8 Lessons for Turning Problem Clients into Repeat Customers

In the course of producing animated commercial spots, our client demanded assets beyond the scope of our normal process. He requested multiple rounds of still art, animatics, voice over retakes, and other drafts. And he refused to show the ultimate decision maker anything until the videos were almost fully animated. The deadline was tight, to say the least.

Nonetheless, we sought to please, so we pulled out all the stops. We hired extra help, worked late, and neglected other clients. The end product was superb by all accounts, but balls were dropped, and all parties left unhappy. We charged overages, which barely covered our additional expenses, and we got major pushback in response. There was little chance we’d work with this client again.

When projects go smoothly, chances are you don’t analyze what you did right. The high of accomplishment crowds out self-criticism. But when things go wrong you have the opportunity to figure out how to improve client service while keeping your peace of mind. Above all, you can build a system for generating repeat business. Here are some key lessons.

1) Client Experience Trumps End Results

As Robert Solomon argues in The Art of Client Service, client experience is of equal if not greater importance than the quality of the end product. Solomon does this by applying Malcolm Gladwell’s studies on medical malpractice lawsuits to the realm of advertising. When malpractice suits arise, Gladwell found that they are not usually in response to negative outcomes, but rather results that are different than expected. Basically, patients sue because they have a bad experience, not a bad result.

When you’re swamped, it’s easy to pass off dropped balls by saying, “They will love us when they get the final version.” Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. If you put your client in tough situations with their superiors, that will be remembered over awesomeness of the final product.

Go out of your way to keep client experience in mind at all times. Wherever you manage your projects (Asana, Basecamp, etc.) write a one-line status for each client every day. The status line should be their point of view, reflecting what it’s like to work with you as a vendor.

2) Be Clear and Firm About Your Process

Your creative process is your machine. You built your machine from experience to produce your offering effectively. When a client signs on, give them a clear idea of how your machine operates. Maybe this is a timeline describing delivery dates and times when edits are allowed. Pre-identify areas where you’re flexible and others where you won’t budge.

After you make your process clear, be firm about it. Without being firm, the natural impression is that everything is open for debate. If you’re not careful, your client will ask you to rewire your machine for them, which will cause extreme overwork. From the beginning, don’t be afraid to say, “In our experience, doing X leads to significant backtracking and a lower quality product, so we’re unable to go that route.” When worse comes to worst, don’t be afraid to fire the clients who won’t respect your process.

If you’re constantly working overtime to meet client needs, you might be dealing with a larger time management issue. If you’re tasked with selling and serving clients, make sure you completely separate the time devoted to each goal.

3) Become Your Client’s Partner

You probably have a main client contact, but do you really know this person? Make a point of getting to know your client. More importantly, understand the context for their demands.

At the start of a new project, learn as much as you can. Ask questions like, “What obligations are on you personally with this project?”, “Who are you most concerned about pleasing?”, “What is the deadline based on, if you don’t mind me asking?”

Rapport like this will make you your client’s partner. This relationship will make projects go smoothly. Moreover, your client will want to hire you again.

4) Adopt a Villain

When you become partner to your client, you have to be their fighter in the ring. But sometimes they or others in their organization make the unreasonable demands. When this happens, it helps to “adopt a villain” who can take the heat.

To be clear, your villain doesn’t have to be a real person.  Think ‘accounts receivable’, your ‘legal team’, the ‘compliance department’, or your ‘management’. Your villain serves as the barrier to fulfilling an unreasonable request so you don’t have to jeopardize your relationship with your client.

Demonstrate to your client that you are working on their behalf to persuade your villain. Once you fight them in your ring, they will do the same for you in theirs.

5) When Unreasonable Demands Arise, Cool Down and Don’t Swerve

When a client lashes out when you won’t meet an unreasonable demand, you might be at risk of “swerving” by either apologizing profusely or responding combatively. Both are usually the wrong move. Instead take a deep breath, close your inbox, and take a walk before you respond.

6) Offer Options

When you face a demand you can’t meet, offer several specific options in email.  Lay them out in “A, B, C…” format.  When you can, make a loose recommendation for a particular choice.  This approach makes it easier for all parties to move forward.

7) Get a Second Opinion

Before you send a touchy email, get a second pair of eyes on it. Make sure your reader is emotionally removed from the situation. Get valuable feedback with questions like, “How clear is this?”, “Is there a better way to meet their needs?”, “How is the general tone?”

8) Have a Conversation ASAP

Don’t fall into the trap of having tense conversations in email.  Since there is no tonal context, email conversations tend to become passive aggressive and counterproductive.

Set up a phone or in-person meeting as soon as possible.  Plan on discussing the different options you laid out in email.  During the conversation, avoid being defensive, and find ways to move forward.  When you can’t do something, explain why not. Focus on building empathy – show that you understand your client’s obligations, and help them understand your limitations.

Final Thoughts

Have you ever noticed that when someone sincerely apologizes, you end up in a better relationship than if their transgression had never happened? This dynamic is much the same when it comes to client service. When you patch things up the right way, unhappy clients have the potential to become your best repeat customers.

What lessons have you learned from the client services trenches?  Let us know in the comments!