After working with hundreds of people and companies over the past decade, we have a pretty firm grasp of the agency/client relationship.
We’ve seen projects that go so perfectly you’d think they were a Scorsese flick. We’ve also seen projects that waver and need a little extra TLC to get back on track.
Of course we’d prefer to work projects that go off without a hitch. But if you’ve been doing this as long as we have, you’re bound to run into a problem at some point.
Sometimes these problems can put an awkward bridge between us and our client, requiring a tough conversation. But it’s always better to address the elephant in the room straight away and here’s why.
It’s not you, it’s them. But it doesn’t matter.
Behind every good company are good human beings. And you know what’s funny about good humans? They make mistakes, just like the rest of us.
Balls are in the air, people—and those balls can come crashing down at any moment without warning
During the course of a project, it’s not unlikely that we’ll see missteps from stakeholders. After all, they’re usually pretty busy.
Their focus is not only on the project at hand, but on a million other responsibilities they have from their 9-5. Balls are in the air, people—and those balls can come crashing down at any moment without warning.
When problems arise, it’s natural to want to keep the peace and let things slide. But don’t take the easy way out. Address issues immediately, or you’ll find resentment building over time. It’s always better to have an uncomfortable conversation in the moment versus having a damaging conversation later.
Don’t complain, provide solutions
After a misstep in the project, we try to use the opportunity to remind everyone that we’re all in this together. It’s a great time to deepen the client relationship and assure them that we have their back.
Calling out the client and complaining about the mistakes they’ve made doesn’t do anyone any good. This will lead to the client focusing on the tongue-lashing they just received rather than the solution we can provide. We want to encourage and promote inclusive behavior rather than exclusive behavior. Talking things through often leads to better suggestions and problem-solving from the team.
And this isn’t just something that sounds good in theory. Below are two real-world examples of times where we had to sit our client down and hash things out.
Problem 1: Information paralysis
During a project last year, our client began responding slowly to the process we laid out at the beginning of the project. They had stopped following our lead and went ghost.
This lead to production problems. Our designers and developers started to get annoyed that the project was stalling and their progress was being impeded. After noticing the pattern, we pulled the client aside and asked why the process wasn’t working for them.
They said that they were feeling overwhelmed with all the decisions they were responsible for. They were bogged down with to-dos, which lead them to ignore their tasks and shy away from communicating with us.
We had an idea. We suggested more face-to-face check ins could give them a chance to review their task list with us. This way they wouldn’t feel like they were on an island alone. With our help, they were able to prioritize their to-dos and create a system that allowed them to get our designers and developers what they needed in a timely fashion.
And you know what happened? They weren’t overwhelmed anymore! In fact, they actually felt a well-earned sense of accomplished every time we met for our face-to-face check-ins. #FTW
Problem 2: Late invoices aren’t always a red flag
We’ve actually been pretty lucky with invoices. The overwhelming majority of our clients pay when they’re supposed to. However, it’s not all roses. There have been a few times where a client hasn’t paid their invoice as expected and a tough conversation was inevitable.
9 times out of 10 it’s a simple misunderstanding of payment terms. But sometimes we can tell there’s something else brewing. If a client has made a habit of paying large invoices late, we don’t immediately jump down their throat. In fact, we try to be respectful and get to the heart of the matter.
Most times they have issues with our payment terms. If that’s the case, we usually offer up a solution that involves breaking payments in to smaller chunks. This can actually be a win-win for everyone. With the new structure, our client is now more comfortable with the payment cycle and we’ve managed to steady our cash flow by breaking up invoices over a longer period of time. Score!
Client problems are inevitable—make them better by being thoughtful
Having tough conversations with clients can be uncomfortable, and often times, painful. But they’re necessary. They lead to growth and improvement. At the very least you’ll know you explored every avenue before giving up.
The reality is that sometimes things don’t work out. But if they do, and you both move forward, you’ve laid the ground work for open and honest communication with your client when future issues arise.
That’s something to be proud of—and something to build a relationship on.