Dear Danielle: This Client Just Won’t Change

Dear Danielle:

I’m wondering if you have any ideas on how to work with clients who are resistant to the changes you want to implement. I have a great client (also my biggest client) who seems to want to stay on an hourly model where I feel like an employee (which we all know is not the ideal arrangement). I keep trying to implement systems to make billing more efficient so I don’t have to hunt down piecemeal information from him on a constant basis just to generate some client invoices for him. He just will not do it. Aside from that, we have a really great rapport so even though he’s getting to the stage where he will need to hire an in-office assistant, I’d like to keep our relationship for the bigger items that help him run his business efficiently. I just can’t seem to find a way to get him to see my point. —KI

Omigosh, I can so relate to your question. I’ve had clients like this myself. I think we all have at one time or another. The signs aren’t always obvious, no matter how well we conduct our consultations. Sometimes, it just takes working together a bit before this kind of issue becomes more clear.

This is an issue that really boils down to growth, fit and working with ideal/unideal clients.

If you will indulge me for moment, I’d like to muse just a bit.

When we’re new in business, we often take on any clients we can get.

As we grow in our business, we begin to learn and become more clear and conscious about what we like and what we don’t like, as well as who we like to work with (and work best with) and who is… uh… more challenging, shall we say, lol.

As a result, the clients we take on later in our business look very different from the clients we had back when we were just starting out.

Sometimes those early “starter” clients stay and grow right along with us through the years. This is always awesome!

And then there are some clients we outgrow for one reason or another. Sometimes it’s because we brought them on with unsustainable practices and expectations and as we improve upon our operations, policies, standards, boundaries and raise our rates to be in more alignment with our value and financial needs, those clients balk, resist and leave.

That’s perfectly fine. I like to call those “practice clients” and they really did help you learn more about yourself and your business and to grow. So bless them and let them be on their way (or, ahem, be proactive and politely show them the door) because when you hang on to clients who no longer fit, they take up double, even triple, the space and prevent your more ideal clients from coming into your life.

This client is sounding like someone who is no longer a fit, no longer ideal for you. I have had clients like this myself. They say they want and need the help and are open to your ideas, but then never want to implement any of them or refuse to make any necessary changes. This, of course, makes things more difficult and time-consuming (not to mention, frustrating!) when they abjectively refuse to use better or even proper technology tools or make shifts in how they do things.

As a consequence, they also just never seem to grow or evolve. It’s extremely difficult to be or stay energized with clients like that. They just keep doing the same old things and getting the same old results.

If you continue working with that kind of client, it really just becomes an exercise in treading water, going through the motions. You lose all motivation for looking out for improvements or contributing ideas for their business because they have shown that they just aren’t interested. Why should you keep wasting your time and energy, right? It’s de-energizing and demoralizing and you get no joy or satisfaction when you are deprived of being able to contribute in these ways.

It’s always a delicate dance we have with clients. We want to care and help our clients do amazing things or make amazing strides. We’re just wired like this. But you can’t care more about their business than they do themselves. We can offer ideas and make suggestions, but ultimately, it’s the client’s business, not ours, and they are the ones who get to decide what they want to do and what they don’t. If someone is just not interested in changing how they do things, there isn’t anything you can do to change their mind. And it’s just not worth the aggravation trying, trust me.

And, to be clear, these aren’t awful people. Like you say, you two have a great rapport. It’s entirely possible to have a client with a great personality and with whom you get along great, beyond their stubborn inability to make improvements or do anything differently. I’ve had clients like that as well. What we didn’t have was a business relationship that energized me and made it a joy to work with them. It’s not all about the money, as we all know.

This is why it’s always a good idea to choose clients carefully through our consultation process and to let clients go if/when they are no longer a fit.

So, you have to let go of the idea that you are going to change this client. It just isn’t going to happen. And you need to decide if you are okay with that and working in your current “comfortably numb” going-through-the-motions kind of way. If it wasn’t bugging you, though, my guess is you wouldn’t be writing this question to me. My guess is you also need or are afraid of losing the income, which is why you haven’t nicely let this client go yet.

It’s all well and good to tell people to let go of clients who are no longer a fit. And that’s absolutely my best advice. But I know that it’s easier said than done. You have bills to pay and mouths to feed, after all. I get that. So here’s a practical way to grow toward that conclusion if that’s the direction you want to take.

  1. Continue to formally document and get conscious about your standards, policies, boundaries and ideal/unideal clients. Put those things in writing. Keep honing and adding to them (this will be ongoing throughout the entire life of your business). AND be sure to INFORM clients what those rules, boundaries, policies and procedures are. This is where your New Client Welcome Guide comes in.
  2. As you grow, you can implement those new standards and policies incrementally. Send out a blanket email to all your clients, informing clients as soon a possible about any change. People do much better with change when they are kept informed. But do not overly explain or have belabored personal conversations with each individual client. Simply inform and let them know you look forward to continuing to work and grow together. The choice is theirs beyond that. When you take out the invitation to conversation, clients actually react better to these changes and accept them as a matter of course. It’s when we think we need to overly explain things that they (perhaps unconsciously) get the idea that your changes are open for debate.
  3. Whenever you up your game, elevate standards and make changes, expect that you will lose some clients. You will never grow if you stay stuck doing things or working with people who don’t energize you. What may surprise you is that many of your clients will congratulate you and wonder why you hadn’t done this sooner. ;)
  4. When it comes to things like pricing, give clients plenty of notice (30 to 60 days days minimum). This gives you time to gauge which clients might be considering leaving, and put additional effort in bringing on new clients to replace any outgoing ones. And, of course, bring on all new clients at your new fee levels, standards and policies.
  5. Fear-based decision making is never a good idea or good advice. But that doesn’t make it any less of a reality. So in a worst case scenario, when you absolutely can’t risk losing the income and you have the room, there is always the option to maintain the status quo with current clients and instead put all your focus and energy into bringing on new, ideal clients at your new standards and rates. This will put you in more of a position of financial choice. Then, for each new client you bring on, let go of an unideal client. Do this one by one until you have replaced your roster with more ideal, better-fitting clients.
  6. I also suggest you purchase my Value-Based Pricing & Packaging Toolkit. In the videos and the workbook, I show you how to talk about value-based fees and what to point out to clients so they see and understand the benefits to them of working this way.

And moving forward:

  • Stop calling yourself an assistant. Another of the benefits I’ve found since using the term Administrative Consultant is that there’s more of an immediate respect, openness and even an expectation for my ideas and directions. As a consultant, people inherently understand that you have expertise and therefore expect that your suggestions are valuable contributions to make their business better. It’s a completely different framing and context they have as opposed to how they view you when you call yourself an assistant. And as a business owner, you aren’t an assistant anyway. ;)
  • Along with being a business owner and not an assistant, understand that there are some things in your business that you get to tell clients. You can’t be in business to use old, ineffective, archaic methods and technology or do things in the most difficult, time-consuming, inefficient and complicated ways. That’s counter-productive to your business and the other clients you serve. So remember, that you always get to inform clients that, no, that’s not how you do things in your business or for clients. There are going to be some tools or ways of doing things that aren’t negotiable, that you get to direct. For example, does a client get to walk into a print shop and tell them what tools they are to use, how to do the work or what information they will supply? Of course not. Every business, including yours, has ways of doing things, has certain information they need from clients, certain current methods, systems and technology they use to be most productive, efficient and effective and so they can do their best work and achieve the best results. You can’t start working in the dark ages just because one client can’t adapt. Clients can either get on-board with progress or find someone else. ;)

Remember, too, that your growth in business is always a good thing for clients because ultimately it helps you help them better. And your positive growth in your standards, policies, systemization, etc., is actually a model and encouragement for those clients who are stuck themselves in their businesses.

8 Responses

  1. Judy Reyes says:

    What a great question and response. “Practice clients” :). Thanks, KI and Danielle.

  2. Patty Ravany says:

    Thank you so much for being such a unique role model in this industry Danielle :) Your approach to various situations is always enlightening and empowering.

    Love this post!

  3. Jeanette says:

    OK, Danielle, have you become a mind reader? ;-) I’m in this exact position right now, transitioning existing clients to value-based monthly investments and am experiencing interesting responses.

    I just got off the phone with a client that I’ve been working with for about two years and explained where I’m heading with my business. She is completely on board and feels it makes perfect sense. (Yay!)

    Then I have a client who I’ve been working on and off with for about 8 years. When I talked with him about this shift, he told me I should “get a real job” if I expected my clients to buy into an monthly investment idea (ouch). Needless to say, I’m shifting him over to someone who does work on an hourly basis.

    I love your no-nonsense approach and spot-on advice to those of us in the administrative consulting business. Thank you for helping to guide us!

    Jeanette

  4. Patricia Velez says:

    Danielle,

    I am so thankful for your guidance. I tell people all the time that you are my mentor even though we have not met face-to-face.

    Thank you for freely sharing such timely information.

    Patricia

  5. Kattie Johnson says:

    Thanks for the savvy approach in this situation Danielle.
    Zoom Zoom : )

    Great advice
    Kaye

  6. Hi Jeanette! Good to hear your results with clients! Of course, the other one… well, it will be good to have that space open up for a more suitable (and appreciative) client, I’m sure, lol.

  7. Patricia, what a lovely compliment (you made my day!). It’s an honor to be your mentor. :)

  8. Hi Judy, Patty & Kaye (who I always want to call Miss Kitty, lol)! Thanks for adding to the conversation!

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