You’ve been in business for quite some time, and have happily acquired some loyal clients. Everything seems to be going well, until suddenly the relationship turns soar or could be ending due to any number of common issues.
There are always ups and downs when running a business. Definitely more highs than lows. But when you’re going through a rough patch with a long-term client, there are ways to make things better again, and ensure you don’t lose their business.
Here are five common scenarios that might arise and how to deal with them…
Scenario 1. Someone new has joined your client’s senior team
When your client hires new senior people, there’s always a risk that they’ll want to replace you with their own suppliers or contacts. They might want to prove themselves and make their own mark on the business. Starting fresh with someone else, so to speak.
Keep that from happening by maintaining a strong relationship with as many people as possible – not just within the senior team – but everywhere else in the company as well. This will make you irreplaceable in their eyes.
Just before the new person joins, prepare a report of everything you’ve achieved for your client since you started working for them. And then, when you introduce yourself on email, be as friendly as possible and explain how you thought they might want to be brought up to speed on all communications activity. Be friendly, approachable and go out of your way to impress. Use the language of ‘we’ to fully integrate yourself within the company, and adopt a relationship of trust.
One final tip – make the new person look good. They’ll be wanting to impress their new boss, and might see you as a threat, unless of course you subtly praise and support them. Become their best friend. But if they’re still being difficult and want to get rid of you, don’t get petty or negative… just know how to play the game and use all of your cards to ensure your survival.
Scenario 2. Your client forgets how you helped them succeed, and starts treating you like the enemy
There’s that wonderful period when all your hard work has paid off, and your client is succeeding and loving you for your contribution. But suddenly, the atmosphere changes for the worse and your client starts to get over-demanding and unreasonable. Arrogance can kick in when clients thrive. And it’s easy for them to forget how you helped them to get there. That’s when the claws come out and they start to demand more and more, putting unreasonable pressure on you to achieve even more results.
Communication is your friend here, not just in this particular scenario – but always. You must set systems in place that ensure you are always in touch with your client, proving your worth.
That’s whether you’re able to provide weekly reports on stats or just a regular email with lots of fresh ideas to help your client further. Don’t ever give them the opportunity to start questioning your position.
Also, be compassionate. There might be a lot going on that you’re unaware of… Financial pressures, internal issues, high staff turnover – these could all be adding to stress levels, so don’t take it personally if the pressure piles on. You’re dealing with humans, after all – and none of us are perfect.
Scenario 3. They think they know best and start to ignore your consultancy advice
Consultancy is about guiding your client down the right path to success. Using your skills and expertise, you ensure that they have the best footing to achieve their commercial goals. For many years, they’ve followed your advice and you’ve brainstormed ideas together successfully. But just lately, they’ve started to ignore your counsel and are coming up with all kinds of wacky ideas that you know, with all your heart, won’t work. Even worse – they’re starting to think they can live without you!
Don’t be afraid to speak up. Embrace the difficult conversation respectfully. Remind your client that they hire you to help them do the right thing. Remind them that you care deeply about their success, and that you feel their idea will lead them off track. Another great thing to point out – tell them that your reputation is at stake and if they proceed with their idea, you won’t be held responsible for the outcome. That usually does the trick.
Sometimes, they still won’t listen. So when they go ahead with their idea and it doesn’t work – don’t be all smug and ‘I told you so’ about it. Simply be professional and position yourself as part of the team saying something like: “Ok, let’s look at these new ideas that we could implement".
Your client will secretly thank you for not gloating.
"Consultancy is about guiding your client down the right path to success. Using your skills and expertise, you ensure that they have the best footing to achieve their commercial goals."
Scenario 4. The goal posts have changed on a project, but the client won’t pay more
It’s always the most difficult aspect of freelancing – knowing how much to charge for a project. You often spend a day of your own time, quoting for the work. It’s all agreed, and everything goes ahead. But then, halfway through the project, your client shifts the goal posts and realises that they need additional stuff. This means it will take much longer, although your quote doesn’t cover things. Does the client want to pay more? Of course not. So what’s the solution?
Don’t be afraid of having the difficult conversation. Make it clear that the project has changed and will therefore require more of your time to complete. If they’re unreasonable and aren’t prepared to pay extra, then take this as a big lesson on managing expectations in future. Go ahead and complete the project, but warn the client that if they add anything further – you will have to re-quote.
Then, the next time you quote for any project make it absolutely clear – both verbally and in writing – that if the requirements change, then the quote will need to be reassessed. If you establish the rules and fully manage expectations before any work begins, then you should have everything covered.
“Business is about people. As long as you remember that, you’ll always succeed.”
Scenario 5. They’ve stopped working in partnership with you
For a successful business relationship with your client, you have to work in partnership. There is no other way. They have to see you as an essential part of the team.
But many things can damage a relationship or trigger a lack of trust. It could be the addition of a new member of staff (see above) who doesn’t like you and wants you gone. It might be that you’ve just put your prices up, and your client is now wary of what you’re doing. Or your client might have been talking to another consultant at a networking event who has planted negative thoughts into their heads, turning you into the enemy. You could just be rubbish at communication – yes, it could be your fault!
Whatever the scenario, trust isn’t something that can just be left alone; it has to be continuously maintained through solid communication and friendship. My own father gave me the best tip about running a business. He said: “Business is about people. As long as you remember that, you’ll always succeed”. And he’s completely right.
In which case, treat your clients like any human relationship that you want to keep. Call or see them often, show them that you care and be easy to work with. Be likeable.
Having regular face-to-face meetings will help enormously. They maintain the level of trust, they provide an opportunity to discuss any concerns or issues professionally, and they certainly don’t give the client time to wonder what’s going on.
And those are just a few common scenarios with long-term clients that might pop up, and my suggestions on how to tackle them. What issues have you encountered along the way? How did you tackle them? Have you got any advice you could add? Join the conversation on Twitter.