Wouldn’t it be lovely if every client relationship was all unicorns and rainbows? In a perfect world, our clients would show up to meetings, listen to our advice, and respect the boundaries that we set within our companies. Of course, business (and life) isn’t quite so easy.
Every creative professional has had to deal with troublesome clients. You know the type. They’re the ones who think they know everything or the ones who think they are entitled to discounted rates for the same premium service. Sometimes, difficult clients are just the way they are and there’s no changing them. Other times, however, you might just need to have a tough conversation to set the record straight.
In certain cases, there comes a point where you have to sit down and talk things through. It gives your clients an opportunity to reflect on the client-vendor relationship and decide whether to adjust their behavior or go separate ways. Being upfront about expectations is the key to ensuring clients don’t cross the boundaries—and, if they do repeatedly, it provides you with an opportunity to dissolve the agreement.
Yet, it is difficult for many of us creatives to be firm and stand up for ourselves and our businesses. In fact, it’s almost taboo in the wedding industry for vendors to do so, but it’s so vital to the integrity of your brand. Some clients have it in their heads that they’re always right, but that simply isn’t the case. You are the expert! It doesn’t matter that they’re paying you; they do not have the right to disrespect you and your team. People will treat you the way you let them treat you, which is why it’s so critical to set clear boundaries early in the relationship.
Here are a few tips to help navigate those difficult conversations with grace.
Define your own boundaries.
At the end of the day, you are the professional hired to provide a service. You get to choose where to draw the line, whether that means they’re being disrespectful, micromanaging, or simply not listening to your feedback. This looks different for every business owner, so sit down and get clear on what you consider acceptable and what is not. If you have a team, bring them into this discussion as they may be able to lend insight about client interactions that you personally have not experienced on the ground.
Be crystal clear in the contract.
Your contract may help you get through a tough conversation, but ultimately, it’s more of a preventative measure. When you’re clear about what is permissible and what is not, you are setting expectations upfront and not leaving anything to guess. I recommend putting these guidelines on one of the first several pages of your contract. We all know that clients don’t normally read past the first few pages, so include them in the beginning so they will not be missed.
Be firm and state what will happen if the lines are crossed, including the forfeiture of their non-refundable deposit. Every client has the right to refuse services if they disagree with any part of your contract, and it’s better that happens upfront than to find out it’s not a fit later in the planning process.
Embrace self-awareness and question your expectations.
Sometimes, it can become a habit to instinctively say ‘no’ to something that falls outside of your expectations. We all get caught up in our ways, but flexibility is still an essential quality for business owners, particularly service providers. Don’t jump straight to a ‘no’ and, instead, listen to what your clients are really asking. Maybe it is something that you won’t budge, which is perfectly fine. But, in some cases, you might find that you’re being less than reasonable and perhaps need to be a bit more open-minded. It can help to get a third-party opinion if you can, as someone outside of the situation will have an objective view of both sides of the table.
Don’t be afraid to walk away.
Your self-value and brand integrity are worth far more than a single invoice, so don’t hesitate to pull the plug if you feel that a client has consistently disrespected you and your team. If you know in your gut that a client is not a fit, you have to let them go. Ultimately, it will be better in the long run for both parties—you will spend your time working with someone who respects your boundaries and the client will find a new vendor who better aligns with their expectations.
Of course, you don’t want to let a situation get to a point where you have to dissolve the agreement. That’s why you must lay everything out on the table from the start of the working relationship. Make it clear that the first transgression will be the last one. Let them know that, while you might not agree with them on everything, you are always operating in their best interest and it’s up to them whether they’re ready to move forward.
When you give your clients an out early in the relationship, you know they are agreeing to your expectations when they choose to sign your contract. If you don’t have these difficult conversations upfront, it will inevitably create stress within the planning timeline. Your clients will think they have free reign and there will be more hurdles to navigate along the way. In that case, it’s not their fault because nothing was spelled out for them. They don’t have boundaries because they weren’t given any.
That’s why I’m such a big advocate for educating your clients on your business, what you do, and what they can expect from you and other vendors on the event team. You are an expert and you run a successful business, so it’s up to you to act like it. Be calm and confident when explaining details and lean on factual information to back you up. You know what you’re talking about! Use that knowledge to teach your clients and set a positive precedent for how they speak to you and the rest of the event team. If you do, you’ll effectively protect your own boundaries while respecting those of your clients.