When working with clients, a service provider should always be prepared to handle conflict. Even with clients who are easy to work with, some small conflicts might arise which can slow progress. Significant conflicts threaten the completion and success of a project if not handled in a professional manner.
Assessing Points of Conflict
First, determine if the point of conflict necessitates a full discussion. Some issues which arise with clients are not worth the emotional/mental energy and time to debate. These are often preference items that will not affect the success of the project.
Examples may include a character name or setting you do not like. If it does not negatively impact the story and is simply your preferences not matching, remind yourself that the client’s desire takes precedence and move forward. Arguing will come off as antagonistic and unprofessional.
If the issue is likely to upset the client and will not negatively impact the project if not addressed, accept their preference and proceed to work with their preferences to the best of your ability. This shows respect and validates their ideas.
Examples may include the client having an emotional connection to a story and wanting it told in a specific way, even if that is not how you would typically write it.
Use the Right Nonverbal Cues
This is especially important if you do not have the benefit of face-to-face interactions with a client. Tone and attitude can still be conveyed in written communication and it is important to be aware of how your words are perceived by the client.
Short choppy sentences come off as brusque and formal, and can make a client feel as though they aren’t be spoken to respectfully.
Overly simplistic wording or overexplaining a concept may be perceived as condescending.
Harsh or aggressive words (dislike, absolutely, never, etc.) make the client feel attacked and can disrupt communication. If a client is afraid to speak up for fear of a negative reaction, it is unlikely they will get what they want from a project and may end up dissatisfied.
Focus On Facts
Facts are important when working through conflict. Opinions not backed up by something concrete come off as argumentative.
To be blunt, when writing or designing for a client, your opinion is not as important as your expertise, so lean on your industry knowledge to discuss a difficult situation.
Personal opinion is always slanted by preference, life experience, attitude, etc. Do not rely only on your personal opinion to make suggestions or offer changes to what a client wants.
Instead, use facts and writing or design experience to back up suggestions or persuade the client to make a change you believe is necessary to the project’s success.
Some examples include: Retailers bury “taboo” subjects in the rankings, alpha behavior and abusive behavior are not the same thing and there are clear distinctions in many genre conventions, and an ending that doesn’t answer all pertinent questions will disappoint readers.
Ask for Client Input
Before attempting to change a client’s mind or offer advice contrary to what he or she wants, ask for their input or to explain the reason or motivation behind a specific preference.
Clients who feel unheard or dismissed will find a new companies to work with. Do not downplay a client’s concerns or opinions. Address them directly and thoroughly so she knows she is being heard and that her opinion matters.
If you have a differing viewpoint, explain why what he wants may hurt the project in polite, but clear terms backed up by logical reasoning and industry standards.
Ask open-ended questions that are nonjudgmental when requesting clarification or reasoning for what the client wants. Don’t jump to defend your point of view. Listen first and, if needed, provide factual background information.
Choose Words Mindfully
Certain words often trigger defensiveness or mistrust.
- “But” insinuates an argument is coming
- “I” language makes the client feel like you aren’t listening and are more focused on yourself and what you want
- “No” makes the client feel like she is wrong
Other words inspire cooperation and positivity
- “And” instead of “but” acknowledges you are aware of both the client’s and your concerns and that you are considering how to address both
- Focusing on the client’s needs makes him feel listened to and respected
- “My concern is” instead of “No” tells the client you are aware of her wants, but your expertise suggests there are better options
Focus on the Goal
The end goal is producing a high-quality book, copy, or design that will engage readers and sell successfully. Any time there is an issue with a project, keep yourself and the client focused on the end goal and finding solutions to problems.
True problems are those that will negatively impact the project. Differences in preference or opinion on issues that will not affect the end goal should not impede progress.
When you use your expert knowledge to communicate to the client why something he wants will hurt the end product, it refocuses him on the end goal rather than winning a particular argument.
How you are impacted by the overall process of completing a client project should not be the focus in conflict resolution. The client’s satisfaction is the priority.
The client hired you to complete a project for him or her. It is ultimately the client’s product and he or she wants it to be the best it can be, but may not have the ability, time, or skill to produce it without help. Your purpose as a service provider is to meet the client’s expectations and deliver a high quality product.
The difference in skill or understanding between client and provider is often the root cause of conflict in working with clients. When the client can better understand the process, research, and technique involved, it will not only build trust, it will help avoid future conflicts.