Relationships between agencies and clients can be...complicated.
I’ve had my share of client relationships that went well, went south, and went dead. One of the most frustrating types of relationships were with power-hungry clients that wanted to walk all over me.
These relationships were about power moves, and I certainly wasn’t the one having the power or doing the moves. What I needed was to exercise more control — the good kind of control.
Being in control isn’t about being arrogant or intimidating. It’s not about wielding dictatorial sway over your client underlings.
Instead, it’s about managing a successful and mutually beneficial client/agency relationship. You don’t want things to get derailed. You want to maintain a grip, so that the project succeeds, the client is happy, and you stay sane.
Why do you want to be in control? So you can serve the client better. It’s not a self-serving maneuver, but a client-centric approach that ends up benefiting you both.
Here are 14 ways that you can remain in control of even the most unwieldy clients.
1. First, screen the client.
To be completely forthright, some clients will not be controlled. They are unmanageable. I recommend developing a screening process in order to determine which clients are going to be prickly, and which ones will respect and work with you.
There are plenty of things you can screen for, but for the purposes of this article, let me identify three of them.
- Does the client have a sense of professionalism?
- Is the client courteous and respectful in conversation?
- Does the client reflect a willingness to follow your suggestions and comply with your requests even during the onboarding process?
Any warning signs in the early stages of a client relationship can spell disaster down the road.
2. Outline your processes.
When a client comes to you, you are the one who sets the stage for how things will proceed. You may tend to be flexible on such matters, but if you’re too flexible, it could spiral into a situation where the client thinks they outline the working conditions.
Make sure that you have a process for the following:
- Payment terms
- Terms of service
- Non-disclosure agreements
- Legal agreements
- Any relevant terms of service
Your “process” should be no less than legal documents signed and dated by both you and your client. If you’re unaware of how to wade into legal territory, check out this helpful primer from Entrepreneur.
These processes, agreements, and documents are the first line of defense against out-of-control clients. If the relationship starts to falter, refer the client back to the agreement.
3. Don’t ask for their budget. You decide that.
What’s the biggest area of problems between clients and agencies?
When it comes to budget, payment, pricing, etc., don’t get caught off guard. You’re the one who sets fees and determines pricing, not them.
Because you are the service provider, you decide how much you will charge. Obviously, there is always room for negotiation, but do not allow the experience to descend into a bitter haggling match. That will just get things off to a shaky start.
If you are experiencing client payment problems, you may have to escalate the situation to a legal issue.
4. Educate them.
A client comes to you because you provide something for them that they cannot or will not provide for themselves. That immediately places you in a position of authority and knowledge. You have a right and obligation to educate them.
How do you do this?
- Develop a posture of respect for them and their expertise.
- At the same time, be confident in your area of knowledge and expertise. Respect should be a two-way street.
- Use content marketing to publish authoritative articles and/or whitepapers.
- Use in-person or phone meetings to explain the why and how behind your work.
A client will respect an agency who knows their stuff and will be far less likely to get out of control.
5. Show them the deadline calendar.
Ranking right alongside money issues are timing issues. They are potential minefields in the client/agency relationship.
Before the project is underway, develop a full calendar of meetings, deadlines, and deliverables. At this point, you want to pull out your Gantt charts to display the activity completion schedule.
6. Meet your deadlines.
If you set a deadline, you need to meet it. Keep your Gantt charts handy in order to stay on top of the scheduling.
Clients tend to lose respect for you if you violate deadlines. The best way to keep from missing deadlines is to set generous deadlines to begin with. If you think you might exceed a predetermined deadline, talk to the client well in advance of the date in order to let them know what’s going on.
7. Have a communication procedure.
Some of my most stressful times as a project manager have been when clients call or email with “emergencies” after hours.
Emergencies are for 9-1-1, not my mobile number.
In order to prevent a train wreck, be sure to inform every client of the communication procedure. Let them know when you will be available and when you won’t be available. Set time expectations for how soon you will be able to respond to their inquiries.
Where I work, we have a loose policy of not replying to client questions within a 24-hour period. Why do we do this? So clients will know that we’re not a service hotline. How can we do this? We inform our clients of the communication procedure, and they respect it.
When a client knows that they can’t reach you right away, it creates an instant and powerful boundary. They respect it, and they abide by it.
Every agency is different, and you may wish to have different standards for communication. That’s fine. The important thing to do is have a communication procedure, rather than allowing your entire team to be rocked by some client’s panic attack.
8. Be professional, but firm.
I’ve found that one of the best ways to corral a client is to be professional with them.
Some people are naturally great at building relationships. They’ve got a friendly personality, a disarming approach, and let’s-hang-out attitude. This is the perfect kind of person for breaking ice at parties and making sales.
But how casual should you be with your clients? You’re going to have to draw the line somewhere. You obviously don’t want to be stiff, but you’ll run into problems if you’re too laid back.
In every interaction, stay within the boundaries of professional decorum.
9. Be a good listener.
People respect a good listener. In his classic book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey wrote, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
Your ability to listen is a strong communication bond that will calm volatile clients. When you truly listen, a client knows that you understand their situation. Many times, that’s all they want. They simply want you to see things from their viewpoint.
That’s a helpful viewpoint to have — seeing things from the client’s perspective. You’re able to better identify areas of improvement, potential areas of derailment, and serve the client with this knowledge.
You can head off a lot of problems simply by listening better.
10. Be prompt in your delivery of promised items, both preliminary paperwork and project deliverables.
You’ve heard it before, but it’s worth saying again: Overpromise and underdeliver.
I can’t come up with a more succinct and tactical method for client satisfaction. A satisfied client is a controlled client. You’ll satisfy clients if you can deliver more than they expect.
Here are a few examples of how this plays out.
- Promise: I will send you the report by Thursday at 5pm.
- Deliver: You send the report on Monday at 2:15pm.
- Promise: I’ll call you with the details on that schedule.
- Deliver: Prior to the phone call, you send the client an email with the schedule and send him five calendar invitations for subsequent phone calls over the next two months.
Promise low, but deliver high. The client will be pleased, which means that they are far less likely to get out of line.
11. Stop the first sign of scope creep.
Scope creep refers to “uncontrolled changes or continuous growth in a project's scope. This can occur when the scope of a project is not properly defined, documented, or controlled. It is generally considered harmful.”
That’s the clinical dictionary definition, but that doesn’t get anywhere near the terrorizing effect that scope creep can have on an agency and the client relationship.
To put it in raw terms, scope creep happens when a client whines for more than you’ve agreed to give them. The scope of the project is trampled by persistent request for additional time, tasks, resources, and personnel. The result is stress, exhaustion, and frustration.
At the earliest indication of scope creep, you need to reset the expectations of the client. Be clear about what you’ve agreed to, and insist on remaining within those guidelines.
12. Stay in touch with them on a regular basis.
Sometimes, clients can spiral out of control all of a sudden. More often, the process is gradually. The client hasn’t “spiraled out of control” as much as they have drifted away.
Why does this happen? It happens due to lack of communication. If you aren’t communicating with the client regarding their project or your progress, you’re allowing that client to drift.
Maintain regular contact — weekly is best — to handle any concerns, answer any questions, and let them know how the project is going.
13. Resist intrusive phone calls and emails.
You don’t have to be available at all times. If the client expects this, demands this, or whines because he doesn’t have it, then you have to readjust their expectations. You are not their personal counselor or tech hotline. You are a professional service provider with a life, and other people in your universe.
Prima donnas are for operas, not for agency clients.
14. Fire them if necessary.
No matter how awesome you are, some clients are simply going to get out of control. It happens. This is just real life.
- You can do one of three things:
- Let them walk all over you.
- Try to get them back in line.
- Fire them.
Of these three options, the second choice is the best one. That’s why I stated my point, “fire them if necessary.”
And if it’s necessary? Don’t just threaten. Actually do it.
Just like life with in-laws, children, the government, and pets, life with clients can be messy. You don’t want to spend your days fretting with cleanup and stress. You want to spend your days creating awesome deliverables and stellar service.
This checklist won’t prevent all ills, but it will give you a significant advantage.
Looking for a project management software for agencies? TeamGantt is built to help you communicate your project timelines with clients effortlessly.