It’s a harsh truth. Good client relationships turn sour. Sometimes it’s out of the blue, but most often we know it inside, long before things come to a head. Whether the news comes in an E-mail, over the phone, or in a face-to-face meeting, how you react can make all the difference in the world. Especially if you don’t want to lose a high-paying client.
#b#Tom Lento#/b#, a long-time marketing specialist, has had several experiences over the years with client relationships that have become difficult.
Lento received his bachelor’s from Boston College and his master’s and Ph.D. in 1974 from the University of Iowa. He worked as a college faculty member and administrator for several years, including two years in Japan, then returned to the United States to work in an advertising agency. His first agency, in northern New Jersey, was bought out by a firm in Princeton, Sardi and Bleecker, where he worked as PR director, creative director, and eventually executive vice president.
Lento’s boss, Frank Sardi, gave him good advice on client relationships that he still remembers. “A client relationship is like a marriage — sometimes two people don’t see eye to eye and the best thing to do is to break it off before there is real trouble,” he says.
Lento left S&B in 1992 to form InterComm, a corporate communications and PR consulting practice. In 1998 “one of my clients, Sarnoff Corporation, talked me inside,” he says. “As director of corporate communications I formed and ran an in-house agency until 2002.” He has since revived InterComm and has co-written several few books, including Greg Olsen’s autobiography, “By Any Means Necessary.” (U.S. 1, June 2.)
In Lento’s experience, business disputes usually fall into three categories: price, creative work, or strategy and process. The trick, he believes, is to identify the problem, then decide if you want to fix it or just end the relationship.
Outside forces can also work to break apart a happy client/business marriage. Lento recalls an incident when he worked for Sardi and Bleecker. The agency’s client was the U.S. division of a European company. “This was a small division. It was responsible for 20 percent of the sales, but 80 percent of the profit,” he explains. The European parent company decided to choose a larger agency to take over.
A token meeting was held to allow Sardi and Bleecker to give a presentation, but Lento knew that a decision had already been made. “That’s still a divorce that sticks in my mind,” he says. “It was as if the couple wanted to stay together, but the father stepped in and broke it apart.”
#b#Don’t take it personally#/b#. The relationship between a marketing agency and client is close, but even closer is the relationship between a coach and a client. Life coach #b#Helen Burton#/b# of East Windsor knows just how difficult it can be when a client becomes unhappy with the relationship.
In her business, “Love Yourself Coaching,” Burton helps people who want to lose weight, a personal and touchy subject.
After many years as a facilitator and administrator working for the state, Burton launched her coaching business in 2001. She had lost more than 70 pounds and has kept a consistent weight for 15 years. Through one-on-one and group coaching, workshops, and E-courses, she helps people “find a new focus for life, clarify their goals, build self-esteem, and define specific action steps to stop focusing on food and focus on who they want to be today,” she says.
“As a coach I know that you should never feel personally involved in a client’s results,” she says, but sometimes even the most experienced coach falls into the trap. “I’d been coaching for about five years when a woman I admired came to me for help. I was very flattered that she had chosen me and I really wanted her to succeed.”
But Burton knew fairly quickly that things weren’t going well. “She resisted doing everything we discussed,” she says, but because she wanted so badly for her client to succeed she just kept pushing harder. “Usually when I get done with a client phone call I feel great. I feel that we’ve done good work and that I’ve helped someone. But with this person I felt drained at the end of each phone call.”
She wasn’t really surprised when her client decided to end the sessions, but the way in which it was done bothered her. “She told me that I hadn’t helped her at all and so she was going to find someone else. The way she put it made me feel like a failure as a coach.”
“Don’t take it personally” might be the first thing to remember, says Burton, but the more personal the service, the harder this advice is to follow. As a coach, she always tries to find a lesson to take away when something doesn’t go as planned. “Analyze what happened,” she says. “Look at what you did well and what you would like to differently next time. Even if you lose the client you can take something positive away by learning and growing from the experience.”
#b#Don’t avoid the problem#/b#. Responding to unhappy clients by E-mail is a mistake, says business coach #b#John Sheridan#/b#. “A lot of times I find people hide behind E-mail or a phone call. When you find yourself in this type of situation it is best to confront the person, preferably in person.”
First, he suggests, decide if you want to save the relationship. Even if you know that you can’t or don’t want to retain the client, you need to make sure that when you walk away the client is as happy as possible. An unhappy client will tell everyone about the problem.
“Be open and honest with the client,” he says. “Don’t dispute the facts. Apologize and ask how you can make things better — and never get aggressive.”
Sheridan joined Action Coach International about four years ago after spending over 20 years in construction. His experience includes building a start-up company into one that made more than $50 million in four years. He has a bachelor’s in business administration from Boston College.
#b#Avoid the problem#/b#. The best way to handle client relationships is to stop problems before they start. That means keeping communication open at all times.
“Ask your clients how you are doing,” he says. “You may hear something you don’t like, but it is better to hear it than to live in a state of denial.”
You may be surprised at what you hear. If you ask a client how you are doing and you get a great review don’t forget to use it. Ask if you can use it as a testimonial.
“Asking for information before there is a problem opens up a lot more options for your business,” says Sheridan. “The best way to handle client relationship problems is to keep them from happening in the first place.