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Zombies, Vampires And Other Client Nightmares: How To Keep Cool And Slay Your Business Dragons, Too

By March 26, 2014February 1st, 2018Marketing Insights & Strategy
Zombies, Vampires And Other Client Nightmares: How To Keep Cool And Slay Your Business Dragons, Too

This post is part of my monthly Word Carnival. A bunch of us business bloggers get together and blog on one topic that we all agree on and then share the heck out of each other’s posts.

I love my fellow carnies. They’re smart and supportive and better than Oreos. But this month when the topic of “mental health and business” came up, I was firmly in the “no way, uh-uh, can’t do” camp.

And yet that is what I’m tasked to write about today.

Except… did you ever have one of those periods in life where you feel least mentally sane? Least qualified to even pretend to talk about mental health?

So I’d be a big, fat imposter if I sat here and tried to tell you how to keep your hat on while running a business.

And yet… as I pondered the topic it occurred to me that nobody has locked me up yet and my business is still running. So I must be doing something right.

Everyone gets a little nuts at times. We all occasionally want to smash our computers to bits or pack a bag and run off to a mountaintop in Tibet for a long vacation with the silent monks.

And what I’ve come to accept is that’s just part of running a business.

What matters is not how sane you feel at any given point in time but how you manage your business from day to day.

And so, for your continued sanity I offer you this bit of advice for dealing with one of the most sanity-testing things of all: clients.

Clients: Our Lifeblood And Life-Suckers

Disclaimer: if you’re my client and you’re reading this right now I’m not talking about you. I’m talking about those other people.

I don’t even feel bad calling clients life-suckers because I’m someone’s client, too, and I probably drain the living daylights out of them.

In fact, as we recently went through a redesign of this site, I realized that I am my own worst client nightmare.

Yet we can’t live without clients, can we? They are the reason our businesses exist.

And yes, we love them. But for the purposes of this post I’m only going to talk about the really annoying ones. Because it’s a lot easier to deal with people when there are hugs and cupcakes involved but not always easy to deal with the disagreements, disappointments, frustrations and aggravations when things turn south.

Here are a few types of monstrous client scenarios and some techniques for dealing with them.

Zombie Clients

These are the people who seem to zone out whenever it’s their turn to do something.

Need an approval? Waiting on a deliverable? Trying to schedule a meeting or get an answer to a question?

Zombie clients just keep on munching your brain without actually offering anything useful.

Zombie clients usually don’t know how to write checks, either, so whenever a payment is due it takes zombie clients weeks or months to respond. It’s not that they’re cheap. They’re just… zombified.

So what’s a person to do?

Try this tactic the next time you’ve got a zombie client: stand your ground.

Like in the TV shows and movies where you see the hero standing there with a baseball bat, waiting for that shuffling monstrosity to get close enough? Be that person. And your baseball bat is the consequence you will enact if your client does not respond.

It’s tough to do, especially when you feel responsible for the outcome of an engagement, have put a lot of effort into a project or just feel guilty about cutting someone off.

You can be kind but firm at the same time. If you’ve got a client who has failed to respond to your requests, whether for payment, for input or for their time, it’s your job to choose the limit, set the consequence, make it clear and stick to it.

Think about it now: If you’re waiting on a client to respond, what reasonable deadline can you set right now? And what will the consequence be for missing that deadline? Be prepared to stand your ground!

Vampire Clients

These clients just suck you dry. They may “one more thing” you to death or “just got a quick question” you into bankruptcy.

They’re quick to shoot off emails with a random thought or comment and even quicker to cc you and about two dozen other people on everything under the sun, so that your inbox suddenly becomes a landmine of re: re: re: re: emails.

Vampire clients suck up your time, suck your energy dry and can suck the life out of your business if you let them.

Of course you want to be helpful and accommodating. You want to excel at service. You want to be loved and adored and referred to all of your clients’ friends because of how excellent you are.

Besides the obvious, the problem with vampire clients is that they’re always thirsty for more. And when you don’t feed them they get cranky, no matter how much you may have given before.

What’s to be done?

Pretty simple, and yet infinitely hard to master: set boundaries.

Like in the vampire movies where they can’t come into your house unless you invite them. When it comes to these clients, either don’t invite them in or learn when to rescind the invitation.

It’s one of the best things you can do for yourself and your business and also one of the hardest. Do you want to be the one perceived as “nickel and diming” your clients for every question? Do you want to be the one spouting bumper sticker psychology about how their lack of planning does not constitute your emergency?

And yet you must do just that.

Grab your stake and be brave. Set limitations on what you will and will not do as a courtesy or a favor or part of your relationship (ie: non-billable) and how you will handle requests.

Practice “no”.

Practice what you will say to clients who ask you questions that require your brainpower and time. Practice alternatives like, “I’d love to help you with that. Let’s open up a project and schedule some consulting time.”

Be clear and consistent about what people can expect from you when it comes to your goodwill and don a big garlic necklace the minute someone crosses that line.

Think about it now: What will you say to a client the next time she asks you for one more thing/one more minute/a quick call/a quick anything? How will you funnel her into your billing cycle rather than giving away your resources for free? Stick to your guns!

Wizard Clients

They sound kind of loveable and Harry-Potterish but wizard clients will really try your patience.

The problem with wizard clients is that they think everything should be simple and quick. They may have bought into the idea that there are secrets and formulas and magic tricks to get them what they want. They think you, the expert, should know these tricks and if you don’t, they’ll just show you how it’s done.

They probably “read something on a blog” that has convinced them that they know just as much as you do and you’re simply too slow with your wand to make things happen.

You may wonder why wizard clients hired you at all if they know so much and have such a slew of magic tricks up their sleeves.

Wondering what to do about these guys, other than fire them? Challenge them to a duel.

When a client thinks you’re just not doing the magic thing he thinks you should be doing, ask him to share his insight and research with you. I’m telling you, these guys always have just enough knowledge to be dangerous. And chances are, if you can ferret out what they think they know and where they came up with their ideas, you can combat them with reality.

I’m not saying they’ll always listen, in which case a good old-fashioned firing may be in order. But for most people who have simply heard a lot of spin and bluster and picked up an acronym or two without fully understanding it, your ability to defuse their magic spell will be just enough to start a real conversation and move the relationship in the right direction.

Think about it now: When a client tries to jump in and do your job for you because it’s as easy as turning a prince into a toad, how will you respond? What will you say that shows you’re willing to listen and engage without throwing you ego into the mix? Practice countering those misconceptions!

Werewolf Clients

These folks are just ordinary people one day and a complete nightmare the next.

They love you, they hate you. They praise you, they want to throttle you. They agree with you, they suddenly think you’re the stupidest person they’ve ever spoken to.

Maybe it’s a full moon, but whatever the cause, you’re in for some real insanity if you ride the rollercoaster with them.

The worst part is that on the good days they are quite loveable and you get along well, things go smoothly and everyone is happy. I bet your werewolf clients have written you glowing testimonials.

It’s during those off-times that you wonder if maybe you really have gone crazy because you don’t quite understand the transformation.

What’s a person to do? Stand back.

Seriously, get out of the way and let your werewolf client transform. Don’t get bitten.

If you really like your werewolf most of the time, accept the fact that there are going to be awkward, hairy moments. Don’t get emotionally involved or take their reactions personally.

If things go downhill or your client is 90% werewolf and 10% cute, fluffy puppy, consider terminating the relationship. But I’ve found that in many cases, once people vent and especially if you don’t feed them red meat, they will come back from the edge and things will go well once more.

Even clients have nutty, less-than-mentally-healthy days.

Think about it now: How much do you like your werewolf client? Can you step aside for the outbursts and maintain a productive working relationship the rest of the time? Practice saying, “It’s not about me.” And remember, everyone wants to smash their computer to bits sometimes.

How Can You Be The Hero In Your Next Business Transaction?

Keeping your cool is a skill. You don’t wake up one day with a sword in your hand ready to slay dragons.

And even when you do learn how to do it, you’ll still get singed from time to time.

So as you practice your swing, keep a few things in mind…

You are not your business. As business owners we identify with our creations and take everything quite personally. The better you can get at reminding yourself that you and your business are two different things, the better you will become at separating a trying business situation from a personal attack.

Clients are people, too. They may drive us nuts but they have bad days and crazy days and weird days just like we do. And I bet if you really thought about it, you’d admit you’re not always as charming as you think you are. A little empathy goes a long way.

There’s a solution for every problem, even if you don’t like it. Sometimes business is hard. Whether it’s getting used to the idea of saying “no” to people or learning when to say goodbye, it’s important to recognize that you are not stuck in a quagmire of misery. It’s fully within your power to change your circumstances if you’re willing.

Next time you find yourself in about-to-smash-something mode, take a mental step back and ask yourself what you can do to turn the situation into a win. I bet you’ll find there are a lot more options than you think.

Now tell me, what are your business nightmares? And how do you keep your cool when the monsters crawl out from under the bed?

This post is part of the monthly Word Carnival series of posts. This month, our carnies take on the topic of mental health in business. Read the rest of the Word Carnival posts here for more great advice from some of the smartest business owners and entrepreneurs you’ll meet.

Join the discussion 20 Comments

  • Gayle Barr says:

    Just read your blog. I am sitting here and laughing… those are “MY” clients, they can’t be anyone else’s, who would have them?

  • OMG, Carol Lynn, this is awesome – we’ve all had those clients. Thanks for these excellent tips on handling those nightmare situations.

  • OMG!! This is priceless, Carol Lynn:
    ” … don a big garlic necklace the minute someone crosses that line.” LOL!

    Practice “no”. Uh, huh. Easier said than done, isn’t it?? I’ve practiced using the “N-word” for decades while raising my daughters. Sometimes they took me seriously and listened … and sometimes they didn’t. Reminds me of some of the clients you most likely have filed away in your “I’m-done-with-you” dungeon (er … I meant “drawer”) 🙂

    You have mounds of business-related brilliance, Carol Lynn, but I’m here to tell you you REALLY SHINE in the creative writing arena!!

    Thanks for a beautifully entertaining post with loads of great advice attached.
    (See, writing about mental health wasn’t so bad after all.) 😉

    • It’s all easier said than done, for sure. I love you for using my name and the word “brilliance” in the same sentence but mostly it’s the crazy talking here 🙂 Yes, writing about losing your mind is actually quite therapeutic!

  • Nodding my head (yup, yup, yup)…we’ve all had to learn these lessons and YES they are crucial to keeping your sanity. Thanks for such a lively (and helpful) explanation.

  • MJ says:

    What kind of consequences can you realistically put in place for zombie clients?

    Extra fees for not delivering what you NEED in a certain time frame? Threaten to drop them without refunding the deposit?

    • Sometimes I will close a project if it’s gone on for an unreasonable amount of time. And no, no refunds. I have a stipulation in my contract that says we expect timely response and if that doesn’t happen, we need to basically move on and do other work. The project gets closed, there are no deliverables except for anything we may have already provided and if they want to finish the project at some point we’ll initiate a new contract, new timeframe, new budget.

      I wouldn’t call it a threat, it’s just a reasonable expectation that if someone hires you to do something, they will provide the input you need to complete the job. Like if I hired a contractor to install new kitchen cabinets but never told him what color I wanted. How can he do that job? How long should he keep calling and hanging out at my house waiting?

      That works better than extra fees which people either won’t pay or will complain about. Preempt it by saying, reasonably, I’d love to finish this work for you but if I don’t have X thing in X days, I will need to close this project and move on to other clients. You’re welcome to reopen the project in the future and I’ll provide you with a revised contract and budget at that time.

      Done. No more hanging on, filling your brain with wondering what and when and why. Ideally you don’t deliver more than someone has paid for or chances are that’s lost money, but at least you can move on.

  • I think this may be my favorite post on client types ever written. In fact, I wish that I’d written it. I’m jealous of everything about this and it’s because it’s so fucking spot on and well-presented that I can’t even deal with the fact that I wasn’t the one who thought of it.

    First off: yes, you’ve nailed about every “nightmare” client under the sun here. In fact, I like this so much I might articulate it in my next revision of my contracts. “If you become one of these, here’s what will happen:”

    I already have some conditions – you’d be surprised how effective an anti-Zombie statement like this is: “if you drop the ball for more than 3 weeks, you’ll be billed for the full amount of your contract and if you want to start things back up again after 2 months, you’ll owe 10% of your contract rate for us to pick it back up again.”

    For Vampires, I warn them that anything that takes me more than 5 minutes costs them 15 minutes of retainer time because I have to refocus, so any interruption that wasn’t planned at least 48 hours in advance costs them.

    For Werewolves: I’ve never really encountered one, per se.

    For Wizards: holy hell yes. I have it written in to my contract that if they want me to “do just one quick thing”, it requires a rescope of the contract OR a new, separate bid.

    I’d add one more: the Shapeshifter: The shapeshifter’s goals constantly change, their business model morphs until you suddenly don’t fit their needs anymore, and then you’re out like yesterday’s garbage. You can’t see them coming and the best way to avoid it is to be very clear about what you’re billing on, collect payment up front, and have a “refunds by exceptional failure only” policy.

    OK, one more after that, too: the Ferengi: The Ferengi make epic promises all day long about how much money you’ll be making, then they take your best ideas/work and run without leaving so much as a dime behind. These guys are stopped cold by collecting payment up-front before any work begins.

    • Wow, well first of all THE Nick Armstrong is jealous of my post?? That’s enough to die happy. You’re the king of cool stories and entertaining analogies and dead-on truths.

      Also I love your additions. I bet we could go on all day and hit every monster in the book. Sounds like it needs to be its own book… hm, now you got me thinking….

      I actually got a chuckle about the idea of having an anti-zombie clause in my contract. I am sorely tempted to add that in but I’m not sure how many people would find it amusing. Not sure I could sneak that one by Ralph but I’m really really tempted!

      • Haha; I have another one for you! (Co-authorship coming, I’m sure!)

        “The Mummy” – this aged creeper is so old even his farts are dusty. Wrapped in a warm cocoon of his own assumptions about what works and what doesn’t, the Mummy refuses to consider anything new, fresh, innovative, or cool in favor of the tactics and enemies he knows.

        • LOVE IT!!! Wow, that’s a whole genre I missed but yes, and the only real antidote is death by firing. If you can’t bring people along into the year 2014, you just have to keep going and hope they eventually turn to dust behind you.

  • Hi Carol,

    Don’t you hate the vampire clients – the one more thing dudes, never seem to be satisfied with the work. I think that I’m a pretty easy client, because I know what I want, but I’m not too picky either going on and on into the details. I’m usually fine with the work that done for me fast.

    There is a true story of worse then vampire client back in the 1930’s in France. This story happened to someone whose son was going to be one of the most popular film makers in France. His mother was making a living sawing men’s shirt, and she had that awful client who discussed the work, the price and everything in between. All the time.

    One day, the son over heard that ugly client, and as he was becoming to have money, he took the shirts, handed them to the woman saying, here I give them to you, as long as I never see your face again. I love that story 🙂 It illustrates the clients you talking about here.

    • Wow, I guess these kinds of clients have always been around! I love how you know these stories 🙂 I try not to be annoying to people but I bet a few of them still think I am! Even so, we have to deal with all kinds of people and it seems like everyone has similar experiences so it’s nice to just laugh about it sometimes and hear everyone’s stories.

  • SandyMcD says:

    Carol Lynn I JUST love your writing. There is definitely a book in this seriously. I know each one of these clients (and Nick’s mummy, shapeshifter and Ferengi, and would that I had KNOWN that was what they were, perhaps many weeks slash months of my time would not have been wasted feeling horribly anxious in face of such monsters.

    “I’d love to help you with that. Let’s open up a project and schedule some consulting time.” This is the line that I will say as a mantra until it just falls effortlessly from my mouth (even if I sound like a Zombie saying it LOL.) Off to don my garlic necklace.

    • Thank you Sandy, that’s a compliment coming from someone who is such a great storyteller. We need to collectively write the Monster’s Compendium of Horrifying Clients. Sounds like a nice project for a Halloween release 🙂

      You really do have to practice what you want to say to people. It doesn’t just roll off naturally, especially if you’re used to basically doing what people ask. It’s hard to do at first but it gets easier. And then one day you realize you are just saying this stuff by rote and not stressing anymore.

  • This post is epic! Clients truly are our lifeblood but can so quickly suck us dry. I’ve had ALL of these characters at one point (and I love your disclaimer to current clients) and I’ve probably been the Wizard a few times. I DO try to listen and learn. This should be made into a movie, or even a TV series. I’d watch it. It’s a combo of The Office, Shark Tank and Fantasy.