We’re always talking about tough clients, bad clients and boring clients. But what about the great clients who are simply having a hard time? When you work remotely, it can be difficult to tell when clients or colleagues — good or otherwise — are having serious trouble achieving a task you need them to do.
Recently, a client from which I needed input for a project was having just this kind of trouble. Though it seemed difficult to do from a distance, I worked with her to solve the problem, calm my client, and save the entire project. Here’s how.
The Warning Signs of a Client in Trouble
First of all, let me say that my client was doing everything in her power to get the information I needed. She was in regular touch with me, our professional rapport was developing — it was all good. Except for the fact that she wasn’t sending me the information I needed.
As time progressed, I began to see several warning signs that things were getting tough for her.
- A string of unanswered messages. When my client emailed the contacts from whom she was expecting to obtain information, she would CC me. Often, she’d forward a string of unanswered emails she’d sent these contacts, without receiving any reply. In those emails, she’d mention to her contacts that she’d called and left messages for them, that she was following up her most recent email, and so on. It was clear that she wasn’t getting any love from her contacts, and that was why she had no information from me.
- Half-baked answers. When her clients did reply, she would sometimes CC me in her response to them. This made it abundantly clear to me that they weren’t being at all helpful. Their half-baked, barely relevant responses frequently missed the point of her requests.
- Frequent absences. My client’s contacts seemed to be on the road a lot. They obviously weren’t online all the time, or at the same time she was. Of course, my client had other fish to fry, too — she was frequently out at conferences and industry events, so most of the communication between herself and her contacts seemed to take place over email or voicemail.
Time marched on, and the large blanks in my project remained unfilled. Eventually it became clear that I’d have to make a decision.
Your Two Choices
In this kind of situation, the remote worker has two choices.
- Decide that you can’t proceed without the information. This may actually be true — you may need the input before you can proceed — in which case you’ll need to speak to your client or colleague to negotiate a plan of attack that will help you get what you need. Alternatively, you may just be stuck in a mindset that says you can’t proceed without the input in question. But is that really the case?
- Negotiate a workaround. Rarely do we actually need completely perfect information before we can act. Of course, we want to produce a quality outcome for our colleagues or clients, but operating in an imperfect world means that sometimes actually getting things done wins out over the endless search for perfection. Yes, you can let your client or colleague’s trouble stall the project, drag out the timelines, and give you more space to finish whatever you’re working on in the meantime. Or you can work with your colleague to try to negotiate a solution that will let you progress the project regardless of the missing information.
Negotiating a Workaround
Negotiating a workaround is a great opportunity to strengthen your relationship with your remote client or colleague. In the case I mentioned, it was clear that my colleague was struggling, and that her contacts weren’t going to give her the specific information she’d asked for.
So I formulated a plan and gave her a call. She was glad to hear from me — she’d obviously been concerned that she might wind up looking like the bottleneck in this process — and to talk through the list of outstanding pieces of information we needed.
Through our conversation, I was able to obtain some anecdotal information that gave me enough to flesh out key parts of the project. This was a huge relief — after all, my workaround was a compromise. So even the smallest piece of information translated to a better outcome for my client.
Finally, when I proposed my workaround, my client was extremely relieved. I explained that it was clear she’d been fighting an uphill battle to get the information I’d asked for, and she appreciated my awareness of the situation. She was ecstatic that we would be able to proceed as per the original timeframe without her having to hassle the unhelpful contacts any further. In short, the workaround would make her look good, which made me her favorite contractor.
Although it can be difficult to identify the signs of a flailing client from your position as a remote colleague, it’s the best way to help support them, build your relationship, and keep the project on track.
When was the last time you solved the problem, calmed the client — and saved the entire project?
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