Wednesday, May 23, 2012

How To Handle a Difficult Client

entrepreneurs difficult customer
We have all been there. The client that seems impossible to please no matter what we try. If we are mature enough and wise enough, there is much we can learn from the difficult to please customer. I encountered this problem (opportunity), but decided to leave my ego at the door. The result was far better than anything I ever expected.

One of our clients, a C level executive, spent hours requesting details that were totally irrelevant to the project. I can say this having successfully completed several projects similar to this one. At first it was just annoying as it ate up a great deal of time. Imagine hiring a mechanic to rebuild your engine. Then, insisting he educate you on all the details of the rebuilding process  before allowing him to continue. Yet, you have never done more than put gas in a car. How frustrating would that be for the mechanic?

1. Go Beyond the Words

I decided to check my ego and listen more closely. Then, came my moment of eureka. Even though he signed off on the project and its stated goals, his style was to micro manage EVERY detail. He did not understand the technical details of the how. And if he could not understand, then he could not be sure that I understood his needs. This caused him to ask a number of irrelevant questions hoping to get it at some point. Once I finally realized this, I zoomed out to 10,000 feet and worked my way down to about 500 feet. I focused the conversation on the benefits of the what, instead of the details of the how. So what happened at 500 feet? I'll get there.

2. Remember You Are On Different Levels

This is something entrepreneurs often forget, especially tech entrepreneurs. What is obvious to you is not obvious to everyone else. What you have done dozens or hundreds of times is totally new to your client. A way to remember this is to ask yourself this question before explaining something to your client: How would I explain this to a first grader? Now, I do not advocate you talk to your clients like children, but stopping to ask yourself this question is a great way to remind yourself to slow down and to speak in common language, not technical. This is critical when selling your ideas to C level executives.

3. Don't Take It Personally

This is the most important thing to remember. Once you take things personally, you can no longer hear a thing. It will get ugly and very likely result in a back and forth chest match that will not end well. It is not about you. Remember, this same client gave you the contract in the first place.

4. No, The Customer IS NOT Always Right

So, now we are at 500 feet and the client is a lot happier, but still wants me to teach him how to rebuild an engine. My response went something like this:

"Mr. Client I understand how important it is for you to understand every detail. Many executives at your level have felt the same way. But they found by leaving the technical details to their trusted tech teams and the hired consultants, their companies realized increased efficiency and cost savings sooner rather than later. To spend more time on this will cost X dollars per hour for a total cost of Y. Do you think that is the best use of time?"

You could hear a pin drop in the room. After what seemed like several minutes Mr. Client finally said, "Okay let's proceed. But I'm going to keep a close eye on things." Everyone in the room breathed a sigh of relief. All except me. I was quite stoic the whole way through. I was not bluffing or posturing.

5. Remember Who You Are

Had I let this continue, the project would have been sabotaged by unnecessary delays and lack of focus. Too often everyday entrepreneurs go too far when trying to satisfy difficult customers for fear of losing the deal. It is sometimes preferable to get out early before you lose thousands of dollars in wasted effort and reputation. The consulting company always takes the blame when a project fails. I value my time and reputation. I will not allow either to be abused by anyone.

The tech team later explained that every consulting company, especially the smaller ones, were put through the same abuse. The result was most projects dragged on far past their deadlines and often ended in failure.

Okay, But How Did We Profit From This?

As the project progressed the executive grew more and more satisfied with the results. He showed his appreciation by tossing us another project in the middle of this one, and promised to stay out of our way. I also updated a number of our processes with this type of customer in mind, which resulted in a far better delivery process than what we started with. So, we profited on two fronts.

It does not always end this way. Sometimes you just have to walk away, but in order to do that you have to have a strong sense of self worth. If you do not know your value and self worth, prepare yourself for a rough ride. This can be especially costly for beginning entrepreneurs.

I know you have some tips of your own so let us all profit from your wisdom and knowledge. Give us your advice in the comments section. Oh and don't forget to share this article. Certainly there is someone in your network who can use this information.

Godspeed and I look forward to seeing you in The Players Lounge.

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