First, a disclaimer. I don’t really believe in labeling people – or clients – as stupid. In fact, I love my own clients (and don’t worry, this article isn’t directed at you). But let’s just suppose that some of your clients occasionally make unrealistic demands, cause boneheaded mistakes, or generally make a pain-in-the-anatomy of themselves. How can you talk to them safely about it?
Here is a simple three-step process to do exactly that:
1) Validate their stupidity.
Yes, you heard me right. Let them know that their stupidity is very common, by comparing them to other people. For example:
“Everyone is so busy these days, lots of people wait until the very last minute to spring a major deadline on us.”
“In these economic times, everyone is trying to get a better deal, so I can see why you are trying to cut our fees in half.”
Listen carefully – you aren’t agreeing with them. Instead, you are simply opening dialogue. And more important, disarming them of all of their weapons before you close in for the kill.
2) Use the “I technique”
This is based on a principle from psychology known as modeling. In plain English it means that much of our human learning takes place by watching other people doing stupid things. Which means that the safest way to discuss something stupid is to model our own behavior using “I” statements.
Here’s an example from my tech support days. Someone’s hard drive just crashed. Of course, they made no backup. If you so much as hint that they should have made a backup, the explosion that follows is as much your fault as theirs. Instead, I would often say, “*I* get frustrated when *I* don’t back up *my* data and *I* lose all *my* work, so *I* know how you feel.”
See? I have just called this person an idiot, and they are listening to me and not getting angry with me.
Bonus points: what if someone does something so blitheringly stupid that you could never admit that you’ve done it? Simple: use other stupid people as your model. “I’ve seen lots of other people say unfortunate things on social media.”
3) Set positive boundaries
Now it’s time to get your message across. Whatever boundaries you need to set, they will work best if you frame them in terms of what you can do, instead of what you can’t do – language matters here much more than you realize. Try these on for size:
(The client wants 500 items delivered tomorrow.) “Of course you do. Here’s what we can do: get the first 100 to you tomorrow, and then speed up production so you can have the rest of them this week.”
(The client constantly calls you off-hours.) “Sometimes you really need an urgent response. So that we can be there for you when you really need us, we’re going to implement a rush rate for off-hours consultation.”
(The client wants to cut your fees.) “Of course, we are happy to work with you. Here is a new (hint: smaller) level of service we can provide you at a lower rate.”
Of course, there are times when the only thing you want to tell a difficult client is “goodbye.” But much more often, it makes sense to simply tell them they are stupid, in the nicest possible way. A way that, if done well, will leave the client smiling and shaking hands with you. Try it and see what happens!
Does this make sense? Are you going to try it? Do you have any other suggestions? Please share in the comments below.