“Properly trained, a man can be a dog’s best friend”, said Corey Ford, the 20th century American writer. And properly trained, well-behaved clients can be your best friends, too. We all have them: the clients we love to hear from or speak to, with whom we share laughter and fun and intimate stories – whose work we love to do and whose last-minute request is never an imposition. And then there are the clients, the sound of whose name alone makes you pray fervently for escape, be it in the form of body cast, coffin, or deserted island with no electricity (hence, no cell phone or email).
While we like to think that animal training and child rearing are experiences totally unlike establishing and maintaining business relationships with peers . . . in some ways they’re not so different. Puppies and babies are like new love: happiest when given a healthy set of boundaries and consistent expectations. Here are 10 tips for making sure that your clients are giving you the respect (and the payments) that you deserve to receive!
- Start training your clients early on. Set the standard from the beginning, especially when it comes to your expectations for payment. It helps to have these set out in a written agreement with them so that there are no surprises. While “old clients can be taught new tricks”, what’s learned earliest is often learned quickest and easiest. Moreover, the more long-standing the clients, the more likely that their bad habits will need to be “un-learned”.
- Make sure your requests are clear. I have heard complaints from entrepreneurs that some clients can be “stubborn” and “refuse to listen”. Before blaming the client when he doesn’t respond in the way you want, look at your own conduct first. Does your client know what you want? Does he how to comply? Are you sure he is not simply being unresponsive due to stress, confusion, or outside factors?
- Use the one-for-one (or two) rule. One request (from you) should equal one response, so give your clients only one request (twice max!), then gently enforce it. Clients tend to tune out repeated requests (same as with nagging); this teaches your clients that the first several requests are a “bluff”. For example, repeatedly requesting the second installment payment of four on a project is neither an efficient nor effective way to issue commands. Simply give your clients a single written request for the payment (two, if absolutely necessary) and then gently let your clients know that you won’t be able to proceed unless and until they make the payment. Once they do, don’t forget to say “thank you”.
- Timing is everything. In “training” your clients, good timing is essential. For example, if you need information in order to meet a project deadline for the client and you know the client is planning a 3-week overseas sojourn, the time to request the information should start several weeks in advance (obviously depending upon the nature of the project), not mere days before her departure. If you sense that the client is the type to address matters last minute, then you need be the one to proactively request information and set deadlines a few days sooner than necessary. After the fact “discipline” does not work.
- Avoid “threats” that you will not enforce. When a client brings you to the boiling point, it may be tempting to threaten to stop work, charge interest on an outstanding invoice, or take other action. Don’t do it unless you are prepared to go all the way. Every time you indicate that you will take a step to get clients to “heel” and don’t, teaches your clients that your promises are “optional” and can be ignored.
- Correct the action, not the person. Yes, it seems trite to say, “there’s no such thing as a bad person; only a bad action”, but the old adage does hold. Especially when dealing with other business owners. Most people are not out to cheat you; they’re just dealing with their own stuff ‘n’ baggage: poor cash flow, family illness, or chronic scatterbrained condition. Correct (or, better yet, prevent) the [mis]behavior; don’t punish the clients. Teaching and communication is what it’s all about, not getting even with your clients. If you’re taking an “it’s-you-against-your clients, whip ’em into shape” approach, you’ll undermine your relationship in a heartbeat.
- Don’t take bad behavior personally. Does your client treat you like the “hired help”? Demand your attention by annoying you to death? Ignore your requests for information, documents, drawing, attention, dates of availability, etc. Don’t take it personally. If your client doesn’t respond reliably to you, chances are, she is the same with others. Handle the situation calmly and let the client know how she is negatively affecting her situation.
- Similarly, don’t reinforce misbehavior. Often, small business owners inadvertently reinforce their clients’ misbehavior, by giving their clients lots of attention (albeit negative attention) when they act up, act out, get demanding, or repeatedly change their minds about the decisions they’ve made. If you rush to appease a pest, rest assured that that behavior is being reinforced, and is therefore likely to be repeated.
- Have a postive attitude. Your receptionist may have just announced that The Client from Hell is on the telephone, but he’ll really know you feel that way if it seeps through your voice. Your clients should trust that when you hear their voice, good things happen. Ideally, your client’s name should always be a word you respond to with enthusiasm, never hesitancy or fear. If ‘ole CFH is making this difficult for you, take steps to develop your own sense of “centeredness”. Arrange to speak to CFH at a time that’s convenient for you, when you have had time to breathe deeply and engage in positive visualization (imaging, if you will, the conversation going very smoothly and respectfully, instead of anticipating having to fend of insults).
- Finally, keep a lid on your anger. Try not to handle sensitive client conversations when you’re feeling grouchy or impatient. Earning your client’s respect is never accomplished by yelling, cursing, or handling your clients in a harsh manner. It’s also important to avoid using a loud voice, even if your client is especially unresponsive. Remain calm and authoritative, rather than harsh or loud, and you’ll go a long way to developing a whole stable of well-behaved clients! In case things have gotten out of hand, do seek professional help. You can easily find firms dealing with legal issues from Student Visa Canada, Work Permit Canada to clients and corporate issues all without any hassle.