Do you choose your clients or do they choose you?

We all work for somebody. And that relationship may not always be the best it could be. Sometimes it’s just an off day or the work is difficult, but from time to time the relationship simply isn’t working.

When you begin working with a client (or a project team or a supplier), you build a relationship with the people you meet first – these are the people you choose to trust. It’s a leap of faith, starting work with new people.  You negotiate the scope and the terms of payment, and begin work with a spring in your step.

However, change is the only constant in life (and taxes, of course), and things may not always go according to plan.

“Some companies pitch for the work with their A team but once they’ve won the job you never see them again.”

In thinking about this piece, we have spoken to lots of people. Everyone has a tale to tell about a client or a supplier that has let them down or behaved badly. But few would be specific, concerned about the damage it would do to their business if they named and shamed.

So. How can you protect your business from difficult clients?


Step 1: choose carefully.

Your business is formed by the decisions you make: the work you seek out, the teams you build, the opportunities you turn away.  The wrong work can do immense harm, distracting your team from other, better projects and taking up a great deal of time as you try to unravel it.

We use the 4 Fs to choose who we work with:


Fun Will you enjoy working with this client or on this project?
Fame Will it make you look good – will you want to tell people about it?
Fortune Will it make you any money? And will they pay you on time?
Future Will this client or project result in more work in the future?


If that opportunity ticks 3 of the 4 boxes, snap it up.  If not, renegotiate or walk away.

Every piece of work you do has an impact on your reputation, on your team and on your track record.  But what do you do when a client or a piece of work isn’t all you thought it would be?


Step 2: check your assumptions

Are things happening as they should?

Those negotiations at the outset, where you agreed to discount your fee in return for prompt payment, or where elements of the scope were dropped to bring down costs, or it was agreed that you would have creative control… Keep a close eye on time spent, invoicing and days to pay.  Are you both doing what you said you would do when you said you would do it?

And re-evaluate those 4 Fs.  Are you proud of the work you’re doing and enjoying working with the team?  Are you being paid fairly and are those promises of further work becoming real opportunities?

It is worth including these things in your regular agenda for discussion with the client.  Check that the work they were going to get done elsewhere is progressing, remind them that their payments are overdue, be specific about the scope.

Don’t be afraid to talk about money.


Step 3: communicate

Still not going well?  The client may not be aware that their requests for changes, meetings, extras… have completely blown the budget.  Has design by committee sucked the life out of your team and reduced the initial bold concept to nothing?  Have the elements of the scope that were dropped in negotiation reappeared?  Has “can you just…” crept in?

Make time to talk.

“We really like working with you and are excited about the potential for this project.  Let’s make time to review progress and keep things on track.  It’s important to us that you’re getting what you need from us, and we need a few things from you in order to deliver what you’re asking of us.”


Step 4: let it go

Sometimes, you have to take a deep breath and walk away.  It’s better to end something professionally than to let it drag on and get worse.

 “This isn’t how we do our best work.  We can’t deliver what you’re asking of us.  You will get what you’re looking for from somebody with a different skill set.”

Good relationships need time, communication and patience.  Sometimes it’s worth investing. Sometimes it’s worth letting the storm rage on… without you.

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