Why You Should LOVE Your Worst Clients

You’re familiar with the 80-20 rule, right? If not, it goes like this: 80% of your sales come from 20% of your customers, or 20% of your clients take 80% of your time. And if you provide services for clients (I use the word clients to refer to people within you own organization as well as external clients) you’re undoubtedly aware of which clients take up more than their fair share of your time. You might hold resentment towards them because they drain your energy or eat away at your profitability, but one thing is almost guaranteed – you will never be free of difficult clients.

There’s plenty of advice on the web for how to deal with, or disarm difficult clients, but this article is about why you should LOVE them – and I mean, love them so much that you *heart* them!

Many designers adopt a “they just don’t get it” attitude about their clients, and they get frustrated and resolve to just do want the client asks for even if it goes against their better judgement about design. Taking this approach will get you through the project, but it will also diminish the value you are providing to your clients who have come to you for your expertise.

Instead, I try to recognize how my most difficult clients can help me sharpen my presentation skills, tighten up my process, and improve the services I offer. Additionally, taking the high road can gain you a valuable advocate for your business, since it’s likely that other businesses have failed to impress this client, leaving the door wide open for you to step forth and shine!

So, to help get started to be able to recognize the benefits a difficult client can provide, here are three common scenarios and how they can help your business:

Scenario 1: The Combatant

The combative client disagrees with everything. They argue about price, they don’t like what you show them, they disagree with your strategy, they challenge every point you make, and they can even border on verbal abusiveness. I absolutely *heart* this client, and you should too! They will force you to elevate your game better than you could do on your own in ten times the amount of time. The key is simply to understand that they feel as strongly about the success of the project as you do. They need to be convinced about every detail, and they won’t just stand by without getting involved.

Tips to help you:

Restate the question. If something feels like an attack, restate their comment or question without any loaded language, in a calm and direct way. This demonstrates that you’ve heard them, but it also reframes to topic in a more neutral, possibly solutions-focused way.

Fight for what you believe is best. Remember, they hired you for your expertise – they don’t expect you to cave in to everything they say. Just be direct and state your rationale for each point that they challenge. You may find that they are right about a few things. That’s ok – remember, this is not a contest that you need to win; it’s about the success of the project.

How this difficult client helps your business:

Working with this kind of difficult client helps sharpen your skills for presenting your case in a clear and compelling way, keeping the conversation focused on moving the project toward a successful outcome. Being very proficient in this area prepares you for bigger, more lucrative projects.
Once you’ve proven your worth to the combative client and won them over, they can turn into your most vocal and influential referral source.

Scenario 2: I’ll Know it When I See It

Clients in this scenario have difficulty providing useful, or definitive feedback. It might be because they don’t trust their judgement and are therefore afraid to commit to a direction, or they just don’t know how to express what needs to be changed. They’ll say things like “It’s not working for me – can I see a few more concepts” without being able to explain what’s not working, or they might say “I’ll know it when I see it.” A project with this client can go around in circles without ever closing in on a solution, easily eating up your profits or costing your client more money – either way, nobody will be enjoying the process. Believe it or not, I *heart* this client! I’ve had many such clients over the years, and while it gets easier, it always provides a learning experience for me.

Tips to help you:

Ask questions that help guide your client towards understanding exactly what’s making them feel uneasy, and keep working with this approach until you have something actionable. Remember, you need to have enough information so you know exactly what needs to be done next.

Narrow the scope of the discussion by asking very specific questions, for example. “How do you feel about this how this image is working to support the headline?” Keep the discussion framed within the context of the stated goals of the project. If your client is afraid to move forward, try and demonstrate how your design meets the objectives of the project. Doing so, will help reduce the weight given to subjective opinions. Remember, your role is to help your client. This might require you to educate them about the iterative design process which moves a project towards a solution.

How this difficult client helps your business:

This client will actually sharpen your design skills. By listening to this outside perspective on your designs, you get a different view of things. In a way, they are playing the devil’s advocate in your user testing group.
Learning how to narrow in on the information you need is an enormous time-saver! By being able to skillfully identify exactly what is holding your client back, you can completely remove the guesswork from your design process.

Scenario 3: I Don’t Know How to Do Anything

We all have clients who need to have things explained, but sometimes you’ll come across a client who requires so much hand-holding that they become the 20% who consumes 80% of your time. But, you guessed it, I *heart* this client! Why? Because I know that if I can present my services in a way that this person can understand, then I know I’m making it easy for everyone to understand.

Tips to help you:

Simplify overwhelming landscapes of information into a series of manageable steps. If the steps themselves are too complex or if they may seem daunting to your client, further break those into yet smaller steps.
Provide helpful information at just the right time. Rather than sending large batches of  information to your client (where you risk that it might just get “filed”), anticipate where your client is in their understanding and send over only the information that is relevant to that point in the process. Finish every meeting with  “What happens next” and create tip sheets that cover each of the most common areas of difficulty for these clients. You can incorporate these tip sheets into your process, sending them to almost all of your clients at just the right point in the project.

How this difficult client helps your business:

Not only will these clients make you a master of describing what you do in a clear and easy-to-understand way, which is appealing to all prospective clients, but they will help you tighten up your process for greater efficiency and better quality.

This client’s questions will give you great ideas for content you should be writing for your website, your blog, and your email newsletters. Additionally, if you create tip sheets as an aid, these make excellent value-adds for your other clients, and useful downloads that will attract previously unidentified prospects into your funnel.

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About Brad Squires

Brad Squires is the founder and Creative Director of Bold Type Design, a strategic design consultancy in California. He and his team are known for getting results out of long-range marketing strategies and executive presentations. Brad can be contacted through his website at www.bold-type.com or follow him on Twitter at @BoldTypeDesign.