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Suzanne Banta

#017: How to Deal with Tricky Client Situations

Listen to Episode 17

Today, we’re going to talk about what you do with tricky client situations that just don’t fit into your normal workflow. Stay tuned.

Welcome to The Client Whisperer™ Show. I’m your host, Tony Banta, and I am the client whisperer. I’ve spent over a decade running multiple six- and seven-figure client businesses, and I’ve learned that the secret to success in a client business comes down to one thing: leadership. Bad client behavior is the enemy, and with the right curriculum, infrastructure and mindset, you can lead your clients to great success and scale your business the easy way. 

Tricky, tricky, tricky client situations. If you’ve been serving clients for any length of time, then you run into some of these some situations where your normal workflow, the normal pattern of what you do just doesn’t seem to work, and it could be nothing on your side that’s different or that is wrong. 

It could just be that the client has some tricky stuff going on. They have some special stuff going on and they need a little bit more attention in their life, in their business or in another area. It could be a matter of the workflow that you have isn’t working and they need more help in ways that are deeper than what you normally provide. It could be that you messed up. 

I’m going to talk about some examples of what this looks like, but it could be that you messed up, you made some mistakes, you don’t have your system ironed out and these clients that come along get to highlight that. So we’re going to dig into this topic. We’re going to look a little bit at how this works in a client business and ways that you can tell whether a client should be an exception to the rule or whether you need to coach them into your standard workflow. And we’re going to talk about how you actually do that when they are an exception. How do you coach them in through the exception that’s going on to your normal workflow in a way that doesn’t blow things up, that doesn’t create more problems?

So, we have a rule here at the Client Whisperer Show and in our product, the client success system, the rule is that unchecked exceptions only beget more exceptions. They only create more exceptions. 

The reason for this is simple: we designed the pathway for clients for a reason, and when clients step outside of that pathway, there are more unpredictable elements that pop up that you can’t prevent. You can’t stop those from happening. And if you’re not careful, pretty soon you’re stuck in a spot where you’re chasing around after clients that are outside of your workflow, like a sadistic game of whack-a-mole where you’re chasing clients that are over here and over there and you’re trying to get them, you’re trying to make sense of all of it. You’re trying to get everything in order. This is a nightmare scenario that some of you might be in right now.

Some of you have been in that position before and the classic response that I hear everyone say is, “Well, I learned my lesson, I’ll never sell a client like that again.” And that’s fine. You can absolutely do that. That’s a perfectly reasonable way of managing your client business, but I want you to ask yourself this question: is it that the client wasn’t right for your program or that there was something identifiable about the client that was different for you? Or is it a matter of the client being a fit for your program but needing some additional leadership, or a third option? Is this client a gift to you because they’re showing up in a way that lets you learn from their struggle so that you can fix that in your process moving forward?

Those second two are a lot juicier and they add tremendous long-term value into your program if you’re willing to look at them and do the uncomfortable job of really asking some of those questions, really looking at what’s going on – incredible things can happen for you from there. 

So, let’s dig into how to tell the difference. Well, I think there are generally three different kinds of exceptions. 

There’s an exception where the client shows up and they have a problem. This problem is outside of the scope of your work with them. Think about the health coach and they’re working with the client to lose weight and then the client comes on a call to get healthier in general maybe, right? And then the client gets on the call, and they’re getting a divorce.

Their finances are up in the air, their life is up in the air. Maybe they’re in the process of separating and they’re living in a new place. So their habits are different and are shifting around from where they used to be. Right. Nothing to do with your program. Absolutely nothing to do with anything that you could have done. It’s not your responsibility to stop them from getting a divorce, certainly, but it is really important to be able to know that that’s going on and to be able to very intentionally make some decisions about how you lead the client through there. In that instance, the clients are giving themselves to you. They’re giving a portion of their life, of their attention to you as a leader. And so I think you have a responsibility to still at least provide leadership to them through this difficult time.

That’s not to say that you should act like a marriage counselor. You shouldn’t. And if we want a business analogy, right, that’s super similar. They are working with you to optimize. Look, we’ve had clients where we’re working with them to optimize the inside of their business and they lose a couple of clients or something shifts around. They lose a key employee and suddenly they’re scrambling trying to figure out what to do because we only just got started with them, or the project is in process but they haven’t seen the results yet. So now they’re scrambling where to invest their time to solve some of these problems. Right? Super similar situation. We still owe them our leadership. 

Now, what about in the second? We’ll talk a little bit more about how to handle that.

The second category is what happens when you find that you made a mistake – that you or your team members, if you have team members, made a mistake in serving this client. You didn’t give them the level of advice that you should have, that you meant to, you didn’t satisfy one of the objective items on their deliverable list. If you’re an agency, you messed up on one of the ads and it’s not running the right way for them, right? 

This is going to mean that you’re going to be pulled, you’re going to be called, you’re going to feel compelled. You know the majority of our listeners, when we hear from you, you want to do right by your clients. You really care about the results that they get and about the energy and the and the inputs that you contribute.

So that’s going to be at play as well. That’s going to be there in the mix. You’re going to feel called to give them extra support, to do extra for them. You want to be careful that you’re doing that the right way and you’re not actually creating a chain reaction of other problems that start to happen. If you look back at some of your clients and you look at situations where this has been true, you may find some examples where this happened. We thankfully haven’t really had much of that with the client success system working with clients in this way. But I can remember in previous client businesses, there are some of those clients that are just doomed clients, like there’s a curse over that account and you don’t know what to do to get it back on track. We’ll talk about what to do to get them back on track. 

And then the third category, where it’s not that you did anything wrong, it’s not that there were any mistakes that were made necessarily. You’re just encountering a client where they just don’t seem to be getting the results that you expect that they should from your program. And everything’s working right and – this is an important part – they’re doing their part in it too, right? This is not the same thing as them not showing up the way that they need to show up in the program, right? Super important distinction. They’re doing everything that they need to do. They’re showing up for their success, but the methods that you’re working on with them just aren’t working. 

I had a situation where – and I’ll probably talk about this in a future episode, I’ll probably dive into this even more from a teaching perspective – I recently had a situation where I’ve had some health issues and I’ve worked with a few different doctors and the regular way in which they treat this just doesn’t work. Now I’ve come to find out a little bit why, and there’s a genetic component to that and it’s somewhat rare, kind of a genetic disorder that the science is relatively new on. So, of course, it wasn’t working. Of course, this is a case where the standard methods that those doctors had, this is what’s been in the literature for years or decades. So the doctors did everything right, but that doesn’t mean that I got the help and the result that I needed. So I’ve had to find doctors who are on the bleeding edge, who are willing to try new methods and to try new things.

The medical establishment is notoriously conservative in that way, right? That the standard doctors just aren’t going to do that as much. So I’ve had to find other practitioners. But in your field, if you come across somebody where your standard practices just don’t work quite as well, what a gift! Because you get to investigate why that is and make your overall program even better. And I want to talk about how you do that in a healthy way. 

So, these are the three different categories of client exceptions. I’m going to talk for just a second about what your responsibility is in these three areas, regardless of the client business. I’m here to say that your responsibility, first and foremost, is to provide leadership. They signed up with you to be a leader regardless of whether it’s the most hard-nosed, business-y, practical, systems-optimized kind of an offer or whether it’s that they literally hired you to be a life coach in either the side of that in either extreme of that continuum. They hired you or they signed up for your program for leadership, so you can’t abdicate that. Even if it’s outside of the scope of the agreement, you still can’t really give up that leadership. 

That doesn’t mean that you need to cross any boundaries – and you get to intentionally set the boundaries, and the boundaries should roughly be connected to the scope of the agreement that you had and the ways in which you were going to serve them in the first place. We’ll just use the weight loss example from earlier. If your program is centered around weight loss, well then, the scope of that probably shouldn’t be marriage counseling, right? That’s probably unhealthy unless you’re a licensed marriage counselor and that’s part of the program or that’s part of what you want to do. You also want to be really careful by giving free help or free advice to people that are in those positions.

You want to support them, but from the vantage point of what they signed up for with you, and you want to keep it focused on that as much as you can. We have a partner offer, I’ve talked about it a little bit before, but they provide legal services and they had a client not that long ago who had a problem where they were developing software and they just weren’t getting the deliverables that they needed from the software company. Well, in that instance, the lawyer consultant that was working with them on some things, they had some experience in that area because they’d worked with other clients who had similar things. So they were able to offer a little bit of advice. But you have to be really careful with that because offering a little bit of advice needs to be really clear about what that scope is of that additional advice and what that means. Super tricky. 

In that second category where you did something wrong, leadership becomes even more important. And leadership means being able to admit that you did something wrong. I remember we had a client where it wasn’t even that we did something wrong as much as allow the engagement to drag on, to take a little bit more time than it should have. And we allowed the client to get away with a little bit more unhealthy behavior with their team than they should have. And that was a conversation that I had to have. I had to get on the phone with that business owner because it had really grown into an exception. We had allowed it to go that way. And that’s not right. That’s not right from my standards. Our leadership should have caught that. I don’t think we misserved the client. I don’t think we committed malpractice by any stretch. 

And I highlight this example because making a mistake doesn’t always rise to the level of malpractice. Certainly, if you didn’t run their ads and that was your job right then, then you have to reconcile that. You have to deal with that. Because you actually didn’t give them one of the deliverables that was in their agreement in that example, if you run an agency. 

And that certainly wasn’t true, we gave them everything that was in their agreement. But to my standards, we should have done better. So I needed to provide the leadership to say that I needed to have that conversation and I needed to drive their agreement. And I’m going to get to this in just a second and share the five things that you want to do to manage exceptions with clients – we had to drive that agreement from the client too to say that they had a part in that delay. 

This isn’t about passing the buck or trying to shift the blame and put it on the client. It’s about identifying that pathway to the client’s result and saying, “Yeah, we identified some areas where we could have done better for you, we would’ve pointed things out here.” Do you see that, for this to be successful in the future, you need to make some tweaks in these areas? Do you see that? Is that something you can do? Is that something you’re willing to do? These are the kinds of conversations that we had to have in that case and that we have to have overall when these things happen with clients.

So what’s next? A third category where new things are coming up. Well, the first question that you need to ask is, are you willing to take on that level of project? We had an episode earlier where we talked about what to say to clients when they have a refund request. And this is a perfect example, refund requests where, if somebody is requesting a refund and you really truly shouldn’t have enrolled them in your program in the first place, that’s the one time when I tell people, absolutely give that refund if that was your mistake in enrolling them. 

And so if you find a client where you didn’t filter for the right things where, let’s say, you only work with agencies, let’s say like you’re in our position and we only work with agencies or we only work with coaches and we enrolled someone that that was the opposite of those groups thinking, “Hey, it’ll work just fine.” And in this case, we do work with the whole spectrum, but let’s say that we just worked with one and we enrolled them anyway because we thought it might work. 

Or we had a salesperson and they enrolled them, right? Not realizing it, and it truly isn’t working. We need to show up. We need to apologize and we need to give them their money back unless we want to make the decision because we have the bandwidth and we’re making the intentional decision that we’re actually going to grow the scope of the program. They were going to make the program better by figuring it out with this client, by going the distance with this client, and by doing that, we make it that much better for everybody, for all of our future clients. We might even learn some things from working with that different kind of a client in that exception mode that we can apply to all of our clients because we make the entire program better by focusing on all of that.

So that’s what we do in that third case. Here’s the key though. When you realize that there is something going wrong and you need to treat that client differently outside of the scope of how you would normally, outside of the pathway, I should say that you would normally work with a client because the scope should always remain generally the same. 

There are five things that you need to do. There are five different elements, conversations that you have to have with the client. Five different bullet points in a conversation with the client so that you can make sure that things happen the way that they need to happen. 

The first is, you need to agree on the exception as close to ahead of time as you can. When you see something going wrong and you say, “Hey, we’re going to jump in and we’re going to help you fix this. We’re going to fix this for you and we’re going to work with you in a different way than we would normally work with you because there’s something different.”

Because in scenario one there’s something different with you because there’s something different there. There was a mistake that we made because there’s something different. Because we identified that the old way just isn’t quite working for you in any of those scenarios, we want to treat this as an exception. Are you willing to do that? Do we have your agreement on that? This is the first agreement, this is the second agreement. We need to agree on how it’s different. We need to make sure that they agree on that. This is all about dotting I’s and crossing T’s. Here. We need to agree that it’s different and we need to agree on how it’s different.

Number three, we need to agree when and how we’re going to get back on that normal track. So it’s, “Hey, we’re going to work with you for the next month and we’re going to work outside the normal balance. We’re going to set up a special call. It’s not going to be a group call”, or, “We’re going to set up a separate check and an extra call”, something like that. We want you to check in and I’ll get into that because this is touching a little bit on number four. But, “We want you to do something a little bit different to help us. And in doing that, it will help us make this successful for you.” 

So here’s what that difference looks like. Here’s why this looks different. Here’s why we think it’s going to help drive their agreement on that. “In a month we’re going to review, as long as these benchmarks are there, you’re going to get back into the normal pipeline, the normal pathway here.” 

Number four, is there responsibility? This is so important because it’s so easy to overlook or, even if things are going wrong, we need to reinforce what their responsibility is, what they need to do in all of this. Even if it’s not their fault, even if it’s your mistake, we still need to highlight what their responsibility is. “Hey, 100% this is our mistake. This is our error, but we need you to help us make this right and we need that help in these ways.” 

“The ads weren’t working before because we made a mistake. We need three new pieces of content from you that we can run as ads. We need these extra pieces.” Along with that, you’ve already told them what you’re doing and you know what you’re going to be doing ahead of time.

And then this brings us into number five: we need to agree, are there any costs? What are the costs associated with this – costs and risks? So now that we’re going outside of the normal pipeline with this client, what are the costs? Even if there are no client costs, right? If we made a mistake, it might very well be that we’re actually not going to charge the client for the next month and we’re going to give that to them. 

We might want to say to them, “But look, we do need you to re-commit that you’re going to stick with us beyond that because we don’t want to do this. It’s not gonna be fair to you for us to do this for the next month and just to have this not work for you. We would rather give you that refund for the month where we didn’t do the work in that agency example.”

Even if you’re taking on the cost, the client needs to know that you’re taking on the cost because it’s going to create a gap between the two of you. What are the risks associated with them spending extra time? Are there risks here? You need to put those out on the table, because the longer that those go un-agreed, and this goes for all five of these agreements, the longer that these agreements don’t go stated – and I know many client business owners run exceptions with clients all the time. They do things outside of the normal sequence, the normal pattern with clients all the time. They have some people outside of the norm, and if those are happening without these five agreements, then you’re at risk for the client relationship to go badly. It’d be even deeper confusion. 

That’s why we need to drive agreement in these five critical areas. If you do drive that agreement, you will find that there are far fewer emergencies that end up coming up with clients. You’ll also find that you actually don’t have these exceptions that happen. You don’t have them turn into nightmare client scenarios. So five agreements – use these, take these right now. Look in your business at where the exceptions are. Where do you allow clients to not go down the standard path? And if you find that you don’t have a standard path, that you let clients kind of do whatever feels right or whatever pathway just kind of works in the moment, well then that’s a really great opportunity for you to hop on a call with us. – link is in the show notes and we’re happy to talk about it. We’re happy to do an audit of your existing client workflow and see where you’re losing clients, see where the existing workflow’s a little bit leaky and you’re losing clients in terms of their success and also in terms of maximizing that lifetime client value so that the clients actually stay for longer, so that you’re able to retain them for longer so that they’re able to roll into a back end program and the coaching scenario. All of those good things. So I hope this helps. If it does, leave a review or let us know. Can’t wait to hear. Talk soon. Bye.

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