Water cooler conversations often involve some griping about bad clients. Sharing war stories about challenging clients is a way of blowing off steam and doing a little bragging at the same time. This is normal for any service-based business.
But, occasionally, you encounter exceptionally demanding clients that can disrupt, if not ruin, your business–the clients from hell. Most firms try to avoid them like the plague but this isn’t always possible. So how do you manage them without disrupting your business and losing money?
This is the first of a five part series based on my Clients from Hell webinar which goes over client relationships, the troublemakers, pitfalls to avoid and how to diffuse and prevent hellish client situations.
The webinar originated from insights gained from my 20 plus years practicing architecture, with contributions of attorney, Mark Friedlander of Schiff Hardin who has saved me from my fair share of legal entanglements with hellish clients. I’m also grateful for the contributions provided by Michael Phillips, AIA, an award winning architect and creator of the valuable Design Facilitator.
The Clients from Hell presentation is subtitled “…and other love stories” because your client isn’t just a project. It’s about relationships between people; the individuals who represent your client and the members of your firm who interact with them. Most of these relationships start out wonderfully but some go south for some seemingly inexplicable reason. I’m going to help you better understand these relationships and how to maintain the ‘love’ — and profits.
Before we get into the drama that occurs when relationships go bad, let’s start with how we get into these relationships. As someone in the professional services field, you’ll encounter a variety of them.
Long Term Relationships
The best relationships are with repeat clients. This is someone you’ve been ‘dating’ for years. This person has probably spent millions of dollars and time with you and they’re looking to take things to the next level. You’ve gained their trust and they’re going to reward you with an amazing new project.
The next relationship type typically comes from single family residential work. I refer to it as the Blind Date. In most cases these clients were referred to you by a friend who hired your firm to do their home. Like any blind date, this type of relationship can be a little bit risky.
Another type is the inherited project–also known as the arranged marriage. This relationship is common with public and private institutional projects. For example, one architect starts a project but for some reason can’t complete it and turns it over to you. The client trusted the other architect so they’re willing to give you a chance. From your perspective – the project is great. It had a good start because the first architect has already brought his client up-to-speed.
Regardless of how you got together, you’re now hitched. The first few months are blissful times. To the client – you’re a genius. They love everything you do. After each presentation, they think you’re smarter and more talented than the previous time.
They brag about you with their friends and colleagues. And you can’t believe that people are actually paying you to design these buildings and have so much fun.
When the Honeymoon Ends
Eventually, the honeymoon ends and reality sets in. At this point, relationships either continue without much drama or they go south. Relationships sour for various reasons:
- A client has unreasonable expectations that you can’t live up to.
- The client becomes too demanding or high maintenance.
- You replace a previous architect on a project and now the client has doubts about you.
- You started a project with one contact who loved you but now that person has been replaced with someone else.
But you never saw trouble coming because you were so lost in designing the next great piece of architecture that you forgot to pay attention to your client.
In the following posts of this series, I will help you reduce these situations, by showing you how to spot the warning signs, identify the four types of troublesome clients, avoid making the situation worse and how to reconcile your relationship issues and make the relationship better with your client.
In the next piece, I’ll share some of my own horror stories which include tangling with a litigious Harvard-educated lawyer, a delicate B-list diva and minor league Chicago mobster.