Client Relationships: When the Honeymoon’s Over

We’ve all had clients that try our patience – different personalities, cultural differences, an unwillingness to listen to our advice… these are normal issues that professional consultants have to deal with. But sometimes, a client relationship can become a liability. That’s when we have to take a tough look at the situation and decide what, if anything, can be done to salvage it.

Like a marriage, a client relationship involves a number of aspects that determine how successful the union will be. Let’s examine some of the extreme similarities, and compare how our reactions might or might not differ.

client-woesThe Cheat

  • Your sweetheart is seeing someone else behind your back, because you’re not paying them enough attention.
    Result: You end up contracting a second-hand STD.
  • Your client has hired an off-shore link-builder “to help” rank their site, in spite of you having explained the dangers of exactly the sort of links they end up buying.
    Result: The site receives a manual penalty and loses 70% of its traffic.

The Bum

  • Your hubby decides that he doesn’t like having a boss tell him what to do, and quits his job to “find himself”… in spite of the fact that jobs are scarce, you just bought a new house with a stiff mortgage payment, the credit card is maxed out and neither car is paid for.
    Result: You lose the house, the cars and the credit card and have to move in with your parents.
  • Your client badgers you for a laundry list of tasks to get his site’s traffic back ASAP, promising that he’ll “do whatever it takes” to get back in Google’s good graces. You feel his economic pain, so you put in a few 16 hour days to research the issues and prepare him a task list, complete with detailed instructions and sample link removal emails.
    Result: Two weeks after you deliver it to him, you learn that he hasn’t yet read it.

The Golddigger

  • Your wife begins spending faster than you can earn, and the financial hole gets deeper every day. As you’re increasingly unable to support her spending, the recriminations start and tension builds.
    Result: Bankruptcy, foreclosure, debt collectors and marital problems.
  • The client initially beat you down on price, to suit his limited budget. Now, he’s holding you responsible for the limited results and demanding more service… without an increase in cost.
    Result: In order to not lose the client, you “subsidize” the project with more hours… hoping to make it back later.

The Shrew

  • Nothing you do is right, nothing is enough. Your once attentive bride has evolved into a nag that finds fault with everything you say or do.
    Result: Your life is a virtual Hell, and being a middle-aged bachelor holds a certain attraction.
  • The client provides vague or misleading information, then blames you for not understanding what he “meant”. He makes veiled threats about not being able to continue your service.
    Result: Your life is a virtual Hell, and having one less client to contend with holds a certain attraction.

The Victim

  • You realize that as much as you want to, you simply can’t measure up to what your spouse deserves. You try…. really try… but you just don’t have what it takes to keep the promises you made before the marriage.
    Result: Your spouse may not complain, but you reproach yourself, regardless. You feel as though you’re a liability, rather than an asset.
  • You made promises to your client that you fully intended to fulfill, but now you realize that you simply don’t possess sufficient expertise to deliver in the necessary timeframe. They’re suffering because you’re coming up short.
    Result: Your confidence shaken, all your work begins to suffer. You feel guilty sending the client an invoice.

The Burden

  • Your wife’s brother loses his job, then his house, and your wife asks if they can move in, just until he “gets his feet on the ground”. So he, his wife and their five kids, two large dogs and a very noisy parrot moved in 8 months ago.
    Result: Privacy and tranquility are distant memories and your daughter’s college fund is nearly gone. A major supermarket built a new store in your neighborhood, based upon the consumption of your household.
  • One of your earliest clients, that you’ve been servicing for years, is doing well, and has greatly increased his demands. He pays for every minute of your time, but since he’s grandfathered, he’s paying a third the rate of your other clients.
    Result: You’re so busy that you have to turn down new clients… that would bring in three times the revenue.

Granted, some of the comparisons may seem less than perfect parallels. But the effects on the relationship are quite similar. The extent to which we may feel the relationship is worth continuing may also be similar.

Some of us may have a very clear definition of acceptable limits, while others don’t. Some of us may be more forgiving or less tolerant, while others are authoritarian with our client or allow them to take advantage of us. Typically, with more experience (particularly bad experiences), we tend to begin defining our boundaries. Few of us can say we’ve never experienced at least one of the scenarios above. Most, however, won’t allow themselves to suffer the same situation twice.

We can protect ourselves beforehand, to a great degree, by thinking about such circumstances objectively and deciding upon our boundaries before we face them. Even better, we can often clearly define those boundaries with the client. That will often prevent an issue from arising, and will certainly make it easier to enforce our standards with fewer hard feelings.

At the end of the day, any relationship that is unproductive, unprofitable or unhealthy is one we wouldn’t seek out… so why should we continue it once it crosses the line? We should either repair it or end it, and go on with our business.