Let's Get Real About Client Relationships.
Okay. Quick humble brag. We have some of the most amazing clients. Seriously - our clients flip old ideas on their heads, call out the BS in their industries, and shake things up with awesome Websites and Apps that solve real life problems for real life users. Together we create a more friendly and inclusive digital space, and we're pretty lucky.
But let's be honest - nothing can be perfect all the time.
Tough client moments are a fact of agency life - even the best clients and teams have days where they should have handled things better or differently. On those days, it is perfectly natural to mentally destroy your computer with laser beam glares, throw the remnants out the window, and mic-drop right outta there. Mentally is the key word, though - not real life.
Venting about clients is kind of like finding a way to turn your eyes into actual laser beams that do real damage to everything around you. Okay - maybe that's a little exaggerated, but think about how infectious negativity is. Too often, the "quick rant" becomes a 27-minute commiserating session about all the annoying, crazy, and horrible things that clients do. And at the end of the meeting? Everyone leaves frustrated, and nothing gets better.
Why? Venting prioritizes blame over accountability. It's void of any resolution - there are no action items or next steps, and there's no empowerment to give the team hope that things can improve.
Side Effects of Venting in Team Conversations
- The team loses trust that the sales team can effectively select clients that are a good fit.
- Sales and leadership feel like the team is limiting potential for new business.
- Relationships suffer: team-to-client, peer-to-peer, team-leadership. All of them.
- Walls go up. Productivity goes down.
This doesn't mean don't talk about tough client moments or team challenges. It means avoid the trap of commiserating and refocus the conversation more constructively.
If you aren't sure about where the line is between "venting" and "constructive discussion", here's a few guidelines to help.
5 Things Not To Say & What To Do Instead.
#1: “This client is the literal worst! Seriously, I'm done!"
Making a statement like this embraces a stance of inflexibility and shuts down a healthy conversation before it can begin.
There are people that jump to extremes for no reason in this kind of business, but that's rare. Most often, tension comes from a source of miscommunication or poor expectation management... So unless the client makes it a habit to eat eggs in front of chickens, they probably aren't the literal worst.
What To Do Instead: When someone says I'm done, it usually means I don't know what to do or where to go from here. Talking through these moments and looking for guidance is great - but do it productively. Think about the relationship with this client and how they normally interact with the team. Are there steps that can be taken to guide this client toward providing more constructive feedback? Has anyone ever discussed the behaviors that are undesired with the client? It is unreasonable to be angry with a person without ever bringing it up to them.
Discussing the tension of a client relationship with a perspective that is focused on finding solutions offers much more valuable insight than blindly making unfair comments about the quality or character of a person.
#2: “It's impossible to please this client. They have no idea what they want. I can't even."
Some clients are able to clearly communicate their vision and general expectations. Other clients have a harder time with this. They aren't the experts (usually). We are. What does that mean? It means 8/10 times, their confusion and uncertainty falls to us to resolve. As the trusted experts, it's on us to propose the best course of action. Being unwilling to find a common vocabulary, establish a mutual level of understanding, or share an aesthetic lens help ensure nothing gets done.
What To Do Instead: Go back to the basics and remember that even though we code in logic, we create in art. So much of the early phases of ideation and creation is rooted in subjective opinions about design and interaction. This where clients have the hardest time communicating their needs and perspectives. If you don't understand why, just try to create a mood board that evokes the feeling of "sophisticated fun that's a little edgy but still inclusive". Maybe you nail it. Maybe it bombs. Yes, there are basic terms that tend to be the same thing to everyone - clean means white space and sharp edges, young and fun means bright colors and textures, etc. Beyond that though, are many more terms and phrases where the lines get blurred and achieving that aesthetic is purely in the eyes of the beholder. A designer proposes concepts that achieve that vision. The client determines if it's successful.
Work with the client to express what they mean with samples of what they like and don't like. Maybe they just need more time to decide what their ultimate vision is. Remember that the product look and feel speaks for them and for their vision. It is more personal to them than the pure functionality of a login - offering patience and guidance is key. FWIW, There is an upside to uncertainty... With uncertainty comes options. It also creates an opportunity to build trust as you work with the client to discover their brand tone, voice, and key feature requirements.
#3: “You think your client is bad, psh. [insert commiserating rant here].”
This one is easy. It's unproductive, unkind, and inappropriate. No-one feels better doing this. It only brings people down; it creates a culture that allows too many people to feel negatively about the work they do and the people they work with daily.
What To Do Instead: Just don't engage in this kind of conversation. When this conversation happens, encourage people to elaborate on what they are feeling, why, and what they propose to do to make progress. There's always a way to redirect a conversation toward something more productive.
#4: “This client used be great, but not so much anymore.”
What happened? That's the million dollar question (maybe literally). This kind of statement is particularly alarming because it means that there is a relationship people know is struggling and there aren't any actions being taken to improve it. I love the "it is what it is" mentality as much as the next cynic out there, but investing in good client rapport and team morale is a no-brainer.
What To Do Instead: Get with your team and work backwards. When a client has been reasonable and accommodating but starts to behave differently, there are usually two key reasons: (1) expectations got misaligned at some point through a breakdown in communication, and (2) trust in the team or faith in the process frayed at some point. Pinpointing when a client began to change the relationship is key to understanding steps to reset it.
It's also important to think about how long the client has been active with the team. What was the client's key focus when the relationship started? Has that focus changed? Relationships change over time and not all of them can last forever. That's okay - what isn't okay is letting the relationship fizzle. It is always better to amicably transition and preserve the relationship than to burn bridges senselessly.
#5: “Ugh. This client is so cheap - they won't pay for anything!”
What does this mean? Are they nice clients that have limited funding for new features? Do they undervalue the work that is done and challenge the cost? Did sales sell them a fixed-bid, fixed-scope project that turned out to be more effort than expected? Avoid the insults and unclear comments. To know what to do or how to help, it's important to understand the root of the complaint - is it actually really a money problem or is a values problem?
What To Do Instead: Talk to the Project Manager to get a better understanding of how resources are allocated to features and how that work is estimated. If the client is willing to pay for work but doesn't have funds, there are probably opportunities to work with them. If the client seems to undervalue the work being delivered, there is probably an expectation misalignment. In these situations, it's best to have an honest conversation with the team and the client so they can resolve miscommunications and determine a path forward together.
The TL:DR; Recap
Talking about the challenges you're having as a team and working on ways to get better? Yes, Please!
Venting about how miserable everything is without discussing your ownership in that situation? Nope. Nope. Nope.