The Jujitsu Approach to Client Management

In my previous post on proactive client management, I spoke to tactics that focused on changing clients’ perceptions of creatives and the creative process with the hope that those tactics would ultimately lead to a change in client behaviors. The reality is this often doesn’t work. It’s not that clients are an incorrigible lot of arrogant and thoughtless corporate animals—it’s that they are often just as harried, overwhelmed and underappreciated as you and your team. In that environment, no matter how often you remind clients of the dynamics of the creative process and the mindset of creatives, they’ll usually revert back to bad habits because everything else in their working lives is pushing them towards those behaviors.

This fact points to the need to set realistic expectations with your teams on what to expect from clients as well as provide them with tools and healthy coping mechanisms to adapt themselves to difficult clients.

  1. It’s not going to get better. At some point it will become obvious which clients will embrace a productive working relationship with your team and who will not. Rather than maintain a façade of false optimism and set your team up for continual disappointment, you should admit that they’ll be dealing with the client’s bad behaviors whenever they partner with that client. The key is to avoid resignation by immediately discussing management and coping tactics.
  2. Document EVERYTHING. Bad clients have a habit of forgetting or misremembering communications to their advantage. Whether it’s a deadline that mysteriously moved up a week or specific feedback on a design concept, this bad habit leads to the black hole of endless revisions and continual scope creep. The best way to combat this nasty practice is to follow up all calls, informal and formal conversations, and meetings with emails to said client detailing the particulars of the discussion as they relate to project milestones and feedback. It’s also important to close the email with a note that states that if you don’t get a response to the contrary, you’ll assume the client is in agreement with your recap and next steps.
  3. Hold clients accountable. A corollary to point 2 is following up client requests that change the scope of a job with a documented risk assessment. Here you state the consequences of the request—be it higher fees, an extended deadline or impact to the accuracy or quality of a deliverable—and ask the client point blank to acknowledge and approve their request. It’s amazing how when pressed for a formal approval that includes the impact of their request, how often a client will withdraw or modify their original ask.
  4. Draw the line. There are client behaviors that are just bad management practices and while they can be demoralizing, no legal boundaries have been crossed. Then there are behaviors that are abusive, discriminatory and legally unacceptable which fall into the category of employee harassment. Make sure you and your team are clear about which behaviors fall into this category, and if a client engages in them, you should immediately escalate the occurrence to the client’s manager and HR.
  5. Acknowledge team members’ feelings. Regardless of how we have to act in a difficult client relationship—hopefully with professionalism and poise—inside it can feel very uncomfortable and even upsetting. It’s important to separate those expectations that your team remain calm and professional in the face of difficult clients from how they should feel. Validation from you that your beleaguered team member has every right to feel frustrated, angry, upset etc., can go a long way towards he or she managing those feelings in a healthy way. Never ever tell colleagues or reports to just suck it up or tell them they shouldn’t feel that way. Relating situations and feelings you’ve had in the past similar to theirs can also help take the sting out of an upsetting client encounter.
  6. Formalize the venting process. Short of setting up dartboards with difficult clients’ faces taped to them, you should look for ways that your team can let off steam. It can be as simple as having an open door for them to vent to you while requesting that they do it only with you or another competent manager on your team—NOT their colleagues, peers or other clients, or in the form of camaraderie such as designer black days or funny memos poking fun at corporate bureaucracy.
  7. Provide outside coaching and training. There’s no doubt that you and your team aren’t the only ones in the business world dealing with difficult coworkers. To confirm this all you have to do is look at the multitude of online, published and live event blogs, books and workshops on the topic. Take advantage of these resources. Most aren’t very expensive are full of great insights and tactics and can be easily integrated into your team’s work schedule.
  8. The nuclear option. Sometimes a client can be so disruptive that if you have the option, you should just resign the account. Nothing gets a client’s or that client’s manager’s attention faster than a professional but assertive no.

The Jujitsu approach to client management of adapting to subpar collaborative practices and rolling with the punches takes time to implement and embrace but the benefits of creating a disciplined professional—and happy team—are worth the patience and focus.

Andy Epstein Head ShotAndy Epstein is an industry thought leader in the field of in-house creative. He currently serves as the Studio Manager for The BOSS Group at Merck where he manages a studio of approximately 100 design, editorial, and multimedia creatives. Andy has written and spoken extensively on in-house issues and published “The Corporate Creative,” a book on in-house design, in partnership with F&W Publications in the spring of 2010. He is a co-founder of InSource, an association dedicated to providing support to in-house designers and design team managers and is the former Programming Director for the InHOWse Managers Conference. Andy is focused empowering in-house teams to raise their stature in the design and business communities.

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