Dealing with Difficult Clients

There are difficult people everywhere – not just clients. Co-workers, employees, bosses, even ourselves, can be difficult at times, some more frequently or more prolonged at being difficult than others. Through the years (Adphoto was established in 1973), I have learned to be patient, but still would not sacrifice dignity and self-respect for business gains. Here are a few stories from the past.

Story No. 1: Some are worth pursuing.

Prospective clients who may be loyal to their current photographers may be difficult to win, but they’re worth a good try.

Once, I was really embarrassed to overhear an art director say that he was not interested to see me. I was in the waiting room just outside his door, and I could hear him say repeatedly to the accounts person who was going to introduce me that he was happy with his photographer, and emphatically add that he didn’t need another. Nevertheless, he was persuaded to see me to take a quick look at the portfolio of the photographer I was representing – John.

I knew that I could not win him by claiming to represent a better photographer – besides I wasn’t sure if John were indeed a better photographer. After all, I didn’t know who the other photographer was, and couldn’t compare.

Neither could I insist on his checking out our portfolio, as he was obviously not in the mood. It didn’t even help that the accounts person seemed to have imposed his authority over this art director to compel him to see me against his wishes.

While I nervously waited to be called in, I tried to assess my chances. Before I could even start, I was already losing, so how could I reverse my “good fortune” (note my sarcasm) of meeting this man who did not want to even meet me? In my head, I could hear myself haughtily say, “If he does not want to see me, well, I don’t want to see him either! There are other fishes in the sea!”

Maybe that’s how I would deal with him – by using the “rejection technique” or “reverse psychology” – a concept and strategy I learned as a student in U.P. (I was once majoring in BS Social Work, and had quite a few psychology classes, including “Abnormal Psychology.”)

I tried to be as pleasant as I could possibly be, even as I gave him opportunities to turn me away. Telling him that I could come back when he would not be as busy, he waved his hand, and said, without looking at me, “No, no, it’s okay – you’re here already.” I told him that I appreciated that he liked his regular photographer, and that I appreciated that kind of loyalty. Assuring him that I was not there to try to take business away from his preferred photographer, I made no motion to open the presentation portfolio that I was carrying. I simply said, “Maybe you can just consider us a back up photographer, when your regular photographer is not available,” and promptly thanked him for his time. I was eager to leave the place, and was turning towards the door, when he called out to me, “Ma’am, may I have your card?”

Maybe he was just being polite, but I consider his asking for my business card as a minor victory. However, I had to hold off the temptation to turn around and try to hard sell to him. The proper follow-through was still to play hard-to-get. I casually handed him my card – not even with two hands as I have learned from Japanese clients – and just said, “Thanks for your time.”

The next week, my minor victory turned to triumph. He called our studio for a shoot appointment. True enough, his regular photographer had an assignment and could not accept another, not even from him. I learned (much) later that he was too embarrassed to then ask to see our portfolio, so he called up a colleague in the industry to inquire about us. We were highly recommended.

We did the job. Soon, we became his favored studio – and our business relationship even developed into a personal friendship. John and I would get invited to not only their office parties, but also their out-of-town company outings. For as long as he was in advertising and design, we did all his photography requirements.

P.S. He has retired from the industry, and his ad agency no longer exists.


Story No. 2: They Don’t Like You When You Come Collecting.

There was a time when John was photographer (he still is), while I was everything else. Following up Accounts Receivables was one of the responsibilities that I loathed, but I had no choice – there was nobody else to do the job.

One afternoon, I visited an ad agency because my persistent calls to their accounting department were not producing results.

At the lobby, I asked to see the head of their accounting. The receptionist called his local number, and then turned to tell me that he had left for the bank. I looked at my watch – I had an hour before banks closed, so I decided to wait.

Before the hour was up, he walked out into the lobby. I greeted him. He was shocked to see me, and turned to the receptionist to scold her. “You said she was on the phone,” he said in a very firm but toned-down voice, not meant for me to hear. Before she could say anything, I butted in and said, “Actually, I called earlier, but I decided to drop in, since banks are almost closing. I came to see you and I’ve just arrived.” Recovering, he said, “Come in,” and led me to his office. As I walked away from the lobby and into the inner offices, the receptionist and I exchanged knowing looks.

When I visited to collect a check a week later, she and I actually talked and laughed about that incident, but I chose not to confront the accountant with his attempt to elude me. I think I saved both the accountant and the receptionist from being embarrassed, and I saved myself an account.

Story No. 3: Not all difficult clients are worth saving.

I’d like to think that there are no difficult clients, only difficult situations, but I was much younger then, and was not patient or wise enough to know the difference.

In the 1970’s when we were still new in the business, I had a client who wanted us to reshoot the product shots that we did for him. I graciously agreed, trying to reassure him that we would reshoot at no extra charge, if he were not happy with our photography.

I proceeded to inquire what he didn’t like, and what he would like, and he just said, “I don’t know.” He added, “once I see the photos, then I can tell you if I liked it or not.”

Trying to persevere, I thought that I could get him to define what he wanted by going through a process of elimination. Holding one photo, I pointed at the elements one by one, and asked, “would you like this here,” or “how would you like this positioned,” or “would you like this to be more prominent?” but he refused to answer my questions.

“I will tell you if I liked it or not, when I see it,” he repeated.

“Would you like to be present when we do the shoot, and you can then decide at that moment?”

“No, I can only tell you when I see the photos.” (This was during our film days).

I gathered the prints, and told him, that we needed to know beforehand what he wanted us to do. “Sir, we are sorry that we can’t do your photography. Please give us a call when you can give us clear instructions as to what you want done.”

He never called, and we’ve never encountered him since.

Story No. 4: We all need to be respected.

Once we had a client who, in the middle of my meeting with him, was approached by his marketing manager. He was shown some materials, of which he obviously did not approve. As if forgetting that I was there, he scolded, berated and shouted at his manager.

I was very uncomfortable being physically in the middle of all this (we had nothing to do with the materials in question), so I stood to excuse myself, but he motioned me to sit down. As he continued to scold her, I couldn’t help but wish that I could tele-transport myself to somewhere else.

After they were finished, with me as their most-embarrassed audience, he proceeded to discuss photography with me as if nothing happened.

At my next visit, I delivered his orders – Duratrans for his store displays. Fortunately, he was happy with them.

I did not expect to see his marketing manager again, but she was there. I could not believe that she would still be there, and I could not make myself ask why she was.

Rightly or wrongly, I was not eager to service his business, and did not call on him again.

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2 thoughts on “Dealing with Difficult Clients

  1. Bless you and your generosity, Harvey. There is such a wealth of real world information in your blogs. Moreover, you and John have succeeded in business while keeping a clean conscience.

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