How to Manage Challenging Clients? Start With These 5 Tips

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Ah, clients. Seems there’s always one or two who are, to put it politely, completely bonkers. Recently, when I polled my planner colleagues, virtually all agreed that one of the biggest challenges we all sometimes face isn’t the event at all, it’s managing the client. While thankfully, most are a pleasure to work with, there’s always one client who demands a wildly disproportionate amount of our time – the extra squeaky wheel, aka the vampire client. The question then becomes, how to manage them? A sense of humor and perhaps a silver, vampire-repelling cross can help, but so can taking the following strategies to heart:

Do a little detective work.
With new clients, ask around and look around. Get in touch with your inner private eye and gather as much online intel as possible about the company and the individual in question. Between Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, professional web sites, personal blogs and good old-fashioned asking around, you can piece together a preview of the personality and/or the corporate culture you’ll be dealing with – and proceed accordingly. Need to brush up on your on-line sleuthing skills? Then check out a few episodes of MTV’s oddly fascinating show “Catfish” for pointers.

Read between the lines.
Is the client coming to you in a panic? Have they just ‘parted ways’ with another planner? Is the event less than 6 weeks off? Then consider yourself warned. Starting a project with one hand tied behind your back is going to impact the final product, no matter how exceptional your skills may be. Though virtually all planners like a challenge, keep in mind that any of the aforementioned red flags can easily make your job exceptionally difficult and keep you behind the 8-ball the entire time. To help keep the situation (and your sanity) under control, prepare to:
·      push back as needed (probably a bit more than usual, particularly if time or money is short)
·      have a constant stream of workarounds at the ready
·      make sure there’s enough budget to fix problems quickly (short-lead projects are often full of ‘crises’)
·      manage expectations through every step of the process (and, if anything, under-promise!)

Embrace the art of “no.”
To survive as a planner, you can’t be afraid to say no. Granted, none of us like saying it, and no client wants to hear it, but used strategically and politely, it’s an essential part of the ‘reality-check’ process – as in ‘No, we can’t bring a herd of elephants into the ballroom, but we can bring in miniature horses’ or ‘No, the venue won’t allow indoor pyrotechnics but we can do fireworks on the lawn,’ and so on. In other words, when you have to say no, have an alternative at the ready to soften the blow. The trouble with throwing “yes” around indiscriminately just to calm an out-of-control client is that they’ll likely go far more ballistic later if you have to go back on your word, so save yourself the headache. If you’re going to say ‘yes’ to any request, always do so with care, caveats and absolute surety.

It’s about boundaries.
After a client signs on the dotted line and provides their deposit, in their minds they own all your time from now through completion. On our side of the desk though, it’s a different story – we know they’ve bought a percentage of our day, (usually) not the whole thing. And while a scope-of-work is helpful for establishing responsibilities, rarely are the details of how you’re going to work together spelled out, so you must set boundaries up front to help keep the program and your sanity on track. Because if you don’t set them, who will? Certainly not the client. On the other hand, if you want to be on call 24/7 days a week, then go for it – but remember, the more extra hours and after-hour access you give a vampire client, the less money you make. To contain the time-suckers a bit, consider taking a page from Emmy Award-winning TV producer and writer Shonda Rhimes (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Private Practice,” “Scandal”) and let colleagues and clients know that late night emails will be read and responded to during business hours the next day. Where you draw the line is between you and your client.

It’s also about ethics.
Occasionally, and usually when budgets are especially tight, we’re faced with client requests that are downright unethical. They know it and we know it – and it’s the planners’ job to set them straight. If they want to behave badly, that’s their problem, not yours, and the best you can do is turn them down and keep your favorite vendors and contacts as far away from the project as possible. Your vendors you will work with again. The unethical client? Not so much.

May all your clients be amazing!

Kate Doyle Hooper

Kate Doyle Hooper

Since establishing her own company over a decade ago, Kate has produced just about every kind of event imaginable, from executive meetings and conferences to live music performances, mobile tours, fashion shows, celebrity gifting suites, and retail events for companies such as American Media, Bloomingdale’s, Conde Nast, Cosmopolitan, ELLE, Harper’s BAZAAR, Hearst, Macy’s, Perry Ellis, Time Inc., Wilhelmina Models and Rodale, to name a few. Kate's editorial and advertising work has been published in Budget Living, ELLE, Fit, Civilization, Conde Nast Traveler, Esquire, Essence, Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, Men's Fitness, Men's Health and Shape, as well as on blog.cvent.com and weekendwalk.com.

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