One of the biggest complaints people voice in our industry (the administrative support business) are clients who are a pain in the ass, otherwise known as PIAs, or more gently, unideal clients.
Bad clients are also one of the biggest business killers. One bad client (particularly in a new business) can suck up all your resources and destroy profit—and your morale—to the point of no return.
Despite your best efforts, it’s possible to end up with a rotten apple once in awhile.
Far more often, however, it is we who create the conditions that bring un-ideal clients into our lives in the first place.
You have far more control in this area than you may realize. So, here’s a list that will help you have more ideal, joy-to-work-with clients who won’t tear your business apart:
- Own your role. Bad clients don’t happen to you. You’re the one who took them on and continues to work with them. Acknowledge that so you can fix it and start doing things differently from this point forward.
- Trust your gut. If you have a bad feeling or see red flags, pay attention. Your instincts will never fail you.
- Treat and respect your business like a business. When you do, your prospects and clients will as well.
- Have self-respect. Don’t beg, bribe and prostrate yourself to get clients. The only clients who are attracted to desperate people are bad clients.
- Don’t be so available. Have a process that prospects go through to become clients. It’s an indicator that you are a professional, successful business, and that is going to attract professional, successful prospects. Anyone who is in a rush and wants to sidestep your processes is never an ideal client. Better clients are willing to wait for the best.
- Never take on work or clients just for the money. This is often where at least 75% of the problems start.
- Have standards. For example, choosing to work with only honest, ethical people is a standard. What others can you think of? Write them down and hang this list where you’ll see it every day.
- Set proper expectations. Remember, you’re not running a mass consumer, assembly-line business like McDonald’s. You’re running a professional service firm where there is a personal, ongoing relationship with each client. Sometimes clients can seem unideal because you haven’t properly managed expectations. They’ve been left to their own devices and so they assumed or made up their own rules. Similar to raising children, if we are too permissive, over-promise, and establish policies that we can’t possibly sustain on a consistent basis (such as 24-hour, on-demand, instant assistance), we can turn clients quickly into spoiled brats who throw tantrums the second you don’t instantly jump at their request. Picture your business with a full roster of retained clients. What kind of turn-around and communication policies does THAT business need to take great care of all your clients, consistently and reliably, now and in the future, without overcrowding and burning you out in the process?
- Set policies, procedures and protocols. These are relationship-preservers that bring order to your business, ensure it runs smoothly and gives you the space you need to take fantastic care of all your clients, evenly, consistently and reliably. Without this structure, clients can quickly (and often do) turn into monsters we dread dealing with.
- Establish boundaries. Besides helping ensure your business runs smoothly so you can do great work for all your clients, your policies and protocols also establish boundaries. For example, having formal office hours between 9a and 5p is a policy that also sets a boundary that tells clients you are running a professional business that opens and closes at certain hours and they may not expect you to be working past those times. See? Boundary.
- Honor your standards, boundaries and protocols. Here again is where we often “do it” to ourselves by taking shortcuts and stepping over our standards and boundaries or allowing clients to. They’re in place to ensure you have a happy business and happy clients. Ignore them at your peril.
- Know who your ideal client is. Start an Ideal Client Profile. This is a list of all the traits, characteristics and demographics of the kind of person you really enjoy working with, who you work best with, and who benefits most from working with you. Keep adding to and refining this list throughout the life of your business. This formalizing exercise helps you get more clear, conscious and intentional about who you want to attract and focus on in your business.
- Start an UN-ideal Client Profile. Likewise, as you grow in your business, you are going to get more and more clear about who is not the right fit for you, with whom you don’t enjoy working. List these traits and red flags so that you can better recognize those folks when they appear on your doorstep—and quickly and politely send them away.
- Work with business people rather those who are employees themselves. Business people get it. Non business people are more often going to be difficult to work with because they aren’t coming from a business context and don’t understand the proper business etiquette and rules of engagement.
- Have a target market. A target market is simply an industry/field/profession that you cater your administrative support to. Having one will not only make everything in your business easier, it will also help you get better, more ideal clients.
- Have a proper business website. Your website isn’t merely an online brochure. When you have a proper website that informs, educates and markets you like a business, it’s a powerful influence in the clients you attract and how those clients approach you in a proper business context. It helps set expectations and prequalify clients so you get more ideal business people contacting you. The image it presents, the message it conveys, and the process it takes them through set a precedent that is going to attract either ideal or unideal clients to you. If you want better clients, have a better website.
- Stop marketing yourself like a substitute employee. Face it, if people are approaching you like a potential employer instead of a client, it’s because you aren’t educating them properly. If you don’t want clients who treat you like their substitute, beck-and-call, under-the-table employee they don’t pay taxes on, then you have to stop marketing yourself like one. Model your marketing message more like that of other independent professionals like attorneys and accountants. You want to position yourself as someone with the expertise of administration, not some order-taking gopher. Reframe the message and you’ll get better clients.
- Have a consultation process. And I don’t mean some penny-ante 15-minute chat. That is NOT going to help you or the client whatsoever. I’m talking about a full and proper consultation process that begins before a prospect ever contacts you. Not only does this process help you prequalify prospective clients for mutual fit, it also helps them take your business more seriously.
- Always use a (proper) contract. A contract is a relationship-preserver as well in that it helps everyone remember and honor their agreements to each other. A contract helps clients respect you as a business, and a respectful client is an ideal client.
- Have a Client Guide. Formalize your policies, procedures and prototols into a written Client Guide that you give to all new and current clients. Part of setting and managing expectations is making sure you are informing clients about how things work in your business. None of us are mindreaders and neither are your clients. If you want your relationship with clients to go smoothly and ideally, you have to inform them of what that means, how things work in your business and what is expected of them (remember, it’s a two-way street; it’s not all about their needs).
- Conduct a New Client Orientation with new retained clients before you begin working together to go over and clarify the information in your Client Guide and answer any questions they may have. Do this with existing clients as well whenever your business undergoes significant changes. This further supports your efforts in educating clients about the nature of the relationship, setting and managing expectations, how things work in your business and what the standards, policies, protocols and procedures are for working together.
- Issue formal announcements to all your clients whenever there is a change in your business. Whenever you make changes or improvements to your business and how you do things, don’t mention these things in passing. Make it formal. Send out a formal business communication to your clients on company letterhead as well as any ezine and blog you publish. Here again, you’re reinforcing the business aspect of your relationship and treating the business like a business which then influences how clients treat and respect you and the relationship.
- Raise your rates. When you’re cheap and there is no barrier to entry for working with you, you get cheap, unideal clients. It’s an immutable law of business that when you raise your rates, you get better, more ideal clients. It’s a way to sort the wheat from the chaff in prequalifying clients.
- Face difficult conversations. It will only be worse for both of you the longer you wait. However, the quicker you are to face difficult conversations, the more often those relationships can be turned around for the better. You can learn many new positive things and possibly keep a client .
- Let go of unideal clients quickly. They’ll keep you buried in the muck and you’ll never grow or move forward if you continue to work with them. Unideal clients are highly unprofitable to work with and suck up three times the space in your practice compared to ideal clients. They cost your business far more than you realize and you can’t afford the psychological toll they take. You have to let go of the bad and unideal to make room for the better and more ideal.
- Bonus Tip: Stop calling yourself an assistant. Who you attract is all about your marketing. Marketing is about educating, setting expectations and creating perception. The words you choose to call yourself influence how clients perceive you and understand the relationship. The fact is, people only understand the word assistant one way: employee. So when you call yourself an assistant, you’re telling them you are some sort of employee. When they think you’re an employee, they want to treat like one. And when you call yourself an assistant, causing their perception to be that you are some sort of substitute employee, you predispose them to balk at your fees because they only expect to pay you like an employee. If you want more ideal clients, it’s not enough to change how you work with clients and insist that you’re a business owner. You have to stop calling yourself a term that contradicts all those efforts. When you do, you”ll get higher quality prospects and more easily command higher, properly professional fees because you haven’t created a disconnect in their understanding and perception of the nature of the relationship right from the get-go.