How to Prevent a Challenging Client Relationship from Going Sour

If you run a client-based business, not every relationship will be rosy. By Cassie Hughes (Co-founder & Strategy Director) and Gabrey Means (Co-founder & Creative Director) at Grow Marketing As anyone who has worked in the service industry knows, not all client relationships are created equal. Some just click immediately, giving you the heady feeling similar to making a new friend. Others feel less intuitive, requiring more patience and effort to get them off the ground. Unlike friendship, business can — and must — take a broader view. Often the ones who push us the hardest have the most to teach us. Thoughtfully defending your recommendations and point of view is an important skill to have in your arsenal. The trick is in being able to discern between those who push you — and those who are just being pushy. Here’s how to prevent a challenging client relationship from becoming toxic.

1. See the Bigger Picture

When a client says no, asks for something different or cuts budgets, often the first reaction is to feel defensive. Your strategy is rock-solid; your ideas are great. This is EXACTLY what they need. Your impulse might be to argue and push harder because it’s important to feel a sense of passion and conviction about your ideas. If that doesn’t work, you might silently blame the client. He or she isn’t smart. They aren’t a decision maker. They don’t “get” it. Before going down that rabbit hole, pull back and try to assess the larger context of what the client is sharing. Maybe budgets have been cut across the board. Perhaps the client did not have the right information or enough lead time to sell the idea into his or her boss. Clients are often generalists while consultants are specialists. Sometimes benefits that seem obvious to us may not be to the client (or to his or her boss), and need to be spelled out or packaged in a different way. Digging a little deeper with an attitude of partnership can help clarify what is behind the “no” and set things up for a better outcome the next time.

2. Rise Above the Personal

Some of the most challenging client relationships are due to a clash of work styles. One party likes to communicate more casually while the other is abrupt and to-the-point. Cues can be interpreted or misinterpreted based on the way we see the world. But what about the broader context of the way the client operates out in the world? Is he or she abrupt due to being upset? Do they have a full day and want to move on to their next to-do? Do they just have a more reserved personality? Know the difference. Be willing to adjust your style accordingly — not in a way that is inauthentic, but rather in a manner that is conscious of and respects how your client likes to work.

3. Truly Be of Service

Sometimes a clients may be overwhelmed by their role, dealing with a challenging boss or going through something personal that has added to overall stress. In addition to providing the services the client has hired you for, be attuned to other ways you might be able to be of help. Share relevant industry news to help them stay smart. Create proposals and recaps in a format they can share directly with their boss without having to re-write or re-format anything. Offer a little free advice now and then. These are all ways you can serve the larger relationship and help turn a challenging client into a fruitful long-term partnership.  

4. Know When to Walk Away

Some client relationships are just not a good fit – for you, your team or your business. If you always butt heads or if your client constantly changes parameters and refuses to play fairly, it’s simply not a relationship worth saving. Even the most challenging client relationship has some wins. Both you and the client can be proud of the work you’ve achieved together, even if the road was bumpy on the way. Challenging relationships worth saving also tend to improve over time as you get to know your client’s work, organization and communication style. You can make subtle adaptations to smooth over the rough edges. With toxic client relationships that evolution never happens, no matter what you do. It starts painful and just stays there. Client relationships are marathon, not a sprint. Ideally, they are like a good marriage — with give and take and a healthy level of mutual respect that can weather disagreements, ultimately making each of you better.


About the guest blogger: Cassie Hughes is the co-founder and strategy director of Grow Marketing, an experiential marketing agency headquartered in San Francisco. Prior to starting her own agency, Hughes served as the Director of Marketing and Publicity for Levi’s. Founded in 2001, Hughes and her partner, Gabrey Means, have built Grow from a two-person consultancy into an award-winning agency that creates live experiences for a range of brands, including Google, Pernod Ricard, Visa, Pepsico, Dignity Health, Lincoln and Levi’s.