Tao of the Zentropist

September 22, 2009

The Zentropist Casebook: Ten Tips for Dealing with Difficult Clients

Anyone who has been in business for a meaningful length of time has encountered the “difficult client.” Of course, this moniker can be attached to a variety of individual habits and behavioral attributes, running the gamut from minor quirks and annoying predilections to full-blown pathologies. The reality is, if you want to stay in business, developing the skills and techniques to mitigate or otherwise counteract “difficult” behavior is vitally important and will affect your bottom line.

Following are 10 time-proven techniques and approaches that have passed muster with the Zentropist and provided some measure of succor when confronting less than cooperative yet paying clients:

  1. Set Expectations Early (And Often). This cannot be overstated. Even during the courtship phase, a service provider must be forthright and honest in what the client can expect in terms of resources, deliverables and energy expended in service of the project. And your word must be your bond. Individuals and companies that promise the moon to make the sale and then treat the fulfillment process as an afterthought are courting rancor and bad juju. And quite frankly, they deserve it.
  2. Define Your Deliverables. Attention to detail is extremely important at every stage of the process. It’s essential that you are very clear about what it is you (or your representatives) are selling and what you intend to deliver. I’ve seen numerous companies get themselves into hot water by failing to adequately utilize inclusionary and/or exclusionary language when listing a product they intend to create. For example, The Huffington Post is a blog. So is Tao of the Zentropist. You’ll brook no argument from me that the scale, scope and corresponding expenses of the two are radically different. And budgets aside, if a client expects to receive a deliverable listed as a “blog” with no further description of its functionality, there’s a good chance they’ll be looking for all of the bells and whistles that you failed to account for.
  3. Clear Communication Trumps Head in the Sand. We all know the adage about killing the messenger. Nobody likes to deliver anything but good news. Yet sometimes this is necessary. A large number of projects start to go downhill and coast rapidly towards failure due to the inability of stakeholders to openly communicate, address issues as they arise, and find solutions that are agreeable to all. Don’t make this mistake. Provide updates to your client in writing, at least on a weekly basis, and if need be, on a daily one. Problems generally don’t solve themselves or otherwise go away. Deal with them and move on.
  4. Report Progress and Impediments Equally. Consider this one a corollary to #3 above. While it’s important to acknowledge the success in achieving stated objectives and milestones, if a project is facing delays (regardless of the cause), figure out what can be done to get things back on track. This isn’t about assigning blame (at least not at the outset), but dealing with a factual reality (i.e. “We’re behind schedule”) and finding ways to correct course. Such proactive behavior helps negate the argument down the road that you were aware of things going sideways but failed to act in a timely manner or otherwise alert the client.
  5. Tie Payments to Progress Milestones and/or Hard Dates. Depending on the scope of the project, anticipated duration, risk assessments and other considerations, a service provider is likely to only secure a percentage advance on total fees due. While in some situations, “half up front and half upon delivery” may work from a cash flow and risk perspective to both parties, this is not always the case. If you are concerned about a client possibly unreasonably holding back fees or causing delays in delivery due to indecisiveness or failure to provide feedback in a timely fashion, you may want to consider developing a payment schedule which calls for more frequent payments tied to key milestones in the schedule, with a hard date attached as well. For example, “25 percent of fees are due upon delivery of preliminary draft of narrative or by [insert desired date], whichever comes first.”
  6. Put Yourself in the Client’s Shoes. When negotiating or even debating, it’s a recommended practice to look at the situation from the other party’s perspective, to understand what their concerns and agenda are likely to be and to place yourself in a position to counter these as necessary. Understand that as a service provider, you may be an unknown variable to the buyer, who may be risking substantial capital, time and opportunity in engaging your services. Showing some empathy can go a long way in earning trust and breaking down barriers, especially if the client has been burned before. And remember, if you walk a mile in someone’s shoes, at the end of it you’ve gone a mile and you’re wearing their shoes.
  7. Sometimes Listening Wins Converts. One of the hardest lessons for most of us to learn is the art of active listening. Actually paying attention to what another party is saying without interruption or immediate judgment. Try it sometime. Many people who are perceived as “difficult” may be that way because of insecurities or because they feel unheard. By listening to them, you will gain valuable insight, which may in turn provide leverage in managing them. The majority of people love to talk about themselves. Let them.
  8. The Customer is Always Right – Until They Are Not. It’s a delicate balancing act, when a client becomes demanding or feels entitled to things that were never part of the agreement. Sometimes in the spirit of goodwill and cooperation, you bend, as a willow does in a storm. But with that being said, if you allow yourself to be walked on and taken advantage of, invariably that’s exactly what will happen. It’s perfectly fine to give a client enough rope to hang themselves — and once they’ve done so, you can extricate them without gloating and educate them as to the error of their ways.  Your mileage may vary in the application of this axiom, so use it judiciously.
  9. Know Where “The Line” Is – And Have a Plan if Crossed. As service providers, we all have different thresholds for risk and pain. Make sure you understand where yours is for a particular project and have a contingency plan in place to deal with the situation if the Rubicon is crossed.
  10. Know When to Walk Away – And When to Run. While it’s debatable whether Kenny Rogers knows good chicken or not, he nailed this premise in his lyrics to “The Gambler.” Sometimes a client will simply prove to be impossible to deal with (see #9) and there’s simply no reasonable way of completing the project and retaining your sanity or any semblance of profit margin. It’s always a good idea to have a contract that provides language to allow both parties to give notice and walk away from the deal if necessary, and if there comes a time that you need to invoke this clause, that’s why it’s there.

While we all hope to have long, financially lucrative careers that avoid the necessity of interacting with troublesome personalities, it’s best to be prepared for the latter, especially in pursuit of the former. Understanding what makes a client difficult and how to manage them is an art in of itself, and one worth mastering in the course of business.

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September 16, 2009

Seven Core Elements of Successful Business Planning

Working with start-ups and other early-stage ventures, as well as even more established entities, reveals the undeniable truth that planning is often relegated to the realm of theory or executed as part of an initial checklist to secure outside funding, then promptly forgotten. This is a mistake which can haunt or even cripple a business, and is one that is best avoided by keeping a handful of axioms in mind.

The following list of “Seven Core Elements of Successful Business Planning” is intended to serve as a guide for both enthusiastic (i.e. by choice) as well as reluctant (i.e. forced by circumstance) entrepreneurial souls to help maintain your focus and gain traction in the market as your business matures.

  • “Know Yourself.” It is vital, whether you are a lone individual selling a product or service or a corporation of any size to be able to dispassionately assess both your strengths and weaknesses, so you can capitalize on the former and minimize the latter. While this may seem self-evident, many businesses fail to thoroughly undertake this exercise or make the mistake of treating it as a one-time thing, when in reality, circumstances change over time and what were once strengths may no longer be so, while conversely, weaknesses may have dissipated, multiplied or otherwise shifted. It’s a good practice at least once per year to undertake a SWOT analysis to see if changes in strategy are necessary.
  • “Find Your Market Niche.” All too often, it’s human nature to want to be universally liked or otherwise in demand. However, for most brands, this is a tall order, and in the effort to accommodate and please everyone, the product or service invariably winds up diluted and really pleases no one to any great extent. This phenomenon is often witnessed when committees or other forms of bureaucracy get involved in the process, and is all too often exacerbated in government. Fundamentally, it is essential that you find a way to be valuable to a targeted niche, ideally one that can meet the prices that you anticipate charging for your solutions.
  • “Know the Competition.” As obvious as this may sound, many businesses blithely commence operations with little understanding of what makes the competition tick, or worse, assumes or states that it has no competition, which is the mark of either an arrogant fool or an incompetent. There’s always competition, at the very least indirect, for any product or service with a definable consumer. Don’t make the mistake of believing it hasn’t been done before, because chances are, it has, and if it is no longer in existence, there may be good cause for this. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you may not improve upon another’s offering, but that’s a different story altogether.
  • “Decide What Metrics Are Important – And Measure Your Progress Regularly.” This is crucial in understanding whether or not your business is succeeding under its current strategy, or requires a course correction to avert disaster or to capitalize on shifting market trends or emerging opportunities. Anything that is quantifiable can be measured, and as a business owner, executive or stakeholder, or even just an employee hoping to remain gainfully employed in uncertain times, it’s vital that you optimize your performance. While the metrics which are used may vary widely depending on the nature of the business, these should be identified from Day One and monitored closely, and if circumstances change and necessitate the inclusion of new metrics, be proactive and do so. As a final note, don’t be willing to discard or exclude metrics simply because they do not cast the business in a favorable light – that is not a legitimate reason to bury one’s head in the sand.
  • “You Can Never Have Too Much Capital.” Two of the leading causes for business failure are under-capitalization (especially at inception) and issues managing cash flow. While it’s true that money can be easily squandered or flitted away on ill-conceived projects and initiatives, this does not negate the reality that having ready access to money (i.e. liquidity), especially cash, is an enormous competitive advantage. If you are raising money, be sure to challenge your own assumptions as to the pace at which revenues, never mind profits, will flow, and always assume that your expenses will be higher than initially projected and revenues lower. Failure to do so tends to have adverse consequences down the line.
  • “Have a Strategy (Preferably a Good One).” If you’ve been around business long enough, you come to realize that a surprisingly large percentage lack any form of coherent strategy that can be easily articulated internally, let alone to outsiders. Many businesses are reactive rather than proactive, blindly groping their way through the darkness, hoping to stumble upon an acorn every now and again. This isn’t a strategy, and it isn’t viable for very long. While strategies may evolve or change over time (and correspondingly, impact tactics), they need to be aligned with clearly specified goals. If you don’t know where you want to be, you’ll have a devil of a time getting there.
  • “Be Unique (And if You’re Not, Give the Impression You are Anyway).” It’s common parlance among marketers to speak of “unique selling propositions” (USP’s) which make one business different from another. Sometimes these are actually true, but more often than not, they speak to the need to position your business to meet the psychological needs of your target customer. Fundamentally, there is nothing wrong with this, as nothing in business actually happens until someone makes a sale, and part of the process of engaging with a prospective client or customer is convincing the party that you have something worth offering to them that they can’t find anywhere else. They may find something similar (perhaps even strikingly so) to your product or service, but they’ll miss out on the benefits (both tangible and intangible) that you bring to the table if they opt to go with another option. So it’s your responsibility to make sure this doesn’t happen.

By implementing the above list, and regularly revisiting the issues raised, you will give your business an increased chance of successfully weathering economic storms when times are tough and thriving when optimism returns to the market.

Have a business question or want to learn more about business planning and other related services? Black Rock Consulting is available to assist you with solutions that meet your needs and achieve results.

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