Secrets for managing challenging clients
Updated: Jul 2, 2021
Hi everyone, Molly here. As many of you know, I am a fundraising consultant who works with grassroots social impact organisations. Fundraising is challenging at the best of times, but sometimes, the challenge doesn't come from donors. Rather, it comes from clients. After a year and a half of working with social enterprises, this is what I've learned about client management.
One of the positive aspects of consulting is that I work with a wide range of clients, which is a great opportunity to learn about different organisations, causes, and regions of the world. The diverse range of clients is one of the things that motivated me to become an independent consultant. However, it can be a double-edged sword.
On one hand, I usually love my clients and I've been lucky enough to find a good match in terms of working style and mindset. On the other, I sometimes find that not every organisation— which, we sometimes forget, are collections of individual humans— shares my perspective, or they may have different ways of working.
Additionally, many directors and people involved in social impact organisations are incredibly passionate about what they do. In fact, that passion may even come across as an irrational fervour for a very specific cause. In many ways, this is inspiring, exciting, and is the very reason why I work with social impact organisations in the first place. That's the positive side.
These are (some of) the issues I’ve faced with clients as an independent consultant:
1. Unwillingness to take advice. A common theme with my clients is that they get tunnel vision on their particular cause and solution. For example, I worked with a London-based organisation that engages Bengali youth in football, which is an important mission, but from the donor's perspective, it is not always obvious that it is the MOST critical because there are so many other issues in society that need to be addressed. Therefore, it takes some work to explain why this mission is essential and timely. But when we're working on something day in and day out, it's hard to keep that broader perspective.
When a client is hyper-focused on their particular cause, that means they are determined to deliver results and fight the good fight. However, at the same time, it can make it extremely difficult for them to act on the advice that will significantly change their organisation's trajectory. I also find that clients can be sensitive or resistant to any advice they perceive as their current model's criticisms.
2. Working styles vary dramatically. Personally, I don't think that I am particularly rule-obsessed or over-engineering my work, but sometimes, I am undeniably the most organised and strategy-driven person in the room. Grassroots NGOs' teams are often small. Every staff member "wears multiple hats", juggles various tasks, and is constantly reacting to changes. It is challenging to stick to a strategy and keep organised in this situation, making my job extremely difficult. On the flip side, some clients are more dogmatic in their processes and have more rules than I am comfortable with (especially large, bureaucratic organisations like the international development NGOs I've worked with).
Regardless of the size of the organisation, on the interpersonal level, there can also be differences in working styles. For example, I prefer writing things down. If I don't write it down, I will almost certainly forget it. There are some people, however, who prefer a phone call to talk through ideas.
3. Clients not knowing what they want. Some clients go looking for a consultant without having a clear idea about what they want the consultant to actually do. They may have a general sense that something in their organisation is not functioning properly. In fundraising, that's a common occurrence. The client sees there is not enough money in the bank, so they know they need to do more fundraising, but they often don't have a clear sense of how they want to go about that.
4. Communication challenges. This issue can sometimes stem from the previous point. If a client doesn't know what they want, then it is extremely difficult to communicate their needs and expectations. However, this issue can happen even if the client is clear in their minds about what they want. In fact, in some cases, this issue can be exacerbated when the client knows exactly what they want. They might believe it is so obvious, the consultant should immediately understand exactly what they want and how they want it to be done. Then, they don't always communicate their needs, desires, processes, and expectations.
5. A lack of praise. This may seem very trivial, but for many of us, it's important to get feedback, especially positive feedback, about our work. While many clients are willing to give negative feedback and criticisms, they may not be so generous with positive feedback and praise. This is often because as a consultant, they are not your manager, and they often don't feel qualified to assess my performance like a manager would. They may feel that I am an experienced professional and I don't need or want their affirmation. Usually, I don’t need praise, but sometimes it can feel like I am never doing the job properly, which can be isolating. It is also very difficult to ask for praise without sounding like I’m fishing for compliments.
What are my solutions for better managing clients?
1. Every client has their own unique history and experiences. The reason why many clients might be resistant to taking advice might be because they are stuck in their ways. However, I have found that very rarely to be the case. Many clients are not irrational in how they accept or reject advice. I feel they are open to doing things better and making changes, but sometimes I don't know what they have already tried, and the results from that attempt.
For example, I may recommend undertaking a crowdfunding campaign, but they have already tried one with disastrous results. This will make them very reluctant to try again and may have soured them to the whole concept. While I believe one bad experience shouldn’t close them off from crowdfunding indefinitely, there is some wisdom in learning from mistakes and trying to focus on things that they have had more success with.
2. Sometimes risk aversion is rational. Directors of social impact organisations have a lot of responsibility riding on their shoulders, which can make them risk-averse. They may be unwilling to do something that is a large departure from what they usually do, is perceived as risky, or requires bringing in or developing new expertise. This is not because they are stubborn or shortsighted, it just means they have responsibilities, and they are looking for ways to mitigate risks to protect their staff and organisation.
3. Adapting to different working styles requires awareness AND flexibility. To deal with conflicting working styles, I think the best solution is a mindset shift and empathy. Understanding why my client is behaving in certain ways, and recognising they might prefer different ways of communication is key to finding ways to better organise, strategise, and communicate. I have always preferred emails to phone calls, but sometimes, I can save myself a lot of time by just picking up the phone. I still send emails, but I supplement them with a quick phone call. This is a good way to compromise on working styles.
4. Take the time to discover what the client isn't saying. When a client doesn't know what they want, I make sure that I talk through their pain points, what they've tried before, and what they're trying to achieve. I like to give them a menu of options, ask what they feel most comfortable with, and find out what they would like to pursue. Sometimes I can get overly excited about a particular idea and I can be a bit pushy about recommending it to the client, which is a huge mistake. It's better to present the options and say, “It's completely up to you. Whatever you think is the best strategy, I will support in the best way I can,” and then let them assess the options and choose the one that works best for them. At the end of the day, I am a consultant, and I will come into the organisation for a short time, but it is the client who will be using this strategy for the long term, so it should be something they are comfortable with driving on their own.
5. Communicate, communicate, communicate! When it comes to interpersonal communication, I've found there's no easy solution except to be as clear as possible with my own communication and to check that I understand what they're trying to say. This will probably require several conversations and seems tedious at times, but it’s worth it.
The client has their position, and I have mine, so it is a gradual process of bringing those two perspectives together and trying to get onto the same page. Even if something feels obvious to me or might be redundant, I check and check again to make sure my client’s expectations align with the work I'm doing.
As for getting praise from clients, this is a tricky one. As with the above points, it requires a mindset shift (this is a recurring theme). I’ve stopped expecting praise. If the client is happy with my work, I will get more project work from that client or referrals from the client. That is a great sign and better than any words.
We are all human, and we have our foibles, inconsistencies, lazy days, and emotions, so it's hardly surprising that sometimes it can be challenging to find I relationship that works well. If I’m finding a relationship is too stressful or is actively negative, I’ll just not accept the project and refer someone else who might be a better fit.
For me, taking time to introspect and learn from past mistakes has been key. I have learned that there are better and worse ways to handle situations. Sometimes I got it right and, frankly, sometimes I got it wrong. It's often easier said than done, but when I feel I got it right and the client got it wrong, letting bygones be bygones is a good way to maintain my own mental well-being. When I get it wrong or I put my foot in my mouth, I've learned that an apology goes a long way. We are all human and we make mistakes. The important thing is being genuine, honest, and transparent.
About Molly; Fundraising Consultant
With nine years of experience in the international development sector across Africa, Asia, and Europe, Molly helps social impact organisations raise funds and develop partnerships. Her services help organisations navigate donor requirements, position themselves in a competitive market, and build meaningful partnerships that ensure resources are utilised to drive change.
Connect with Molly