How to Navigate Working with Problem Clients

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It’s always that one client who knows just how to ruin your day.

You see their name in your inbox and the dread pools in your stomach. “Maybe it’s not that bad,” you tell yourself. Maybe they just have a question.

But sure enough, it’s a doozy. Your recent work is performing like garbage, or they really can’t make their payments this month, or they have “just a few little changes” that are neither few nor little.

You know the client I’m talking about.

Every agency or consultant who’s been in the industry longer than a day has worked with problem clients.

Sometimes they show their bad side right away, and sometimes they wait until you’re halfway through a 6-month contract. Either way, it can be bad enough to make you seriously consider if this business is worth all the hassle.

But just because everyone has to deal with problem clients at some point doesn’t mean you need to just “deal with it.” You deserve to enjoy your work, to open your inbox without fear, to put out your best and know it’s appreciated.

This is entirely achievable with just a few small shifts to how you run your business. And we collected them all here for you today with the help of some of our best and brightest DM Certified Partners. So here are a few tricks for how to navigate working with problem clients.

You Don’t NEED to Work with Problem Clients

The first thing you need to understand is that you absolutely do not need to work with these kinds of clients. It doesn’t matter how cash strapped you feel or “under qualified” you think you are.

Keeping clients who stir up trouble and make you hate your job will always do your business more harm than good. So if someone is a bad egg, you should feel empowered to turn the away.

But every agency will have a few bad ones crop up, and it’s not uncommon to go through a phase where it feels like you are only getting problem clients. Luckily, there are a few things you can do that will set you up to prevent these kinds of clients from either grinding your job satisfaction into the dirt or tanking your close rate.

We got most of these tips and more from Steven Werley, one of the speakers at our recent Certified Partner Training Day—where the brightest minds of our DM Certified Partner Program get on stage and talk about what’s working for them.

See, it’s all about setting up checkpoints and keeping the commitments small at first, that way you don’t trap yourself into a contract you can’t or don’t want to fulfill. And it all starts with a single phone call.

Always Have an Introduction Call

One of the best ways to deal with problem clients is to make sure you don’t ever work with them in the first place.

And the easiest way to do this is to filter all your potential clients through an introduction call, also known as a qualification or a discovery call.

An introduction call is one of the first touch points with a potential client, and it’s the easiest place to turn away clients who are not a great fit for you. That way you aren’t wasting your or your client’s time in hours of meetings and consulting sessions. You’ve just spent a few minutes in a phone or video call.

The best way to find success in these calls is to have a list of “red flags” or disqualifying factors handy. That way when these things come up in a call, you have some tangible justifications for yourself and for the client for why it’s not a great fit.

What these disqualifying factors are is going to be hugely varied depending on your business and personal preferences.

If you are looking to just work on strategy with your clients, then you’ll want to filter out clients who are looking for bespoke or done-for-you services. Whereas if you are primarily working on one specific service, say you are solely a media buyer, then you’ll want to turn away clients looking for other services like web design or content creation.

The thing to remember is that you don’t need to do it all. If you back yourself into a corner and try to provide services you aren’t particularly fond of, or even particularly great at, then both you and the client will start to resent the contract, and problems will arise.

But as long as you have your list of red flags in your introduction call and you are honest with yourself and your client about what you can offer, then the relationship will be set up for success from the first contact.

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Provide Value to Set Better Expectations

Sometimes, the problem client isn’t necessarily a problem client. In many cases, this is someone who just doesn’t feel heard or doesn’t see how you can help them. And when you tie in communication problems with the desperation of a client who needs help to save their failing business, it’s not uncommon for the claws to come out.

But as long as the client feels that they are getting their money’s worth, they will be happy. This means you need to be providing a ton of value as early as possible.

This is what we like to call “value first.” And if you haven’t heard of this before, then welcome to a whole new world of client relationships.

When you lean heavy on providing a ton of value from the get-go, you let your potential client know that you have a lot to offer and that you aren’t going to nickel-and-dime them along the way. Your main priority is their success, not your profit margin.

And that’s not to say you need to ignore the profit margin. In fact, you shouldn’t be giving away all your best tricks for free. But you want to make sure that the very first interaction you have with any client is a valuable one for them.

The way Steven Werley does this with his agency is through a strategy session. Basically, after his introduction call, he invites his clients to attend a 3–5 hour meeting where he provides three foundational frameworks that will immediately set them off on the right track. If they walked away from that meeting and never saw him again, their business would still be better off.

And that’s the key.

By providing a TON of value upfront, you will set your clients up to keep coming back. Because to them, you clearly heard their problems and are already helping them. And if the first meeting was well worth it, they can only imagine what a long-term contract would look like.

Start Short Term

Speaking of long-term contracts, another great way to avoid landing problem clients is to avoid long term contracts in the beginning.

Sure, knowing you’ll have a guaranteed check in the mail for the next 6 months or even few years may sound like a good idea, but Steven has learned better, and so should you.

No matter how well your first few meetings go, you always want to start small. If your intro call is a hit, then invite them to a singular strategy session like Steven does. If that single session goes well, invite them to another single session to work through a single problem. Or offer them a short-term or single project contract.

 The trick is to make sure you have lots of chances and plenty of room to exit this relationship. Because remember those good clients who go bad? Well they can show their face at any point, even if the first few meetings went well.

Now I’m not saying you should look at every client like a ticking time bomb. But just make sure you aren’t locking yourself in a partnership before you know the client well enough. And as long as you are providing a ton of value and taking on clients that are a good fit, even your clients with shorter contracts will keep coming back for more.

Offer Them Their Money Back

Let’s be honest. Sometimes things can fall through the cracks. Maybe the client turned out to be someone they weren’t originally, or maybe they just didn’t know what they needed at first.

Even if you do everything right, some clients are just going to be a bad fit. And if you simply can’t provide what that client wants, the best thing to do is cut your losses and offer them their money back.

Steven Werley keeps an eye out during his strategy sessions, and if the client just isn’t satisfied, he offers a full refund. He knows that losing 3-5 hours of his time is way better than losing days or weeks trying to force a client to be happy.

This is a big part of why you want to start small. Not only is it less time wasted up front if it doesn’t work out; it’s less money lost if you have to give out a refund.

And when you offer someone their money back if they are truly unsatisfied with your work or their returns, they won’t always take it; even the problem clients. But this offer signals that you really do want what’s best for them. And some clients may see it as a chance to reset the contract or change what they wanted to do.

Whether this offer resets the expectation of the relationship or just simply gets rid of a problem client before they are sending you hundreds of emails complaining, offering a refund will give you the space and time to take on a better client who is a better fit. And you’ll be able to make up the money.

Wrap Up

No matter what you specialize in, you’ll deal with problem clients at one point or another. But if you can set yourself up for success with these strategies, you’ll be way more likely to weed out the bad ones before it gets really really bad.

By providing a ton of value to clients who are only looking for what you can offer, the client will be more likely to ask for more services, and you’ll be way happier doing your job. And that’s the best thing you could ask for.

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