Feeling stretched? Tips for working with challenging clients

I’ve spent many years working in large organizations where the marketing and communications teams need to serve as a support function to the business unit leadership, working in many ways like an internal agency. We often referred to our colleagues in the business units as “clients” and strived to provide great client service. The trouble is that budgets and staff resources are always at a minimum and there’s no way you can meet all of the client demands. In these situations, I’ve learned, it’s helpful to lean heavily on expectation-setting and not over-promising beyond what you can truly deliver.

Here are some of the strategies I’ve found particularly helpful to successfully navigate these sticky situations.

1. How do you make them feel? Your relationship with the client is often less about what you do for them and more about how you make them feel when you’re with them. In a world where most people are under extreme pressure to perform, sleep deprived and on deadline, it’s important to pay attention to our attitude (be positive) and make sure we present our best self. Many times clients think of marketing/communications as the “fun time” of their day and want to “be creative” and enjoy the time with you. Other times they might look to you as a confidant, or want to chat about their weekend. Be friendly, be curious, give them your full attention and make them feel as though they are the most important person in your world in that moment. Because they need to be.

2. Build confidence and trust. They know your time is in demand and may come off as overly-aggressive to prove they need your help more than the “other guy.” (This happens a lot in large organizations where people compete for resources.) Assure them that their issue/project is important to you and that you care about it. If you know this is a key focus area or strategic growth area, mention that. If you know leadership has a special interest in the success of the project, let them know you know. Then they won’t need to keep trying to impress upon you how important and unique their project is. If it makes sense (and is genuine), let them know you’re rooting for them and will advocate for them.

3. Ask them to prioritize. When you know you’re going to be pelted with requests, ask them to share their “wish list” (key word: wish). Let them know you may not be able to make ALL their wishes come true (setting realistic expectations), but guide them to prioritize what’s most important to them. And then let them talk it through. It’s amazing how many times clients will cut projects on their own to give you space to focus on what’s on the top of their list.

4. Offer up some easy wins. Looking at the big picture, identify if there any immediate wins you can knock off quickly and easily to make them happy. For example, look for ways to feature the program/product in something turnkey, such as a social media post or internal newsletter article. Showing a little bit of love up front can pay off when you need the client to be patient down the road.

5. Review and recap. Before ending any conversation, take the lead to recap the action steps for everyone moving forward (unless someone else beats you to it). This shows you are paying attention and helps build trust that you’ll do what you say you’re going to do. This may sound like a no-brainer, but not as many people do this as you might expect.

6. Take a thoughtful pause. You’ll come across as the “negative nelly” if you shoot down a client’s idea right away, even if you know immediately that the answer will need to be no. Tell them you’ll check it out, think about it or bring it to your team for discussion. They’ll feel you’re taking them seriously and not dismissing them. When it comes to email, don’t fire off a “no” response within minutes of receiving it. At the very least take a few hours to a day before giving your response. Sometimes, you might even be surprised at what you come up with in the meantime. Which brings me to my final suggestion…

7. Offer up alternatives. If you have to say no, or if the client’s idea just won’t work, look for other places where you can say yes. Saying “We can’t do _____, but here’s what we can do…” is much better than a flat no. If you don’t see any solutions or wins to offer, take time to brainstorm with colleagues or leaders to see if they can give you ideas. And if the answer has to be no, due to time, resources or strategic priorities, counsel your client on what they could do differently next time so the answer can be yes.

I hope you find some of these nuggets helpful as you work with clients. What would you add? I’d love to hear what works for you – feel free to leave a comment or tweet me your ideas to @marketingmama.

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