The Client Is Never the Problem

Turn frustration with a client into understanding, compassion and, not least, success.
The Client Is Never the Problem
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How many times have you hung up the phone or left a client meeting and proceeded to whine and complain about the client’s behavior, judgment or decision-making skills? C’mon, be honest with yourself. I’ve seen it my entire career. And it’s not right. That behavior is learned and unacceptable. Stop.

Related: It's Not Me, It's You: When to End a Toxic Client Relationship

The best way to prevent these destructive behaviors is to establish clear, fair guidelines and acceptable attitudes for employees to incorporate. I’ve worked on creating an optimal way of doing business for more than a decade. By implementing a simple set of behaviors and attitudes, both a business and its individual employees can deliver a consistent experience for colleagues, prospects, clients and partners. At our agency, we call it the “EMA Way,” and it’s among the most important things I’ve built in my career. There’s a strong argument for you to have a defined way of doing business, too.

Here’s the first simple way to consider:

Understand that the client is never the problem.

Clients may come up with ideas that are far-fetched, off-strategy or seemingly ridiculous. They may demand unreasonable turnaround or make near-impossible requests. You make the assumption that they’re stupid, mean-spirited or tyrannical. But that’s rarely the case. 

Verbally assaulting clients out of earshot is a waste of energy, and the habit is contagious to everyone around you, especially junior professionals. Worse, when it’s a regular occurrence, it’s only a matter of time before it happens via email or within earshot.

Don’t get me wrong: This shouldn’t be confused with “the client is always right,” which is absolutely not true. The client is not always right; they’re looking to us to guide them down the right path, but that’s not always easy, fluid or clear.

Related: Why You Should Choose a Champion, Not a Mentor, for Guidance

As a services business, it’s our job to uncover the real challenge, ask the right questions and understand what’s truly happening. You never know what kind of pressure a client is under at home or at work, or anywhere else. Their board, CEO or superiors are all under pressure, and sometimes the results can be maddening. But let’s remember, they’re people trying to find their way, just like us. Let’s help them.

Learn to deal with frustration.

Ask why and don’t stop asking until you get to the heart of what’s really happening. Why is a powerful word.

Take a step back and breathe. Catch yourself before you go bananas and remind yourself that the client is never the problem.

Put yourself in their shoes and uncover empathy.

Get help. Ask a level-headed colleague who’s not emotionally involved for perspective. 

Employers should identify team members, whether senior staff or entry-level, who badmouth clients. Have an open dialog about behaviors and attitudes, and explain your business’s “way.” If the employee, will not or cannot conform to your company’s principles, let them go. In my experience, 100 percent of the time that I’ve made the decision to let chronically insensitive staff go, it’s been the right choice for the business.

Stand up for what's right.

In the rare case where a client is simply rude, mean-spirited and ruthless, have the courage to stand up for yourself. Be assertive and express how it’s not productive. Adopt the mindset that you’re financially independent and you don’t need the business. Decisions become much more clear and tolerable with this perspective.

Related: 6 Steps to Building a Strong Company Culture

Now go do something great for a client.