Brainstorming for Difficult Clients

Brainstorming for difficult clients has much less to do with ideation than it does with communication. Before you jump the gun and schedule a new ideation session with the team, there are several steps you should follow to reach a client resolution.

EVALUATE CLIENT FEEDBACK

As soon as a potential content situation arises with a client, it’s important to take a break from everything else and think about the issue at hand. Carefully read recent emails from the upset client, and try to find clues that may have been missed about their concerns. Did they joke about the quality of content ideas, timeliness, or about failed content promotions? Did any of your colleagues notice anything unusual?

Review the email or conversation that revealed the client’s current mindset. Try to empathize with the client’s feelings, whether or not you personally agree. Try to maintain a professional and detached perspective while you consider their point of view. Most people respond immediately with a defensive, self-interested stance; it can take a few hours to calm down enough to see the issue from a different perspective.

APOLOGIZE

Sincerely apologize to the client for any confusion, errors, perceived slights or other problems. Assure him or her that you will endeavor not to let it happen again. This often goes a long way to correct issues and repair rapport.

USE THE SOCRATIC METHOD

Contact the client and ask him or her for an appointment to review the issue. Never just assume that the client will give you time.

Following a line of exhaustive questioning about the content, maintain an unbiased presentation. Any hostility or defensiveness will trigger negative reactions in the client. Here are a few questions you should definitely ask about failed brainstorms:

  • What concerns did you have with new content ideas?
  • Have you had concerns about past brainstorm results?
    • This will tell you if the client has been holding back with concerns and opinions in the past. If this is the case, make a mental note to solicit opinions repeatedly from this client in the future. Some clients aren’t comfortable objecting about content direction until they have been unhappy for months.
  • Are you disappointed by the reaction of target audiences?
    • If this is the only concern, then it might be time to loop the promotion department into the conversation. If the issue is about results and not about content direction, then promotions might need to focus on new venues, or a new strategy might need to be developed.
  • Would you be happy with these ideas if you knew they would succeed, or is the problem ethical/moral/personal/etc.?
    • Many clients withhold personal/religious objections to content ideas, and merely state general disinterest. If you can pinpoint their true concern, it will make it much easier to avoid in the future.
  • Is this concern yours alone, or is a larger group at your business concerned with the content?
    • If the client is representing the concerns of several people it would be best to get on a conference call with all of them. While you might appease the representative alone, the uninvolved group could remain unhappy if they’re not actively involved in the resolution.

Be sure to ask the client what he or she thinks is a fair solution, as the client has most likely already arrived at what he or she would like to happen. Take note of what the client would like, but don’t immediately agree to it. Continue digging until you’re confident that the issue is totally resolved.

BUILD COOPERATIVE COMMUNICATION

Create a collaborative experience with the client by subconsciously pushing the team angle. Mirror his or her language (and body language if possible) in a subtle way. You can repeat rephrased versions the client’s statements while nodding to show that you are actively listening.

Also, make it clear that you won’t lose interest in the client’s issue by telling him or her when to expect follow up emails about the situation, as well as a fresh brainstorm (if applicable).

POUR SOME HONEY ON IT

While it is easy to simply offer more/better service, it’s not recommended. Giving away unlimited freebies can lead to a client’s devaluation of the product. If the client expects to get two free articles a month with four paid articles, then soon they will calculate their bill for four as a sum for six. Here’s how to avoid building client expectations:

  • Offer freebies to dissatisfied clients on a one time basis. Make it clear that the freebie is an apology that they are upset, not an admission of guilt.
  • Never offer free articles or to re-do brainstorming sessions as a knee-jerk response. Carefully consider what the client wants before you offer them something that doesn’t address their concern. For example, if the client’s true concern is failed promotions, then offering a free article won’t likely appease them as they will still expect the free piece to fail, too.
  • Ask the client not to discuss freebies with other clients, as this can lead to jealousy, increased expectations, and other issues.

CLARIFY YOUR ROLES

Review the client’s contract with him or her. Make sure that the client understands your obligations, and what is beyond the scope of the contract. This can often serve to remind a client of clearly outlined brainstorming expectations.

FINALLY, PRESENT POSSIBILITIES

Work with your team to determine possibilities. These might include:

  • A new brainstorming session to provide new ideas (noting the new restrictions from the client).
  • Renegotiating the contract to include more or less content or promotion.
  • Cutting ties with the client.
  • Branching out to new social networks for promotions.
  • Whatever the client suggested as a remedy.

When you present the possibilities to the client, make sure that the resolution is agreed upon and clearly noted by both parties. Further miscommunication on the topic could be devastating for the relationship.

RESOLVE THE ISSUE

The very day that the client chooses a resolution you should be working hard at providing it; whether that means dropping everything and brainstorming with your team, or scheduling meetings with the promotions department.

FOLLOW UP WITH THE CLIENT

Provide the client with daily progress reports until the immediate resolution is complete. Follow up with the client to ensure that he or she is happy with the end result. Schedule additional follow-up reminders in your calendar so that you continue to contact the client frequently, as people sometimes forget issues after a few months.

A NOTE ON VERBALLY ABUSIVE CLIENTS

Never subject your team to verbally abusive clients. If a client is emotionally overreacting in a rude, offensive or otherwise unsavory way, then it might be time to stop working with him or her. Your team’s morale is much more important than one angry client.

CONCLUSION

While client discontent is unsettling, it can often lead to a stronger relationship. Once the issue is rooted out and resolved, you and your team will understand the difficult client’s needs more thoroughly than any of your ‘easy’ clients.

When you find out that one client is unhappy, make sure you take the time to reassess all of the clients on your roster. Consider sending out an anonymous survey to gauge client satisfaction, or scheduling a brief call with each client to touch-base.

About the author

Michael Purdy