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Don’t lose your cool when clients do

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I’ve had some unusual experiences working with interesting people in my woodworking tenure. Expecting the unexpected has become my mantra. What I do really isn’t a job, it’s a service; a hand-holding service to those embarking on a home-improvement project.

If you build things as a wholesaler for contractors or galleries, you’ll be insulated from most of the emotional baggage associated with working for an end user. But if you are involved directly with the consumer, the “retail rules of engagement” apply. Don’t be lulled into thinking that your charm or expert craftsmanship will shield you from emotional conflict. It lurks in the shadows waiting for the unsuspecting.

Life’s lessons

A while back, I had two concurrent jobs with emotionally engaged clients. They were not only neighbors, but one had referred me to the other. Although their personalities were completely different, they shared a strong need for nesting. In other words, their home was an extension of who they were. It was a place of safety and refuge, and I was the guy coming to give their loved one a face-lift. Even though I gained their trust by passing a rigid screening process, I was defenseless against their emotional meltdowns.

What I learned from this experience was the importance of recognizing the overcharged and emotional person. These types can not only be taxing on your own emotions, but they require much more time to manage.

It’s important to understand that no matter how good you are at something, you still have to have a solid set of standard operating procedures. If you have a plan and stick to it, you’ll be more apt to avoid getting burned. There is more to running a craft-oriented business than simply being gifted in working with your hands. You have to be able to handle the emotional client. I’ve heard it said that when you receive the same directive or instruction twice or more, you should really pay attention. Someone or something is trying to tell you something. Fortunately, I paid attention.

The drama

The first client was a well-groomed and well-connected socialite. Riding on the heels of her powerful husband, she had learned the art of diplomatic manipulation. When working with her one-on-one, she was completely unstable, pouring out her personal problems as if they were being solicited in a psychological therapy session. And she became the heroine of female lore when the performance was for an audience greater than one. Arriving on her doorstep at the specified time for an important design meeting, I was disappointed when the doorbell’s annoying tune failed to beckon her answer. Assuming she left home on other business, I turned to leave. In the two seconds it took to turn my body toward the driveway, a rush of thoughts entered my brain; a 45 minute one-way commute, unanswered questions from a hard-to-schedule socialite and, worst of all, a beached project in the shop that would have to stay in dry dock until I acquired the necessary information.

I started to knock on the door. But out of the corner of my eye I saw movement in the sidelight glass. “Cool,” I thought. “She’s here.” Sure enough, the silhouette of my client was perched about 10’ back from the glass looking right at me. The proverbial knock, the expectation of a response and the patient wait did nothing. Thinking I imagined her presence, my casual double-take at the window confirmed a living, breathing person watching me with absolutely no intention of answering. Feeling like I had stepped into an Alfred Hitchcock movie with an unexpected twist, I regrouped by exiting the scene and left her a message to reschedule. And, true to form, when responding to my follow-up call a couple days later the client made no mention of missing or ignoring our previous meeting.

The second client and her spouse were both educated professionals sharing a love for family, friends and the simple things in life. Things went great the first few weeks into their project until I showed up one morning to see her husband’s car in the driveway. Because he worked long hours in a demanding job, I knew something was wrong for him to be home. Sure enough, he had a problem with me for allegedly coercing his wife into a decision that she had made the previous day. I talked to him about the two hours I had spent with his wife, advising her of placement options for a fixture — a process that should have taken five minutes. Turning around to his wife, he asked, “Is this true? Did you make the decision; not Getts?”

Her tearful response was an admission of deceit thinly veiled by the fact that she was tormented by making simple decisions that would affect her home. In spite of a genuine apology from the husband, I spent an additional four months in their home mopping up buckets of tears and polishing the fragile structure of her emotionally unstable world.

Establishing a plan

Emotional response is the result of infinite possibilities. The human experience is very complicated and can’t always be figured out. So all we can really do is establish a set of guidelines to follow and stick to them. Any successful person will tell you the importance of diligence and consistency.

Here are three simple suggestions to enact into your plan:

Communication: This should be first and foremost in dealing with any client in any situation. In the case of an emotionally charged client, providing accurate and consistent communication is crucial in controlling their outbursts. And get everything in writing, from contracts and change orders to color choices and project acceptance. They’ll have a hard time dragging you into disputes over your work if they’ve signed off on various stages as the job progresses.

Consistency: This would apply to the words you speak, the actions you perform and your standards of workmanship. When problems arise, the emotional client can suck you into thinking you haven’t done something correctly. If you’re consistent, you’ll know how to deal with those accusations.

Professionalism: Keep your dealings with the client strictly on point with the job. Do not get sucked into their personal issues. The emotional client is often open and engaging. If they find a crack in your professionalism, it will be exploited by treating you as a friend rather than a professional service provider. It’s very similar to what happens when working for family or close friends.

Be on guard

The emotional client is waiting to pounce on someone, and the warning signs do not always appear at first sight. Emotion can’t always be reasoned with. In fact, it can make humans act unreasonable. Responding to emotion, therefore, cannot be reactionary, it must be premeditated.

Again, the key to dealing with the emotional client is having a well-established plan in place and sticking with it. A plan will force the emotionally controlled person to respond in a more logical manner.

This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue.

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