How to React When You Hear, “I Don’t Want to Be That Client”

Emily shares tips to help set your client at ease and strengthen your relationship.

In my time so far as a project manager at Sparkbox, I’ve started to notice a trend. And it’s all around a riff on the same phrase, “I don’t want to be that client.” What the client is doing to make them that client varies from project-to-project and client-to-client. Sometimes they are trying to make sure they are very clear about the design direction they want to provide. Other times they want to free you from certain culture requirements they have internally. And I know their pain all too well. As someone who’s been on both the agency and client side, I can relate to longing to be an awesome client, but realizing no person and no culture will ever be perfect. No matter the exact situation, after hearing this a few times on different projects, I’ve learned that I need to pay a lot of attention to what clients say, especially when they say, “I don’t want to be that client.”

Don’t Be Mistaken

At first I took this statement to mean what I really wanted it to mean—“I don’t want to be that client, so I promise I won’t be.” And, boy, was that wrong! I think the true statement—whether the person realizes it or not— is that “I’m embarrassed about [this aspect of me/my company], and I really wish I could stop it from impacting you and this project, but it’s totally going to impact you and this project.”

So What Can I Do When I Hear This?

  1. Pay very close attention, because this will come back up again.

  2. Appreciate that this client cares enough to empathize with me.

  3. Assure them it’s okay, that I want to make the project successful, and that we can work through the issue together.

  4. Plan extra steps around understanding the issue really well so that we can work through it together.

  5. Don’t be surprised if this bites us a little bit later (no matter how much we try to work through it).

Empathize Right Back

As scary as this phrase may become for you to hear, I think it is incredibly powerful to reframe how you react to it. And I think the most promising aspect of it is that your client is showing he or she is a caring person who wants the project to be pleasant and successful for everyone involved. That’s pretty awesome! If you give that empathy right back and work hard to try and help your client through the not-so-lovely aspects of the project, you’ll have a smoother project and better understanding of each other.