Clients are the fuel that keeps agencies burning and for the most part are fantastic to work with. Engaged and interested partners, treating agency suppliers fairly and with respect.
It would be an outright lie, however, to say that client/supplier collaboration is always smooth. The truth being that this dynamic is complex, difficult and riddled with recurring interpersonal issues. Understandably agencies are reluctant to be open about this (often even internally) as there’s an assumption it reflects badly on capabilities or that they don’t value their paying clients.
Some agencies foster a culture that the customer is always right, expecting employees to bend to the whims and demands of their paying clients, whilst others foster cultures where clients are idiots and collectively roll eyes at them and their silly demands in order to stay motivated. In some agencies, this can also create internal tension with sales or commercial teams leaning to the former and delivery teams the latter.
If this sounds familiar (I know it does), having worked in, founded, grown and worked alongside hundreds of agencies, difficult clients (or moments of clients being difficult) are a routine occupational reality, for all agencies, of all sizes, at any given moment. There is no big secret here. These relationships are inevitably nuanced with dozens of moving parts, priorities and stakeholders, high expectations, emotional demands, varying specialisms and communication styles, changing timelines, deadlines and pressure. For the most part, both agency and client side, we’re all just trying our best and getting caught in the crossfire.
This article however is not on how to resolve these issues (that comes later, if you are interested in hearing about it when it goes live you can subscribe below) this article is focused on you, agency worker, who tries your best every fucking day, puts your heart and soul into delivering and still nothing is quite good enough, stuck in a power dynamic that you are ultimately paid to lose. This article is for you, agency owner, who is exhausted by the psychological dance of ensuring clients are happy, whilst maintaining the wellbeing of your team, navigating capacity, profit, delivery and unclear boundaries.
There are no perfect workplaces or perfect clients, so what can you do to protect your own emotional and physical health when you find yourself feeling regularly frustrated by your micromanaging, disengaged, critical, disorganised, or just downright annoying clients?
Understand when your frustration isn’t serving you
It can often be the case that when we are trying our best and still feeling undervalued, we feel indignant. For humans a sense of being treated fairly is essential for collaboration, so it is pretty much guaranteed that anger, frustration and sadness will arise in an agency environment. Your frustration at none of your ideas being signed off, at getting constant roadblocks to success, being held accountable for things outside of your control, for not being heard or respected is entirely natural and normal. No matter how experienced we become, it would be weird if we breezed through these challenges entirely unaffected. What serves us to remember though is that stress directly negatively impacts health in a real and meaningful way, so whilst you are right to feel frustrated, it does not serve you to hold onto it. Sitting at your computer clenching your fists and mouthing profanities to the screen will impact nobodies behaviour other than your own.
To put this bluntly, it’s your heart attack. I hear you, this shit is hard, but we have to let it go. Here’s some ways to do that.
When we are feeling frustrated, empathising with someone may well be the last thing we want to do (or even think possible!) though research has shown that we can enhance our own native empathic traits and increase empathic ability in different scenarios. Being able to empathise with someone can not only potentially help them, but more importantly protects us and our health. One technique I use with companies to trigger empathy to support in managing clients is something called “I statements”. Using I statements, put yourself in your clients shoes and say aloud how you perceive that other person to be thinking and feeling.
For example, if your client is always micromanaging your work you may say something like “I feel like I have to have an understanding of everything that is going on. I am worried that mistakes will be made and I will get into trouble. I am worried I will lose touch with the work and become disconnected. I feel more comfortable in the day to day work than as a client. I am unsure how to step back and be strategic.”
Spend 5 minutes doing this exercise, really taking time to think, reflect and try to fully understand the other person’s position. This will both give you clarity around a potential resolution but more importantly helps make the micromanagement feel less about you not being trusted or good enough.
Self-distance from situations
Self -distancing is a technique used within cognitive training therapies to help broaden perspectives on negative events. Self-distancing is when we “mentally step back from an experience in order to examine it as separate from the self” and research has shown that reviewing situations from this perspective can have positive benefits on mental health.
An easy way to do this is when your boss sends you a super annoying email that makes you want to scream, ask yourself the question “How will I feel about this next month?”. This lets us step back from that moment and take a helicopter view of the situation, giving us space to calmly come up with the best solution.
Get social support
Feeling socially supported is shown to lower our cortisol levels. If you are not familiar with cortisol, it has a significant impact on how we handle stressors, the stressors may remain the same though if our cortisol is low we react to the same stressors more calmly than if it were high. Feeling socially supported has been shown to lower our cortisol levels. It’s important to note that we are not always looking for solutions or for a situation to be fixed. As a leader or colleague, learn to hold space for coworkers to express their frustration without immediately jumping to “OK why did this happen? What do we need to do to fix it?”.
Commit to habits to actively relax
I learned, after a spate of a few months always feeling a tight knot of worry in my stomach, that I had to get better at taking time to actively relax. For me for so long, winding down had been largely about binge drinking and binge watching and whilst there’s space for these things if they’re something you enjoy, when we work in stressful environments it hugely benefits us to schedule time to relax in a meaningful way. Meditation, mindfulness, deep breathing, good sleep and moderate exercise all have a significant impact on lowering our cortisol levels, both in the moment and cumulatively over time.
I began to actively schedule space in my day for these things. At first they felt like a luxury, I would think I don’t have time for this though when I realised that my happiness, effectiveness and productivity is directly related to my ability to handle stressors well, these became things I no longer have to do and became something I get to do.
Hopefully some of these help, please share thoughts, comments or suggestions! And good luck managing those really annoying clients.