Eight Tips For Difficult Client Conversations

Kerri Birtch, our latest hire in the Toronto office of Thornley Fallis, wrote a post on the PR Girlz blog recently talking about the art of consulting from the perspective of a new account coordinator.

One of Kerri’s more insightful thoughts:

…it’s not nearly as easy as some might think.

Here’s why:

We work for them, but we may not always agree with everything they ask of us. I think the key is balancing their wants with what you as the consultant feel they need.

Kerri neatly summarizes one of the founding principles of our firm – we tell our clients what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.

Unfortunately, sometimes that means having difficult conversations with your clients. Here are seven tips for making those conversations as conflict-free and effective as possible.

1. Explain the implications of their approach

Organizations bring us in to offer our expertise in communications and social media. They aren’t necessarily experts in these areas. As a result, they may not realize the implications of some of the ideas they have. Chances are, they don’t really want to act ineffectively or unethically; they just don’t realize that they’ll be ineffective or unethical. Remembering this fact enables you to approach potentially awkward discussions delicately so you can avoid any embarrassment on either side.

2. Find other solutions

Try to avoid saying a straight “no” to the client if possible. If possible, come up with palatable alternatives that leave you closer to a solution than “no” would do.

3. Remember that they are the experts on their business

Your bright new idea may sound great to you, but remember that while you’ve studied-up on your clients, their expertise in their business is still an order of magnitude higher than your knowledge. They may know of factors that affect your work, about which you know nothing.

4. Don’t be afraid to disagree

Your clients may come to you with ideas that you believe simply won’t work. It’s your job to tell them that. Simply agreeing to implement ill-advised ideas does them – and you – no favours. It wastes their money and lowers your credibility, both with the client (who doesn’t see any good results) and perhaps with your media contacts (who see you pitching non-news to them).

You offer the best value for money when, rather than being a “yes man,” you offer useful, honest advice.

5. Think it through in advance

If you have the opportunity, take five or 10 minutes to think the conversation and your approach through in advance. Jot down a few notes if it helps. It’s much easier to have those tough conversations when your case is clear, organized and well presented.

6. Look to maximize the length of your relationship, not the budget

As I’ve often heard around the office, being a full-service agency it doesn’t mean we’ll suggest every service for our clients. Throwing-in a bunch of tactics that don’t fit the situation might maximize your short-term budget, but if you suggest the appropriate tactics you’re more likely to have a long-lasting relationship with a satisfied client.

7. Remember it’s their choice

This was something I learned early-on in my time in government: regardless of whether your client is a government minister or an organization, your job is to give them the best advice you possibly can, then carry out their wishes.

Sometimes clients will take your advice. However, sometimes they’ll listen, thank you and choose to approach things differently. When the latter happens, as long as it’s ethical, within your contract’s scope and budget and as long as you’ve explained the likely outcomes, you have to respect their decision and implement it to the full extent of your ability.

8. Stick to your principles

Sometimes you may be asked to do things that go against your principles. My advice is to politely but firmly stick to your principles. While doing so, respect point #1 above – they may not realize the implications of their approach.

If necessary, tell them you’ll get back to them on their ideas then talk it over with your manager, but don’t compromise on your principles.

How do you approach those difficult client conversations?

Dave Fleet
Managing Director and Head of Global Digital Crisis at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.