Three Steps to Handling Difficult Client Situations

Black. White. And tons of gray. Did they just say that? Can they do that? Business ethics can feel like swimming in an abyss sometimes. From my experience as a creative designer in the corporate world, people frequently stabbed others in the back like it was yesterday’s coffee. Without batting an eye, rules of common decency and treating others with respect went out the window if it didn’t serve the other person’s purpose. That can be a tough pill to swallow…and not to follow. Ethics are more gray in corporate because manipulation is glossed over with the beauty of consistent income and affordable benefits. “Thank you, Sir! May I have another?”

When I took my business full-time and became an entrepreneur, I knew this was my chance to cut out the BS and run a business the way I thought it should be. Business ethics aren’t hard, folks. Do unto others as you would have done to yourself. How do you want to be treated? With respect and honesty? Authenticity? Not having a hidden agenda, purpose, or feeding a narcissistic attitude? No more decision-by-committee that really wasn’t a decision?

With that in mind, owning a business is freeing. If a policy needs to change, BOOM, done. If a situation needs attention, BAM, attended. The 50 shades of business ethics become much more black and white, because you can operate at a quicker and clearer level. Occasionally, we fall back into the muddy pit of gray. Sometimes we encounter a client who is the snake oil salesman of old. Shiny and complimentary on the outside, while being single-minded and fake on the inside. They master the art of making you feel like somehow you’re at fault.

You are not, my friends. Stand your ground. Follow your processes and hold firm to what you believe in how you want to run your business. It can be hard, no doubt. Situations will creep up no matter how you try to do the opposite. You want the business. You need the money. This could help grow your organization. However, no garden grows with poisonous seeds. It might start out green and lush, but then shrivels and dies. It is better to lay a foundation based on truth and hard work than cutting corners.

These situations will lessen if you set your ground rules ahead of time. Here are three lessons I’ve found help diffuse difficult situations.

1. Stay true to your process.
If a client loves your work and comes to you in a rush with a tight deadline, sweat dripping from their brow, you still need to follow your process. It is tempting to skip the quote, make it verbal, send the contract but not get the signature, because you trust them. They seem honest. They seem good for it. I have taken projects on faith only to be burned by people adding more work to the project scope, but not wanting to pay. Or worse yet, refusing to pay the balance of the project. Ouch. The blame is on both sides. One, they took advantage. And two, I allowed it.

If a client truly values what you do and the services you provide, even though the project is a rush, they will take the time to go through your steps. For your benefit, pause. Take a moment to evaluate the situation. Their rush deadline is not your panic attack. While we, as designers, obviously want to meet our clients’ deadlines and provide the best solution possible, the cost of being degraded in the process isn’t worth it. You deserve as much respect as what you offer your clients. Owning a business is like parenting. They say you need to take care of yourself before you can properly care for your children. If someone is rushing the process and you allow them to skip steps, 90% of the time it comes back to bite you in the keister. Mine has been bit to the tune of the client literally skipping the country to not pay for the work done. Unfortunately, it was not just me that happened to. Lesson learned. Get that signature. Stay true to your processes.

2. Listen to their words.
I’m not just talking about being a good listener, writing down the project details. Listen to HOW they are speaking to you. Do they look at you in the eye? Do they seem authentically engaged? Are they distracted? Late for meetings? Do you get the feeling you and your work is just a checkbox for them? Something to get off the list? Do they treat you with respect? Are there backhanded compliments or phrasing that leads you to believe they are being condescending, but it’s masked so you’re unsure? Do you see signs of being passive aggressive? Those are red flags of future problems. From experience, I have ignored the signs at times because the project was going to be awesome to do. Guess what? It wasn’t. Pay attention to those signals.

3. Forgive.
Not just them, because this world has enough hate. We don’t need to harbor those seeds for negative clients in our hearts also. But I’m talking about forgiving yourself. I’m great at beating myself up. Why did this happen? Why didn’t I say that? How could I let them control my emotions? Why am I spending so much time thinking about this? Welcome to entrepreneur life. Or maybe it’s welcome to a life of someone who cares. Someone who truly wants to do a good job. Make change. We care about what we do. We love it. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be doing it on our own. We want to make a difference. I know I do. That also comes with forgiving yourself for learning lessons the hard way. It’s ok to mess up. No one is perfect. But we need to learn from it. That’s how we grow. We become better business owners and better people.

These lessons transcend more than business. I know it because I’ve experienced it. Learn. Improve what needs to be improved. And grow forward.

It’s black. It’s white. You know it.

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