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Annette Naif of Forte Events NYC

7 tips for dealing with difficult clients

Annette Naif of Forte Events NCYAs a service-based event business, we have had our fair share of difficult clients from the know-it-alls, last-minute-changers, Prada-ideas-on-a-Wal-Mart-budgeter, can’t-make-a-decisioner, never-happys, the polite-and-pickies, and the fighters. High-maintenance clients are never easy but here are seven simple but powerful strategies you can use when dealing with difficult clients.

1. Listen actively in your first meeting. Ask a lot of questions in your initial meeting with the client and then sit back and listen to everything they say. Repeat their responses and write everything down. Confirm your understanding of the scope of the work and get them to confirm it back to you. This is a great way to have a record of your understanding should you need to refer back to it at a later date. If your client is a last-minute-changer, be sure to document the changes and have the client sign off on it.

2. No discounts. It never fails: The clients we give the most discounts to end up being the most difficult. It’s a bad sign if the client is nickel-and-diming you from the beginning. It will make it much easier to deal with a difficult client if you are being fairly compensated. If they don’t value your fee, they are not your ideal client!

3. Cut the cord early on. It can be hard to determine from your initial conversation whether the client is going to be a difficult client. They are generally lovely in the beginning, but as the pressures of the event start to creep in, the budgets increase, and the stress levels get higher, clients can turn increasingly more difficult. The key is to try to recognize this early on, when you have the option to decide if this client is right for you. It’s easier to walk away before they hire you than to have to fire them later and deal with refunds and sometimes expensive lawyers.

4. Set the ground rules of the relationship. Put the scope of work in writing. This will include the tasks to be performed, on-site management hours, the hours it will take to plan the event, the hours you are available to do business, and the number of meetings it will take to complete the event. Again, get the client to sign off on this; that way if they go beyond the scope of the work, you can bill them for the extra hours. It’s inevitable--it will happen!

5. Document everything. Always use email in any back-and-forth discussion with a client. Even if you have a face-to-face conversation or speak to the client over the phone, be sure to document the conversation with an email. Keep all email communications, and always put the topic in the subject line so you can find it easily at a later date if necessary.

6. Be firm. You don’t want to come across as a pushover. The minute you do, the client will try to take advantage of you. We all want to please and accommodate our clients; however, we don’t want to go to the extent that they are wearing us out with all their demands and causing us to lose money. Remember: You are in business. This is not your hobby, and you need to be compensated for your work. Clients will respect you more if you stand up to them.

7. Terminate their services. Yep, sometimes you just have to cut your losses and fire the client. We had to fire a client two weeks before a large three-day event and walked away from $7,000. It was a very hard decision to make but one that needed to be made. We should have walked away months before, but you can never imagine it’s a situation you can’t handle.

Warning signs to fire your client might be:

  • The scope of the work gets bigger and the client doesn’t want to pay for your time
  • They want you on call 24/7 and won’t take no for an answer (or pay you for you extra time)
  • The client is micro-managing and won’t let you do your job
  • The client doesn’t trust your abilities or professional opinion
  • You are neglecting other clients.

At the end of the day, no event or amount of money is worth the stress.

Fortunately, most of our clients are fantastic, but there are times when we have the client from hell. With some patience and systems in place to handle the difficult ones, you can get through it to strive in a successful business and create wonderful relationships with your clients.

Annette Naif is owner and creative director of Forté Events NYC in New York.

Her work includes live coaching events, training programs, conferences, retreats, tours, incentive programs, sales meetings, galas and private social events including weddings. Her background includes motion pictures, television production and corporate event development.

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