3 Things We’ve Learned From Working With Difficult Clients

Author: Kenji Kuramoto | Categories: Entrepreneurship, People
working with difficult clients
Calling certain companies your “worst” clients can sound a bit harsh.  Proper business etiquette would say that they should be called our “most challenging” clients or our clients with the “greatest opportunity for improvement”.   No matter the terminology you use to describe these customers, every entrepreneur knows this group immediately as they are customers that take up most of our time and tend to contribute to a large portion of our stress.
At Acuity, we have a weekly team meeting where we review our active customer base. During these meetings, each team talks through “wins” and “road blocks” they’re encountering with clients.  And guess what…..there are certain clients that have “road blocks” every single week. Are you surprised?
One of the natural responses to pain is to seek ways to avoid it.  We’ve learned a few things, so in our weekly team meeting, we’ve made a different decision….and that’s to embrace it, or at the very least, candidly and openly discuss it.  We do that not because we’re masochists (not that I’m aware of), but because we’ve learned a massive amount of how to be a better organization.  Here are a few things we’ve learned from working with difficult clients:

Feel Their Pain

Emails written in all caps.  Unreasonable demands or impossible deadlines.  Constant arguing over bills.  Sometimes people can be rude, and acting in this manner is just their normal state of being.  But in my experience, most of the things that other people do that frustrate us are caused by an unrelated problem they’re dealing with.  That sounds like pop-psychology, but I’ve seen it often enough to believe it’s true.  Are they arguing over our bills because they just lost a large customer and revenue took a big hit this month?  Are they asking us to deliver full financial statements to them by the 1st of the month because they finally landed a meeting on the 2nd with the investor they’ve been chasing for over a year?
The pressures of running a business are numerous and heavy.  We get that. So when we, at Acuity, are able to empathize with our clients we have context into what’s going on in that entrepreneur’s life.   And when that entrepreneur understands that we genuinely do care about their business and are trying to help them succeed, they in turn see us as a member of their team and treat us with respect.

Create New Solutions

Accounting and bookkeeping are extremely process-based functions, so keeping them working in a consistent and orderly manner is critical.  Here’s the problem….what entrepreneurial business do you know that operates in a consistent and orderly fashion?  Yeah, none.  Entrepreneurs and accountants are often very much at odds in the way that they work, so there’s a natural tension when accountants are trying to build repeatable processes and entrepreneurs keep pushing for change.  In our weekly team meeting, it’s not uncommon to hear a team member say “I’m having a road block with client X because they just completely changed how they want to bill their customers…..or they asked me to threaten one of their slow-paying clients with legal action if they don’t pay this week…..or they just raised a Series A round and said that the venture capitalists need full GAAP-based financials by tomorrow”.
There are times when we’d just wish our clients could stand still for one minute, but then they wouldn’t be the entrepreneurs that they are.  So our job becomes listening to those client demands and creating solutions that keep pace with their ever-changing environment.
 In fact, we figured out the right tools and methodologies to use to account for Stripe and PayPal transactions.  We launched our packaged Controller Solutions to manage more sophisticated investor reporting around capital raises.  We are about to roll out a Collections Solution to help customers manage their accounts receivable.  All of these were born out of challenges that clients threw at us.

Have Courage To Fire Them

There have been a few times where we don’t end up being a good fit with a client and we mutually part ways.  There have been a few times when we didn’t perform as we should have and we got fired by the client.  That’s life as a business owner, no one said it was easy.  But in this case, I’m talking about situations where we, at Acuity, made the call to stop working with someone who wanted to keep paying us and wanted to keep working with us.  Just as I believe that most people aren’t really jerks, I also believe that, unfortunately, a few people may always be jerks.
In our business I have a simple definition of a jerk: “Someone who repeatedly disrespects our team members.”  There’s an economic motivation here as one of our team may be working on 15 clients, and 1 really bad client has the ability to hurt the 14 great clients by continually making that team member’s life miserable.  Pretty easy financial tradeoff in my mind….get rid of the 1 to protect the 14.  But there’s a much stronger moral motivation for me and despite the many challenges I face as an entrepreneur, I do get to control who we work with, and if you can’t treat our team with respect….you are gone.  Their value will never be worth the price of protecting our team members.
Here’s the flip side to all of this: I’ve watch our team go through walls for clients and go way above and beyond what we’ve agreed to do for them.  When I ask them why they do that….I always get the same response, “Because client Y is awesome!  They’re good people that treat me kindly and fairly”.  This simple reasoning should always give us the courage to fire bad clients, no matter who they are and how big they are.  Happy team members who enjoy exceeding client expectations is a good business model…plain and simple.
There’s so much good growth opportunity for your company when you focus on the clients that you’re struggling with.  If you can find ways to combine this focus with an optimistic mindset, my hope is that you’ll develop a deeper understanding of what’s going on in your clients’ lives, where there are opportunities to create solutions for their needs, and where you can show loyalty to your team by protecting and prioritizing them.  What have you learned from working with difficult clients?

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