Have Clear Scoping Boundaries In Your Contract
“Difficulty” arises out of process. If you have strict processes and procedures in place and clear scoping boundaries in your contract, then you can simply hold any difficult client scenarios up against what you legally agreed to. Always ensure that you and your team go back to the “process docs” and remind the client of what they had initially agreed to with you. – Azadeh Williams, AZK Media
11. Have Client-Facing Zoom Meetings Each Month
For our first few years as an agency I believe we actually created most of our “difficult” clients through our poor communication. At that time, our lack of communication inhibited us from establishing trust and a clear understanding of their pain points. It may be a basic practice for many of you, but once we started having client-facing meetings each month via Zoom, it was a complete game-changer! – Jim Reynolds, Sofia Marketing
12. Show How And Why You Work And Where Clients Fit In
It’s tempting to push difficult clients away or create distance. However, an important foundation of good communication is empathy. And that requires the exact opposite. To build empathy, you need to show difficult clients how and why you work and where they fit in. So invite them to informal gatherings, encourage frequent communication and create opportunities to get to know each other better. – Chris Martin, FlexMR
13. Ask To Repeat Back Their Intention In Your Own Words
Most communication issues, particularly in technical projects, arise from subtle (yet important) misalignments that gradually accrue through the casual nature of conversations. When we recognize our client is stating an intention with important meaning, we literally ask to repeat our understanding of it back to them in our own words. It keeps intentions aligned, and it signals that we care about understanding their needs. – Johnnie Munger,Wonderful Collective
14. Train Employees On How To Work With ‘Difficult’ Clients
To have fewer difficulties with clients, you must have a proven plan of action that is applicable to all. Also, you need to hold training sessions with your employees where you can talk about the practice of working with such clients. However, remember that consistent professional behavior can preserve and enhance your reputation, so don’t be afraid to break up with some challenging clients. –Dmitrii Kustov, Regex SEO
15. Provide Clear Briefs With Complete Disclosures
All clients are difficult if you do not know how to communicate well. Give clear briefs with complete disclosures. Involve relevant team members in the entire process, from brainstorming to decision making. Keep them in the loop and create spaces for them to answer the client’s queries. This will equip your team members with the means to communicate better with the client when the need arises. – Candice Georgiadis, Digital Day
16. Institute A Three-Strike Rule For Difficult Clients
I was too late in realizing the damage that difficult clients can do. Now, I don’t tolerate problematic clients. They sap our confidence, motivation and passion. We have a three-strike rule. Everyone is entitled to bad days, but pathological bad behavior is not acceptable. It’s hard to sack a client, but my team is the most valuable asset in my business. It’s more expensive to tap dance around tricky clients. – Richard Cook, Champion Communications Ltd.