In the Advertising industry, we’ve all been there and probably said it hundreds of times, “If I was a client, I’d be awesome.” The truth is, we have no idea how we’d react in our client’s shoes and as great as your current client relationships may be, you will inevitably one day run into a difficult client. They come in all shapes, ages and titles –no two are alike and they can be downright frustrating. When it happens, you just might find yourself sitting in your chair spinning or staring at the wall (drink in hand) wondering, “How can I possibly handle this?”

So to help you avoid giving yourself the spins, or excessive alcohol intake, here are my suggestions for how to deal with a difficult client:

  1. Speed Date
    Not in the traditional sense but in the advertising sense. How many times have you heard “Advertising is about relationships”? Probably more than you can count, so get to it. Spend time understanding your client’s day, their stresses, communication preferences, favorite desserts or if they need coffee before they can function in the morning. If you know their boss always wants to meet with them from 12-1, send your emails or call before or after. If they get hangry (so hungry, they’re angry), make sure they’ve eaten before you have an in-depth discussion or ask for a bigger budget. Whether big or small, knowing their preferences will likely make your life a lot easier.
  2. Over communicate
    Clients are busy. Sometimes they simply forget what they owe you or that they even owe you anything at all. Keep reminding them what’s due and when. Remind them if they are over budget, if an estimate hasn’t been signed or if an insertion is going to be late. If you want to be their trusted partner, it’s your job to keep up with the things they can’t.
  3. Don’t OVER communicate
    Wait, wait didn’t you just say… yeah, I did. BUT, if you’ve said it all and sent reminders and then gotten the gentle but affective nod from the client that says “Yes, I know I owe you some stuff, but no, I don’t have time to do it” then back off and give them some space. You can lead a horse client to water but you can’t make them drink swim*.
  4. Be clear
    Sometimes in advertising we like to keep our schedules flexible, planning for all sorts of unforeseen disasters. However, when that planning doesn’t stay behind the magic curtain and is revealed to the client, they can get easily confused and translate your doomsday preparations into a disorganized account person. So keep building your storm shelter, BUT be clear about internal deadlines for the agency and deadlines for the client. Be clear that either party missing a deadline will shift the schedule. Be clear about what needs to be accomplished in meetings, and set a meeting agenda if possible. Be clear when they’re going over budget because you estimated 3 revisions and the client is on number 25. And if you ever need to pull your doomsday plan off the shelf, it’ll be ready. At the end of the day most clients would rather hear the truth than find out after it’s too late (Note: I said most clients, please use discretion).
  5. Do what you say you’re going to do
    This doesn’t need much explanation but people fail all the time, so maybe it does. I’ll try again. Do. What. You. Say. You’re. Going. To. Do. If you give a timeline, follow it. If you owe a client something, deliver it. If something is going to be late, let them know.(Remember the doomsday plan?) Communicate with your client ahead of time; don’t just hope they won’t remember.
  6. Accept the things you cannot change
    A huge part of our “career” is being adaptable, learning our clients business, personality, likes, dislikes, etc. Chances are you aren’t going to change your client, you just have to change your approach and adapt to them.

So there you have it, my six tips and few terrible analogies for dealing with a difficult client. Take them, use them, make up your own – and when you do, be sure to share them with the rest of us. As long as we’re continuing to grow and willing to learn, we’ll make it through. You know what they say, there’s always a silver lining. Good luck, my friends!

*Warning: There are several analogies in these tips. You may or may not understand them but you get it. Right?