How to Manage 3 Types of Difficult Clients

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When you work at an agency, you’re not just responsible for your business. You’re responsible for your client’s business, too.

That also means that you’re not just working with your team — you’re working with theirs.

That can be enriching, enlightening, and enjoyable. But it can also be (en)difficult.

A great client relationship is symbiotic. You collaborate, you communicate, and, in a perfect world, you each get something positive out of the interaction.

But what about those times when you’re faced with trickier clients? Their happiness is still fundamental, of course, but it can be harder to keep the project running as smoothly as you’d like.  

Even when you’re faced with a difficult customer, however, it’s good to remember that you’re both working towards the same goal: delivering a great outcome for your client’s business.

Here are our tips for getting the most out of three common types of “difficult” client, so you can make the most of their strengths and collaborate more productively.

The Nitpicker

The success of your agency depends on delivering quality projects on time. In a busy work environment, that involves careful planning and scheduling for each project.

But sometimes, you find yourself working with a detail-oriented perfectionist. Or, well, a nitpicker.

Working with a nitpicker can throw your whole schedule out of whack. What might seem like minor changes to them — tweaking a color here, rephrasing a few lines of text there — can quickly add up for you, especially when those edits fall at the end of the process.

Making those changes always takes longer than you expect — and if it’s not managed correctly, it can have a knock-on effect on your other projects, too.

The Nitpicker’s strength: They’re emotionally invested

Having those detail-oriented perfectionists on your side is great because they care. They want to be a part of making something really cool.

You just need to harness that emotional investment and use it to drive the parts of the process that actually matter — not just the random leftover stuff at the end.

What to do: Create feedback checkpoints

Nitpickers know that you do your job well. They hired you for a reason, so they’re not interested in completely overhauling your work — they just want to be included in the journey.

It’s not enough just to give nitpickers access to your project management software (although this is great for giving them visibility over the process and keeping things transparent, so they can feel involved at every stage).

You have to actively create feedback checkpoints to involve them early on in the process. For example, you might give them opportunities to review at idea, outline, and draft stages by making specific “checkpoint” tasks in your project management software.

That way, you can use their passion and investment to help you hone an idea or an outline — and when they give feedback, they’ll see it built into the process by design, not just tacked on at the end. Win-win.

The Expert

Whether you’re stepping in to fill a knowledge gap, a skills gap, or a staffing gap, when it comes down to it, your client is hiring your agency to do something they couldn’t do in-house.

So if you’re not doing work that’s better than what the client could do themselves, you’re in trouble.

Usually, that’s not a problem. But every now and then you meet a true expert: a client who really does know a lot more about their business or industry than you do. And it makes you afraid of doing something wrong.

Suddenly, you find yourself in a scary feedback loop. You want to do your best work for them, but since they’re so knowledgeable, you’re afraid to take a risk or make a mistake.

Then, you spend so much time doubting yourself and debating how to move forward that you make more mistakes — or worse, find yourself stalled entirely.

The Expert’s strength: they’re incredibly knowledgeable

Let’s just take a minute to reassess. You’ve been hired to do something that your agency is really good at, and you’ve been paired up with a client with specialist knowledge (i.e. something they’re really good at). On balance, this is really good.

The best thing about working with an expert is that they’re an expert. Once you stop being intimidated by their knowledge — and take a quick moment to remind yourself of everything you and your agency are bringing to the table, too — you can use their expertise + your expertise to create your best work ever.

What to do: Make a DIY encyclopedia

The trick to managing the Expert is finding a way to incorporate their knowledge into your workflow. You don’t want to schedule meetings with them over and over again — interrupting their workday and yours — or constantly ping them with emails, but you do want their unique knowledge to be an integral part of the process for each project.

Here’s where you start getting clever and build their knowledge out into a resource that will benefit not just you, but your whole team.

To do this, start by gathering your information. You might cover a lot of what you need in your kick-off meeting, but you’ll almost certainly have extra questions as the project progresses.

For situations like these, voice memos provide an easy, asynchronous solution to get answers when you need an interruption-free feedback loop. In other words: they’re a handy way to get lots of info fast, with minimal effort for your client, and without having to be on the same schedule. If you compile your list of questions for your Expert and send them over, they can record voice memos at their convenience.

(Of course, no matter how convenient voice memos are, you still need to be conscientious about the time commitment you’re asking for from them. It probably goes without saying, but don’t constantly request voice memos throughout the day every time you have a small question, and don’t use them as a substitute for doing your own research.)

Once you’ve gotten answers to your biggest questions, you can collate the most important information you learned into a written “style guide”. Use a collaborative content management tool or a notebook in Teamwork Projects to create a single source of truth, where you store all of the essential specialist knowledge you’ve learned. (You can even upload the original voice memos into the “Files” section of your project management software for posterity.)

By storing this DIY cheat sheet on a shared platform, everyone on the team can read it, learn from it, and update it. Soon, you’ll have a living, breathing master document that anyone can access — enabling you to provide expert-level answers, without needing to ask an expert.

The Disorganized Dreamer

It’s not enough to create amazing work. To be successful as an agency, your clients need to be able to trust that they have a great team of people taking care of their organization’s needs. That means listening to all their ideas, and responding to their every inquiry. No communication can fall through the cracks.

But while you might be vigilant about replying to everything, working with a disorganized client can make staying on top of communication difficult.

On the upside, this client is excited, invested, and they’ve got a lot of new ideas — but downside, they don’t put any of them in the same place.

They’re shooting off emails left and right in different threads and to different people; meanwhile, they’re making conflicting suggestions somewhere else that seem to go against what you just agreed on.

Not only is this overwhelming, but it can make it hard to pin down what they need from you next, and when they need it.

The Disorganized Dreamer’s strength: unique ideas

This can seem like chaos, but there’s method in the madness; this kind of client usually processes ideas by letting them all bounce off each other.

They’re not trying to be difficult — it’s just how they manage their creativity. For the Disorganized Dreamer-type client, this usually means two things. The first is that they have a hard time putting things where they’re supposed to be.

The second is that they’re great at out-of-the-box thinking and creative work. As their minds are accessing all sorts of concepts at once, they’re often able to offer fresh suggestions that help you produce better work.

What to do: Define specific communication channels

Capitalizing on the Disorganized Dreamer’s creative spark means taking care of the organization for them, so they can focus on ideas, not admin.

By clearly defining what kinds of communication belong where, you can make the organization process automatic. That way, it’s not something your client has to think about.

Defining your communication channels early on in your working relationship means setting up a place for each kind of feedback. While you can adjust this model based on the tools your agency uses, here are some of our suggestions:

  • Status questions go in Teamwork Projects. When a client wants to know if something’s been done or when it will be done, they can check Teamwork Projects, and comment if the answer isn’t there.
  • Specific project feedback goes inside the project. No matter what collaborative software you use for individual projects, clients should be able to leave contextual feedback inside the project.
  • New ideas go in a specific “Idea” list. If you have a designated place for all the Disorganized Dreamer’s ideas, they’ll always know where to put them: in a separate place where they won’t cause scope creep on existing projects, and where they won’t get lost. Create a task list or shared notebook to keep track of new ideas for future reference.
  • Keep email exclusively for administrative information. Limiting email to administrative information gets rid of a clogged inbox and makes sure every administrative issue, like account management, gets the attention it needs.

Once you develop expectations for where your clients communicate with you, everyone will know exactly where to go for the conversations they’re looking for — and you can kindly direct them to the correct channel if they’re going astray.

Your skills + your client’s skills = your secret weapon

Every client brings something different to the table. And when you play to their unique strengths, you can create something more unique as a result.

How do you get the most from your clients? Let us know your collaboration strategies in the comments below.

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4 Comments

Andrew Crowe

Nice article, thanks guys!
You definitely touched on it but while agencies definitely have the expertise, I think it is also important to adopt an open mind on the agency side to make sure you are open to ideas and input from a client, rather than being defensive and believing that you always know best and are the expert.
It’s the end result that matters!

Reply
Sol

Great article and sound advice.
The article talks about 3 types – but I have found clients with all 3 types combined i.e. 3 or more main stakeholders (decision makers) with different styles.
In that case, you have to institute all these practices.
In business, there are no “difficult clients” – only ones that present a bigger challenge to us agencies in channeling their strengths, like the article says.

Reply
Paulo Benito

Great. Good guidelines, although they are sometimes not easy to apply, but that is the way to go.

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