Keep a running list of behaviors your team finds unacceptable in a client, prepare engagement guidelines, and review the guidelines with potential clients.
Bill, a consulting client, sent me the following:
Hey Paul, we worked for a client three years ago that did not behave well and we agreed as a company we would never work for again. They have reached back out again and want to do another larger project. I tried dodging her email, but on her third phone call I decided to send her an email. Here is what I said:
Received your messages. Sorry for the late response. We are extremely busy and actually not taking any new projects until summer 2020. We are involved in three extremely large projects, it will take us and our resources until then to be ready to accept large projects again. I don't have any recommendations either because anybody I would recommend is in a similar boat right now. I might suggest you double back with your architect and see if he could make any recommendations for you. Anyway, best of luck with your projects!
Should we talk now if we want to get on your calendar for summer 2020? I'd rather have you handle the bigger items on the list below (like rebuilding the garage) if that works for both of our schedules, and there still is the second floor of the house to think about.
Glad for you that you are so busy!
My question for you, Paul, is how do I politely tell her that we don't want to work for her as we don't feel it's going to be a good fit. We certainly don't want her to badmouth us or anything like that so how do you sensitively tell somebody that you don't think it's a good fit?
Here was my response:
Are these people completely clueless about themselves? They might be.
You could try listing all the things you did not like about working with them, albeit in a positive way. And laying out this "New way that our company has adopted to be an even better professional partner with its clients, while understanding that our approach will not be a fit for every person seeking to work with a remodeler" makes it possible for them to possibly decide they might not want to work with you anymore.
For example, instead of saying "We will not work with clients who expect that we are available 24/7," you can say "in the interest of allowing all who work at our company and all of our clients the ability to rest and recover, we are now working with clients who respect our policy of not responding to emails, texts, and phone calls between 5:00 p.m. and 8:00 a.m. weekdays and from 5:00 p.m. Friday until 8:00 a.m. Monday."
Not sure if such a list would work with these particular people. However, if you pointed out the changes your company has made regarding what the ground rules are now, at least you could hold them accountable were you to work together.
What exactly made them difficult to work with?
Bill responded with the following:
Hi Paul! This morning we [those who are his company] sat down and made a list of all the reasons why we would not want to work with them again and we are going to use your style to transpose it back to them. Thank you so very much for a thoughtful response... This helps tremendously.
This is a situation that most companies have faced. You had a challenging client who drove the entire company crazy. You never thought they might reach out to your company for another project. But then they do!
What can you do that won't prompt the client to run your company down to their friends?
Keep a List
Keep a running list of all the behaviors you and your team find unacceptable in a client. Some that come to mind from me when we ran our company are:
- Not listening well
- Unreasonable expectations
- Not following the guidelines our company set
By listing all these behaviors that drive everyone on your team crazy, you have the material needed to take the next step.
Prepare Engagement Guidelines
Take the list of inappropriate behaviors and turn them into non-negotiable expectations your company has for the clients it works with. Be positive when you do this. "Our company works well with those who follow these guidelines ..." By doing so, we can then make such clients feel smart about choosing to work with us.
As I mentioned in my response to my client, only by taking the lessons learned and turning them into ground rules will you reduce (not eliminate, unfortunately) the likelihood of working with a difficult client.
Preach the Gospel
Early in your interactions with a potential client, review the guidelines with them. Take your time when doing so. Pay attention to their response.
If the potential clients begrudgingly accept the guidelines, probe a bit. Remember, you are talking about avoiding months of frustration! If they don't measure up, remind them all contractors are not a match for every client and all clients are not a match for every contractor. And with a returning client like Susan, make sure they understand that while your company has the same name it always has, it is now a different company.
Curious to hear how this plays out with my client! I am hoping for the best. Either a chastened client who is now open to being managed or a former client who is looking for another contractor who they can make miserable—one or the other would be okay. Bill, let me know how it plays out!