Steff Moore

Difficult Clients: The Clint Eastwood Guide to Managing Them

By: Steff Moore | October 9, 2013 | 

Difficult Clients- The Clint Eastwood Guide to Managing ThemBy Steff Moore

“Now remember, things look bad and it looks like you’re not gonna make it, then you gotta get mean. I mean plumb, mad-dog mean. ‘Cause if you lose your head and you give up then you neither live nor win. That’s just the way it is.” – Clint Eastwood.

As professionals, we talk a lot about how to satisfy our clients. How to keep them happy and find ways to make their campaigns a success.

But every once in awhile, we get a client who wants something for nothing, who makes unreasonable demands, or who seem to go out of their way to make our jobs more difficult. The type of client who requires a different tact.

We still have to maintain our professional manner, but there’s no reason we can’t take a bit of Wild West attitude with our client relations.

The next time you’re dealing with difficult clients, ask yourself, “What would Clint Eastwood Do?”

Problem: Difficult Clients Expect More Work

“I tried being reasonable. I didn’t like it.” – Clint Eastwood.

You’ve just finished your final round of (very substantial) edits on a client project, but they’re not happy. They want you to go back to the drawing board and try something else, and they don’t seem to understand this isn’t what “revisions” are about.

Solution: Now is the time to pull out your contract and flip to the section about revisions. Explain to the client that, as per the contract, the time to make giant sweeping changes has passed. Explain you’re happy to make the changes they require, but that it constitutes a major change in the project specs and will result in a new fee. You can throw in a witty one-liner to make them laugh and break the tension, too.

If you do not have all this in your contract, you need to get a new contract written up, pronto. You’re too late to save this situation, and might have to do the changes and take a hit, but you need to prevent this happening in the future.

Problem: Difficult Clients are MIA

“Seems like whenever I get to liking someone, they aren’t around for long.” – Clint Eastwood.

You’ve finished the drafts for the project and everyone’s happy with them. You forward to the client for approval and … nothing. The client doesn’t reply. Emails go unanswered, the phone goes straight to voicemail, and meanwhile, the deadline your client insisted upon is approaching fast.

Solution: Clint doesn’t wait for the baddies to find him – he goes after them first. Not that your client is a baddie, of course. Not at all. But if the client isn’t calling you when they’re supposed to and you’re waiting on their approval before the project can move forward, then it’s important for you to chase them up and get the ball rolling.

Call them, rather than email, and explain calmly that you need an answer so you can move to the next stage. If you can’t get the client on the phone, contact someone else at the business and see if you can find out what’s up.

Problem: Difficult Clients Don’t Want You to Work with Competitors

“Don’t piss down my back and tell me it’s raining.” – Clint Eastwood.

Your agency is in negotiations for a big and exciting contract, and the whole team is buzzing. The problem is, one of your current clients is this company’s direct competitor. They’re appalled you’ve even thinking of taking on their competition, and have told you they think it’s morally wrong to have two clients in the same industry.

Solution: There’s a famous adage among agency folk: “Two clients in the same category is conflict. Three clients in the same category is a specialty.” It’s all a matter of perspective. First, explain the situation to the client that you won’t be sharing industry secrets, and a different team will be working with them. Explain how taking on this other client will give you a better insight into the industry.

If the client still won’t budge, it’s time to think about what’s best for your agency. Is it better if your future client leaves, or if you turn down the new client? Which job offers the better prospects, and which outcome can you live with?

Problem: Difficult Clients Want What You Can’t Deliver

“If you want a guarantee, buy a toaster.” – Clint Eastwood.

In a creative industry, there are no guaranteed results. A well-thought-out creative campaign can return less-than-stellar numbers, and a mediocre job that’s a blatant copy of a competitor can be a resounding success. Your client doesn’t understand this, and they seem to be looking to trap your team into promising certain results.

Solution: Beware! A client is usually looking for a guarantee when they’re trying to get out of paying you. Most clients understand that nothing is guaranteed in marketing, so don’t let yourself get trapped into making a promise you can’t keep. Show them some of the expected results, and how other clients have seen success with their campaigns, and explain how you will monitor the campaign to ensure all results are recorded so the campaign can be tweaked later. You need to show them that even if you can’t offer a guarantee, you care about the results as much as they do.

Problem: Difficult Clients Don’t Want to Relinquish Control

“I have a very strict gun control policy. If there’s a gun around, I want to be in control of It.” – Clint Eastwood.

This client is so excited about working with your agency on this project that he seems to think he’s part of the creative team. He has sketchbooks filled with ideas, and keeps sending you badly-photoshopped mockups of website pages for you to use.

Solution: You have two options: 1. Do exactly what the client wants, and get the job finished as quickly as possible or 2. Let the client know, as kindly and politely as possible, that some of their ideas might not work as well as they think.

Either option can lead to conflict: Your client might feel as if you’re expecting him to do all the work, or could resent being told his ideas are terrible. The best thing to do is approach the situation with a focus on solutions – how to make the project the best it can be – instead of laying blame and pointing fingers.

What other problems and solutions do you have for dealing with difficult clients?

About Steff Moore

Steff Moore is head of content at WorkflowMax – a cloud-based workflow management system ideal for small-to-medium size agencies. Their software integrates with Xero accounting and offers job management, reports, invoicing, timesheets, and time tracking - all the tools your agency needs. She lives in Auckland, NZ.

  • susancellura

    Absolutely love the creativity of this post, along with all the great tips. And, I get to be the first to write, “Go ahead – make my day.”  😀

  • Digital_DRK

    The Clint cliches alone were worth the read, great tie in with the content. I think managing expectations is a key to managing clients. That requires clear definitive communication, and fostering that partnership/relationship.  “I know what you’re thinking….”    I won’t add another a Clint cliche.

  • This is amazebarns. 
    As someone who’s done my share of project management, I have dealt with all of these. For those last two the speed element is crucial, have to figure out a) do we want to continue to work with them and b) if no, how much time do we put in and how quickly can we move on 
    (p.s. say hi to Chirag over there, awesome guy. also, if you threw in some data points this would make an amazing infographic. just sayin’)

    • ChiragAhujanz

      JoeCardillo You da man Joe! .. Thanks for commenting and adding really valuable points. Lets see where can i get data on this beast 🙂

      • ChiragAhujanz JoeCardillo Ha awesome. This is one of my regular haunts so was pleased to see such a fun and useful piece from you guys/gals here

  • Suze Carragher

    I dig Clint!

  • CommProSuzi

    This is SO good. 
    Re: MIA clients.   It bears repeating, that if someone goes MIA during a project, it may not be their doing.  Always have a back up plan or what I call the “hit by a bus” plan. 
    What happens if I’m hit by a bus and can’t answer you? In my case, it was “What if I get launched by a horse and can’t remember what we’re working on for a few weeks?” plan. 
    Sadly, the incident that underlined why I have a path B is horrific.  I knew a local official who relayed this event. A trusted assistant was to set up an early morning meeting for a local official. She was always early. Always dependable. He thought, “Oh, she’s sick, but she would have called.” So he called. His calls went unanswered, so the official sent the sheriff over to check.  The sheriff called the official to report they found her. She had been killed by an intruder overnight. 
    Before hearing this story, I’d be the one storming around trying to get things right for the meeting, grumbling about the lack of professionalism.  I would have felt horrible afterwards for harboring ill-thoughts about someone who met such a horrific end.  
    It’s why I force myself to stop and ask, “How’s it going?”

  • Arment Dietrich, Inc.

    I dig his son…he’s one good looking boy! ^yp

  • Suze Carragher

    God did a good job on Scott. And… Luke, there is another! KYLE.

  • Seriously – love the creativity of this! I dig Clint too, and his son…his son is really hot…I digress.
    And this: “Don’t let yourself get trapped into making a promise you can’t keep” Yes! You need those SMART goals.

    • yvettepistorio Every great relationship is based on agreeing on some things and purposefully not agreeing on others = )

    • workflowmax

      yvettepistorio I am 100% with you on the hotness of the son …

  • Whenever I work with yvettepistorio normally she winds up in all these categories.8)
    This is a great post. I would add for the same industry clients offer to sign Non-Disclosure agreements. This way if you share anything sensitive you are legally liable. And the size of the business is important. Taking on Ford and GM might be a problem. But taking on Joanie’s Bagel Shop and Johnny’s Morning Stop that compete on coffee and baked goods, unless they are on the same block they don’t compete. Considering their market place is HUGE and they are so little. 
    Lastly when you feel the client isn’t supporting/participating you need to have in writing proper expectations. ‘To achieve this we need X,Y,Z’ this way later you can bring that up. I find bizarrely clients know they aren’t following through, so they are usually afraid to even bring up goals, and will keep paying for the status quo not realizing that isn’t a good place to be for the vendor or the client.

    • Howie Goldfarb It’s true – I’m a company’s worst nightmare…

  • Um……holy wow batman! How much do I love this post! Love…understatement! Like I’m so excited about it I don’t actually have much to say, which many will tell you is a rarity. 
    Oh look, I’m back, ok….YES, you nail some of the most trending and difficult client issues we face in dealing with clients. And you give some really actionable strategies to help navigate the seas of client angst. I’d say the two most important things that I’ve learned along the way are:
    1) Communicate: Hey, hey, especially important for communications professionals, but in any industry. And when I say communicate, I mean really communicate on a level that resonates with that client and know from day one what that is. That makes it much easier to broach some of these issues when they occur or prevent them from happening in the first place.
    2) Set expectations VERY clearly (and do it in a contract). Lay it out in a detailed and clear manner and then back it up with a contract. Contract, contract, contract…..I can’t emphasize enough.
    But thanks for this! It made me smile and I’ll save it in my stockpile of resource posts to refer to and share often

  • rdopping

    Steff, this an exceptional post but as your client I would love it if you could just changes a few things. I know you are the talent and I hired you for your expertise but frankly I am smarter than you. You are the professional though so I expect you to challenge my ideas but not so much as not to accept my ideas as gold. Who do you think you are talking to? Don’t you listen? I love your work but it just doesn’t meet my high standards and the expectations I neglected to tell you about when we started.
    Honestly I don’t think ww can work together anymore. Can you give me a reason why we should continue. I was enamoured by your talent but you don’t seem to listen.

  • littlegiantprod

    Steff, these are great, well-thought out posts. I have definitely dealt with some or if not all of these scenarios.  Love the Clint Eastwood analogies.  We can then say to a client, “Go ahead.  Make my day.”

    • workflowmax

      littlegiantprod Thanks! I live for the day I can say that to a client!

  • Great post! And not a single “Clint Eastwood talking to a chair” reference, either!
    Loved #1 and 2, especially. In Statements of Work, I always define up front what’s included and what would be “beyond the scope” and build in multiple contingencies.
    Regarding #2, one of my biggest peeves is clients who sit on stuff for weeks, then when they get around to it they demand instant turnaround. I try to make clear up front that the schedule builds in a reasonable time period for approvals, like a few days, and that it’s a mutual responsibility to move the project along.

    • workflowmax

      RobBiesenbach YES, YES, YES. I know what you mean about those clients who sit on things for AGES and then expect it done tomorrow. I think your way of handling it is a step in the right direction, though.

  • Oh, Clint. This is really a marvelous post. I was just reminding a team member yesterday that often, when a client asks a question or pushes back, often they’re just asking for more information or clarification. For example, if you’re sharing something on social media and they don’t agree with what or why a post was shared, most likely they just need to know the strategy behind it. It’s important to take time to think of the WHY to get to the best response.

  • Hi Steff
    Found this helpful…
    “Two clients in the same category is conflict. Three clients in the same category is a specialty.” 
    I often have to produce websites for clients in the same line of work, which I always saw as “conflict” – think I’ll call it my “speciality” from now on.

  • EmilyMMoorhead

    As a student soon to (hopefully) be in the field of PR, this shows me a different perspective on client relationships.
    Even while still in college, I have experienced a number of these problems, especially MIA clients. I think part of the issue is that not all industries prioritize communication. Great communication skills are essential to PR; it’s part of the reason we’re so good at what we do. To a busy client, however, responding to an email or phone call may be pretty low on the priority list, especially when they have many projects on the table. I like when you say that it’s our duty to get in contact with the client, even if you have to go through multiple people or offices. 

    I like the Clint Eastwood theme. It made the article fun and easy to read. Plus, I think we can all relate as being the “tough guy” sometimes.

  • MamaGG

    karirippetoe Thanks for the share!

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