Swim Lessons for Stubborn Clients

I’ve spent the last week cajoling a five year-old to put her face in the water at swim lessons.

She thinks I’m absolutely, 100% insane crazy.

It will hurt her eyes. She’ll get water in her ears. How will she breathe? What if the other kids laugh at her? It’s scary!

I can tell her a bazillion times that it will be OK, but unless I accept that her perspective and worries are genuine, we’ll get no where. The same goes for your clients. Yes, even the demanding, hot-headed ones.

A lot of client conflict (and therefore client negotiations) arise from a difference of perspective.

By clappstar via Flicr.com

By clappstar via Flicr.com

They think it’s perfectly reasonable to request four “tiny” changes with a turn around of two hours, you do not.

They think an advance payment will somehow disincentivize you to work, you think it will fund the work they need you to do.

So how do you deal with these differences of opinion? How do you negotiate with a client who is looking at the situation so very differently? Just like you teach a child to swim.

You need to understand their perspective if you’re going to change it.
I’m not going to make a five year-old think that swimming is fun by constantly repeating, “It’s fun! You’ll love it!” If she’s scared, she’s scared, full stop.

The same is true for your clients. If they think that a job is taking too long or is priced too high, that’s what they think. Ask questions about why your client thinks this way, though, and you’ll likely discover where they’re coming from. Once you know that you can correct misconceptions and provide them with information that they’ll find persuasive.

By Marc Pope via Flickr.com

By Marc Pope via Flickr.com

Reward good behavior, even if it is the tiniest of improvements.
When Ms. Thing finally put her face in the water I didn’t let the moment pass unnoticed. She got high-fives and hugs and encouragement like whoa. She hadn’t been perfect, she still thought the whole thing was a set-up, but I wanted her to know I noticed that she tried and was pleased with her.

You don’t have to be quite so effusive with your clients, but point out when they do something you like by saying, “Thank you.” “Thank you for getting the revisions back to me before the Thursday; this really helps us meet our timeline.” “Just got your payment in the mail; thank you!” They’ll realize that you noticed and appreciated their behavior, which means they’ll be more likely to do it the next time.

Incentives can be helpful, but use with caution.
I’m not too proud to say I’ve made a deal in the last week that involved an act of swimming bravery in exchange for an ice cream bar. It worked; she did what she had to to get the ice cream at the end of the lesson. But what do you suppose happened the next day (and every day since)? “Can I have an ice cream?”

By Jodimichelle via Flickr.com

By Jodimichelle via Flickr.com

It can be tempting to woo clients with a slightly lower rate on the first job or an email giving a status update on a Saturday afternoon, but be careful if you do. If you do that without making it clear that this is a “special treat” they’ll come to expect it. And sometimes, even if you do make it clear, they’ll ask for it again. Let them know when you do something out of the ordinary and if they ask for it again, be firm and say, “No.”

Tantrums will happen. That’s OK.
There have been tears. Earnest, loud, frustrated tears. And no amount of logical reasoning in the moment will make them stop. And so we’ve waited it out or after a few tears a distraction (not an incentive) has been introduced and the tantrum dissolved.

Your clients will have tantrums. It will happen and you can’t prevent them and it doesn’t mean you’re bad at what you do. When they do happen, give the client some room to vent. If it sounds like a genuine concern, ask a few more questions to try and understand what’s really upsetting them and why. If it sounds more like a bad day or missed cup of coffee, a distraction might be in order. A short break, a walk or postponing the meeting until tomorrow are all fine options.

By Fabrizio Fogilani via Flickr.com

By Fabrizio Fogilani via Flickr.com

You are the expert at what you do. You understand your business, and the realistic implications of certain changes, better than your clients. It’s important you remember that when your clients come to you with questions, demands or suggestions!

Be the confident, compassionate expert who knows the world won’t end if they put their face in the water.

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2 responses to “Swim Lessons for Stubborn Clients”

  1. This is so great! Definitely filing it away for the next time I encounter a stubborn client. Thanks Katie!

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