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A Prescription for Difficult In-House Clients

Leading an in-house agency often requires dealing with difficult clients. Unlike an outside agency, you cannot “fire” or walk away from your clients. You must learn to work with them and act as a buffer for your team members to maintain their morale and keep their focus on the work and delivering quality cost-effective products.

As the creative leader, your job is to make your client look like a superstar while delivering results that contribute to your company’s bottom line.

Below are five common client challenges that your in-house group is likely to face, a description of how they can impact your team and some possible solutions.

Ailment: Inability to Make Decisions

  • Causes extra work due to multiple changes
  • Projects fall behind schedule while they await consensus

Your interface may be the go-between linking you and the real decision maker, or person responsible for funding the work. If your point of contact (POC) misinterprets or miscommunicates what his or her boss actually expects, it will result in changes and reworking projects.

These problems will impact schedules and deadlines causing increased project costs for redos. Often they push outside vendors into a time crunch where rush charges will need to be applied for their services. More significantly, decreased timelines increase the risk for errors which, unfortunately, will always come back to haunt your team.

RX: Do your best to convince your POC that having someone from the creative team present the comps to the final decision-maker (hearing it from the horse’s mouth) often eliminates confusion that will increase their costs.

Ailment: Irrational Behavior and Bullying

  • Challenges everything from who is assigned to the project to the final cost
  • Uses intimidation rather than negotiation

Keeping the respect of your team members is important. As their leader, they rely on you to effectively handle the bully and keep him or her in check. The bully believes that using over-aggressive behavior will keep your staff on their toes. Be prepared, these people will always shoot down your ideas. You will find that bullies may not possess the best social skills. And, if they see you as a threat, they may simply want to get rid of you.

RX: In the beginning, try to establish a spirit of partnership and collaboration.  Avoid a superior/subordinate relationship and squelch any undercurrents of intimidation immediately. A true partnership, based on mutual trust and respect of intellect and expertise, will have a better chance of effectively overcoming differences of opinion.  The best clients know that they will get more out of your creative team and get their best work in a collegial atmosphere absent of fear.

Ailment: Unreasonable Turnarounds and Fire Drills

  • Procrastinates
  • Ignores schedules and deadlines

Your in-house creative group does not always have the option of saying “no.” And some clients habitually believe their projects will cost less if they give you less time to do the work. They are unaware of the juggling of resources and schedules going on behind the scene in order to make up for their mistaken belief. Too often, you actually apply more resources to the project than you would if the deadline were reasonable in the first place. Unreasonable requests come with the territory, but that should not force your team to break process, as it will increase the risk for errors.

RX: To avoid surprises, it is best to let your client know upfront what to expect within the limited time frame. Try to determine if there is any additional time (even hours) in their schedule. For example, if the work is going to an outside publication or source, ask for that person’s information and contact them directly. Often, you can negotiate with them for additional time.

Ailment: Resident Expert

  • Suffers from “not invented here” syndrome
  • Has strong viewpoints and may try to dictate creative direction

Resident experts are prone to micro-manage and tweak the copy and design running up costs by constantly asking for changes after approvals have been given. They believe they know best, have strong opinions and feel qualified to critique your work. Their approach will yield ineffective and sub par results.

RX: As the in-house agency’s leader, you need to steer the initial meeting with your client into a discussion of the project’s objectives (not the subjective or creative) and the results the client is trying to achieve. You do not want your team to have the under- rewarding task of merely executing an uninspired creative vision of someone who is a “wannabe” creative. Manage these tendencies by coaching the client to depersonalize the creative and shift the emphasis to what will resonate with the demographic audience.

Ailment: Finger-Pointing and Ball-Dropping

  • Demonstrates insecurity
  • Has limited perspective

Often a lack of involvement in your process is a way for the client to avoid sharing responsibility for the project’s end result. This approach does not provide adequate direction and he may refuse to fill out the Creative Brief. Then, oftentimes, the project will get off on the wrong foot and may never recover. The client usually offers flawed solutions. He prefers verbal to written communication which can easily be changed to shift blame. Often times his projects result in “scope creep” and additional charges.

RX: Take control of the process with these clients. Meet in person to fill out the Creative Brief with them, have them sign and date it before you leave—a requirement before work begins. Let them know upfront that s/he will need to sign off at each stage of the project (timelines, estimates, reviews etc.).

Your in-house agency wouldn’t exist without your internal clients. You were hired by your company to produce strategic, targeted, on brand, well executed and cost effective communications. Managing client relationships, including difficult ones, is part of the job.

***Participate in Cella and In-Source's new "State of the In-House Creative Industry" Survey***

Join three former in-house creative leaders at "Beyond the Creative: Business Operations for Creative Services Leaders" in Philadelphia for a two-day training seminar on October 13th and 14th. More information is available at http://www.cellaconsulting.com/html/falltraining.htm.

Cella Consultant Ceil Wloczewski is a 30-year communications veteran in the IT services industry. Managing annual budgets averaging $12-million and local and virtual teams of 100+, Ceil’s primary focus is marketing collateral, branding, Web/interactive and publications work.

Since 1990, Ceil has actively contributed to companies’ growth and success. She transformed an in-house communications department into an industry-lauded, key strategic partner in sales and new business development, customer retention, staff recruitment and training.

Laura Berry

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