Sometimes, being an entrepreneur isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. When I left my 9-5 job, it was to pursue the ultimate freedom of self-management. I became the boss, and that meant the power was all mine, right? Not exactly. As we all figured out —particularly those of us in the service industry and those with clients on a retainer — getting rid of your boss just means picking up new “bosses,” aka your clients.
While you likely care just as much, if not a lot more, about making these new “bosses” happy, you’re going to find yourself occasionally disagreeing with them. How you manage these misunderstandings and complications will largely affect how successful you are. It’s much easier for a client to fire you than a boss.
I thought about this in a recent dispute with a client, and I realized how important it is to navigate unavoidable confrontations with a plan. Here’s the story of my experience and how I ultimately saved the relationship.
What Went Wrong
One of my clients was usually punctual with payment, but it didn’t arrive on time during this particular month. I noticed that his interactions with me became a little terse. I was worried. This was a longtime client relationship – and one I’d poured a lot of sweat into. I quickly reached out to him with an “Is there something I should know?” type of email. Much as I had predicted, he indeed was not happy.
I was shocked to found out why. His rankings (my responsibility) were solid. Traffic was up 20 percent. Conversions from his forms were up 20 percent. This was a triumph for me, but it turned out those metrics weren’t important from his standpoint. His issue was our delivery time on what I call “non-KPIs.” These included minor website design changes and other special projects that were included in our service, yet played virtually no role in his strategy or ROI. We had misunderstood his priorities.
Ultimately, the issue stemmed from our differing opinions on KPIs. Fortunately, I was able to get things under control and save the relationship, but only because I kept the following tactics in mind:
- Prepare your response accordingly. If your client has suddenly lost faith in you, try not to let it cut you too deep. Use this as a learning opportunity. In my situation, I promised the client a thorough response in 24 hours. He was satisfied with the promise, and I had more time to craft an answer.
- Put your personal feelings aside. This is going to be hard if you feel that you or your team has been insulted. You have every right and expectation to defend yourself as a professional; just make sure you leave anything personal at the door.
- Anticipate the arguments and prepare evidence. Fortunately, I was already gathering data very effectively before a rift was created. We recently adopted a slew of different software suites, including Trello and Freshbooks, that allow us to track and sort hours and tasks. Thanks to these tools, I was able to equip myself with data that showed exactly where the client’s money went, and which results could be directly attributed to what I did for him.
- Consider both sides. You’ve got a stake here, but you want to let the facts speak for themselves. Be sure that you can thoroughly understand their criticism, because they may very well be right in this case. If they aren’t, you should be able to prove it without making it personal. Try to get back on the same side, and the same page.
- Make sure it doesn’t happen again. This incident revealed some gaps in our process; most notably that I didn’t contact my clients often enough to really keep them in the loop. I’ve improved the transparency of how we work for our clients with smaller, more frequent goals, reports and a strategy process that includes their input.
In the end, it didn’t take much to get him back on our side, considering that the relationship almost collapsed. In moving past this, I’ve made it a priority to build closer relationships with my clients so that misunderstandings like these can be avoided.
[This post by Adam Steele first appeared on BusinessCollective, an initiative of Young Entrepreneur Council, which is a free virtual mentorship programme that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses..]