Working with difficult clients

Client actions and reactions can add stress to already stressful event management. Anticipating what makes a client difficult for you can help to resolve problems before they swell.

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So you have a client you don’t like to work with. Have you taken the time to figure out why? What is it about working with this client that bothers you?

Is it the client’s lack of communication? Or too much communication from the client? Is it the pace at which they make decisions? The way they change their mind about a decision and then change it back? Is it their budget (unrealistic or non-existent)? Is it that, after months of planning, your client is still exploring the internet for inspiration and ideas, resulting in the need to rework plans in weeks or even days? Is the client telling you the job is yours, while still comparing you to others, then expecting you to offer your level of service at someone else’s prices? Maybe it’s because they don’t seem to respect your boundaries. Maybe it’s because you’re a morning person and they are not. Maybe it’s something else entirely.

While the specifics are different, these situations have one thing in common. The problem is usually not the client that causes you stress or difficulties; it’s something about the client’s actions or reactions. Identifying what can provoke a reaction in yourself, and identifying ways to manage your response to those triggers, can lead to smoother and less stressful vendor-client relationships.

Recognizing your problem client

In the 15-plus years I’ve been in the event business, there have been a few clients that our company, J J L Events Inc., didn’t want to work with for a variety of reasons. Most of these situations resulted from a reaction (either ours or theirs) to a situation, rather than the people themselves.

It could have been the way the client preferred to communicate (rarely responding to our communication, or sending too many text messages), their expectations (such as an unrealistic time-frame or budget) or their perspective (for example, how they view a situation, with or without all the necessary information). It could be anything, really—and it’s different for every event professional. The type of person (or personality) I find challenging might not be the same type of person that causes your headaches.

Among my colleagues, each describes a different type of client behavior that challenges them:

  • The client who becomes a good friend because of the amount of time spent together planning and designing their event. The relationship grows beyond a business transaction, but can suddenly become strained when money is discussed. It can be a painful lesson to remember to keep money part of the conversation regularly.
  • The client who has concerns but doesn’t speak up, so there is tension simmering with every conversation, until the concerns reach a boiling point. Getting to know your client and recognizing when they are becoming stressed gives you the opportunity to resolve issues before they become larger problems.
  • The client who is not sure what they want. This can be an opportunity for an event professional to showcase his or her strengths and creativity.

What type of client challenges you? What are you saying about that person? What are you admitting about yourself?

Recognizing what kind of client behavior or temperament can bother you will help you figure out how to better work with different types of personalities. And what bothers you with one client may not bother you with another. The circumstances and your frame of mind are factors too.

Anticipating difficulties

The initial consultation is a good time to get a “feel” for the client. Do our conversations flow easily? Is the topic of money uncomfortable? Can they articulate their expectations? (Do they know what they want?) Are we in sync when discussing ideas and the event? Do we understand one another, or is additional explanation necessary? Is there anything that seems not quite right?

This isn’t about figuring out how to encourage them to sign a contract; it’s about whether I can recognize any potential problems between us. I try to “take a step back” before I need to, so that when I’m in the middle of the usual stress of planning or running an event, I am prepared in case the client begins to fall into the “difficult” category.

When stress levels are rising, it’s hard to set aside emotions, step away from the person or situation, and look at the problem objectively. Maybe the client has had a bad day, or they’ve misunderstood something, or they were misunderstood, or maybe they are having similar issues with you. The problem may not be about the event at all, but that’s what suffers.

I like to chat with our clients to make sure the plans we’re making on their behalf are what they had in mind. It’s frustrating when emails, voice and text messages go unanswered, especially when a decision needs to be made. It’s the client’s seeming lack of concern regarding these details—the things that help make their event special—that can be bothersome. What often works best (even in this day of 24/7 electronic communication) is a face-to-face meeting, where we can hammer out lots of details at once. When I send the client a list of questions or an agenda, they can consider the issues before we meet, and our conversation flows smoothly. (Almost as if it was planned that way!) I know they care about the decisions, but it’s my job to worry about the details, so why should they?

Our company also partners with event planners. In these situations, we are typically responsible for the logistics (facilities) of an outdoor event, while the planner works directly with the client. Sometimes it seems that planners don’t trust that we can manage our end without their guidance and supervision to get the job done as the client wants. There are lots of emails and follow-ups, questions and more questions. We know we are good at what we do, and we realize this isn’t about us. The planner is doing his or her job, representing the client and making sure that all is going according to plan. By paying attention to the details, the planner can communicate good news to the client that things are going well. With this “challenge,” it’s our job to answer questions clearly with as much information as possible. If we did not anticipate and understand the planner’s need for information, the situation could easily be misunderstood as one of mistrust and cause unnecessary stress or resentment.

Managing your response

I haven’t found the answer to the question, “What’s the best way to work with a difficult client?” Every client and situation is different. But here are some suggestions that can be applied in many circumstances:

  • Use empathy. How would you want to be treated?
  • Without assigning blame, determine why there is a problem (emotions/mood, mistake, miscommunication, a bad day at work, etc.)
  • Offer counsel, work out a compromise or negotiate. Remember, it’s not always about the job at hand.
  • Always be respectful of those involved. Whatever your responsibilities are for this contract, you probably don’t know the whole story. And you would want to be shown respect, regardless of the situation.
  • Be aware of your emotions, and how they contribute to the problem.

Now when you have a client you don’t like to work with, because you’ve taken time to figure out why, and to understand what it is that bothers you, you are better prepared to positively influence the situation.

Melynda Norman-Lee is an event project manager with J J L Events Inc., Toronto, Ont., Canada. Norman-Lee has worked with events for more than 25 years, and in the event and tent industry for the past 13.

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