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Being a Partner 202B: Surviving Difficult Client Situations

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In our last post, we recommended preparation steps for the scheduled client partner meeting to discuss your difficult situation, and reviewed an approach when your team was responsible for the original issue. This next installment covers what to do when your partner is at fault, and how to survive either of these two scenarios.

Since this is a continuation of the “Being a Partner” series with a third post, please read the other two, Being a Partner 201: Recognizing Your Partner and Being a Partner 202A: Surviving Difficult Client Situations, and then return. I know…homework is rarely fun, but we’ll wait, because it’s worth it.

If your client partner was at fault, be equally concise in outlining only the crucial point of decision or misinformation that created the problem. You don’t have to give them the full backstory in your statement of the issue. State the facts you discovered during investigation and then plan to give them the opportunity to speak.

Develop your background bullet points—and even categorize—so that you can address any disparity between perspectives. Leave any desire to sermonize behind, and only use them if reality is becoming clouded. Don’t use the facts as a bludgeon, but as a salve. Ultimately, your goal is to come to agreement about what happened and the primary point of failure so you can move forward with your project and your relationship. The more words said during a crisis, the greater the opportunity to stray from the DFZ (drama-free zone) bounds, and the less likely you will find an amicable resolution.

In order to plan for the introduction of your resolution, quickly recap your past collaborative successes at working through challenges, then lay out your solution, including any process or financial remedies. Know in advance what you might be willing to concede as a remedy, such as a portion of billable time, and consider what your partner may be able to concede, as well. Although this may seem like a negotiation prep, we find it best to think of it as evidence of your value of the relationship.

This portion of the discussion should take less than one minute. Write your script and toss out everything nonessential.

If your client is a true partner, and not just a customer, be generous in your planned concessions, because they are worth it. Always run the self-test of putting yourself in their shoes, or looking at things from their perspective. This seems the right place to recommend being fair, but know that many difficult situations end badly because someone chooses “fair” as a hill upon which to die.

Your resolution should be prepared in writing, with a copy for your partner to be delivered during the last stages of your meeting.

By this time, after your investigation and preparation, it’s time to forgive all errors by all parties involved. It’s time for you to move on in your own mind, so you can focus on being concise but warm in your delivery, and getting to the end goal of resolution.

3by400 Blog | Being a Partner 202B - Surviving Difficult Client Situations
Now, Have the Discussion
Have the discussion with your partner quickly, but not without the previously-mentioned planning steps. Don’t let a conflict linger, because, unresolved, it will only fester and become less manageable.

You are armed with the facts, your best solution, and a heart of forgiveness. You know what is negotiable and what is not. You have your script and brief notes. This is not the time for email or texts. Meet in person at a neutral location, or, if your client is long-distance, via a telephone call or a video conference.

Gird yourself with a DFZ approach, keeping your own emotion in check, then follow your plan.

Keep it concise, keep it to the point, and don’t feel like you need to make small talk before making your opening statement. You both know why you are here, and it is best to rip off the Band-aid quickly. If you are meeting over coffee or a meal, place your order before you start the meeting.

Once you have opened, give them an opportunity to respond and really listen to what they are saying. Only interject if you need clarification of their point or they trip into an emotional response, in order to get back to a fact-based discussion…and, again, do so gently.

If you hear points in their feedback that do not match the facts from your research, jot down a note to address that point once they have finished. REALLY listen to what they are saying. Are they providing additional facts about which you were previously unaware? Do these facts substantially change your evaluation and reparations?

If your client partner repeats the same point multiple times, do interject to repeat what you heard them say, ask them to confirm your understanding, and then write that point down. If you are on the phone or a video conference, be sure to tell them that you are making a note of their point, so they are clear that you have heard them. Rehashing is counter-productive to getting to a point of resolution.

Don’t interrupt them to contradict. Show them grace and let them get their irritation off their chest, if they are, in fact irritated. Remember that this is not a battle, but a bridge to your future together.

This is not a time for “us and them”, but a time for how we, as a team, will move forward. Don’t offer excuses for any mistakes you’ve made, and certainly don’t assign blame for their errors. Continue to move the conversation toward how your relationship can work in the future, and how to implement the solution to this particular challenge. You don’t have to be pushy about this, but don’t lose momentum in the conversation.

You’ll have to be the judge of whether your partner is straying outside of the DFZ in their delivery. Just nudge them back in bounds gracefully and move on to the solution. If they don’t respond to a gentle nudge, remind them that this situation is not standard in your relationship, and that you’re happy to continue the discussion if it can be handled professionally. In a worst case of truly really bad behavior, let them know that you will email the information you have discovered and excuse yourself or them, if the meeting is at your office. This is a time when that age-old southern tradition of not “causing a scene” is beneficial to all involved.

Come to a Mutual Conclusion & Resolution
Assuming things don’t go too sideways, once the dust has settled and your partner has spoken “their piece”, thank them for their candor and clarify only points that are crucial to the overall resolution. If they haven’t voiced any concerns, be willing to acknowledge that they may need time to digest your presented facts. Even if this is the case, you have, at a minimum, been able to present your facts and your resolution.

If your agenda and plan go smoothly, and they are able to digest the information on the spot, you should now be working with your partner in a way that you both have experience—together to achieve the common goal—but this time geared toward re-engaging your partnership. Ask directly for agreement on how things got to the current state and then verbally review the main points of your proposed resolution.

In the case of a change in your current process, be specific about each party’s responsibility in your proposed revision, and request for your partner’s feedback for improvements to your recommendations to keep it collaborative.

You may need to provide some detailed information about planned concessions, particularly those of a billing or payment nature. It may be necessary to provide additional reporting for these details, so be sure to take good notes for any required follow-up tasks.

If changes to your resolution are necessary, based upon collaborative discussion, document those changes on both written copies, then verbally review the primary points (with edits) and give them their copy. This way, everyone leaves the meeting with the same expectation.

3by400 Blog | Being a Partner 202B - Surviving Difficult Client SituationsWhat Happens if You Can’t Agree?
There will be times when agreement can’t be reached, for a myriad of reasons. Most of those reasons ultimately boil down to a lack of trust. Sometimes a lack of trust is earned and deserved, but the dissolution of trust on either “side” is death to a partnership.

We wish there was a way to guide you through the split-second decision of “should I stay or should I go”, but it’s more of a general gut response that, ultimately, can’t be taught. This is one of the reasons the front-end research and solution-building is very important. Trust yourself in the moment, as long as you are weighing the importance of this client to your business, and what you have to give up to keep them. Sometimes, in the long run, what you have to give up will never be worth the business.

If you decide that you can’t reach a successful conclusion to overcome this particular issue, be frank and make this statement before you part ways in a calm, non-inflammatory manner. Many times, we find that when a client realizes that you are willing to walk away from their business, they will have a change of heart, but be warned that this is generally an emotional response and not likely to result in a long-term solution. Only you can know if you are willing to take that chance.

Briefly discuss what you will do in follow-up to a decision to part ways, such as a final invoice, hand-off of documentation, and final status for work efforts, and set a mutually-agreed upon schedule to execute these plans. Do your best to part on friendly, professional terms.

Reflect, Improve, then Move On
Regardless of the outcome of your meeting, use the feedback provided to become better in what you do. Use this experience to improve any exposed points of failure, and be sure to continuously evaluate the results of those improvements. Let those improvements spill into your general policies and practices, across all of your client base.

Most importantly, allowing these occasional setbacks to consume your thoughts can have a major impact on your business. Take the good and the bad from it, make your organization better, then press on with your goals. If your partner falls into the trap of lingering on past issues, encourage them onward in a nurturing way. Use the experience as building block and stay positive. 

We hope that our experience in dealing with difficult situations can help you in your partnering relationships. Always value the partners you have and perform your best work for them, so these exchanges are the exception in your organization.

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