Conflicts with Clients, Part 1 of 3: Prevention
If you’re a lawyer, you know all about fee-dispute arbitration, and you probably know that mediation is an optional step in the process, where you get a chance to try to settle your case with the help of a mediator. If you’re not a lawyer, you might still have a mediation provision in a contract you use with your clients, and you probably have some experience informally resolving disputes with clients before they escalate. As a mediator, I have had the privilege of helping to resolve many disputes between lawyers and clients. In this series of posts, I’m giving some tips for preventing and resolving these disputes, based on what I regularly see in these mediations.
In this post, I’m going to share some of the most preventable things that I regularly see in lawyer/client conflicts. (I suspect that these avoidable problem areas apply to many other professions.) After we talk about a few ways to prevent conflict with clients, I’ll spend the next two posts sharing some things you can do once you’re in a conflict with a client to maximize the chances that you come to a resolution that satisfies both of you.
Preventable Conflict #1
Client dissatisfaction often starts with mismatched expectations. The client might expect your work to come in at the low end of your estimate, and is unpleasantly surprised when the actual work is at the top of – or even over – that estimate. They might expect a one-in-a-million, best case scenario result, and be disappointed with the real world result they got. They might expect you to respond to emails within ten minutes, they might expect more or less input into your work than they actually get, they might not expect to pay for certain things, or they might not have realized there was a risk of negative consequences if things didn’t go their way.
All of these situations lead to conflict, not because you did a bad job, but because you didn’t do what the client expected. The client feels misled, betrayed, and ripped off, because they didn’t get what they thought they were bargaining for. And you feel unappreciated, misunderstood, and taken advantage of, because you did your job and they don’t want to pay you for it.
Where’s the mismatch here, and what can lawyers (and other professionals) do to prevent it? It is all about communication.
Just because you say something, or put it in writing, or say it and put it in writing, doesn’t mean that the other person understood it. And if your client doesn’t actually understand what you’re telling them, there is a real risk that they are going forward based on a set of expectations and assumptions that you know nothing about, and have no way of fulfilling. So, how do you make sure your client’s expectations are aligned with reality?
- If your client needs to read it, make it short, make it clear, and check for understanding. Even if your client is sophisticated and should be able to understand your contract, assume they aren’t going to read it carefully and write it so that even a cursory review will give them the information they need to go in with their eyes open. If that isn’t possible due to the nature of your work, give them the important points up front. A well written contract is great if you have to go to court, but a contract they actually understand will prevent you from getting into situations that are going to land in court. And don’t stop communicating this way once they enter into a contract with you – any time there is a new development, make sure you are communicating it clearly and checking for understanding.
- Give honest, well-balanced advice, even if it isn’t what they want to hear. This one is tough, especially for lawyers, because a client can almost always find someone who will tell them what they want to hear. If you’re the person who tells it like it is, whether you’re giving an honest assessment of their chances of winning a case, or an honest bid for work that might get expensive, you will lose some clients. But you’ll be losing the clients who weren’t going to be happy anyway, so consider that a win. You want to work with people who choose to go forward with an understanding of the possible risks and rewards, not the people who are living in a fantasy land where they have a 99% chance of getting everything they want exactly how they want it, when they want it, and significantly under budget. And this advice extends beyond the start of the relationship – any time you are asking a client to evaluate risks or choose a strategy, discuss the full range of possible outcomes and explore to make sure your client is making a real informed decision.
- Learn how your client absorbs information. Paying attention to how your client responds to information will help you communicate their way, and that will help you avoid conflict with them. If your client constantly asks you questions that you already answered in writing, you know they need to get information verbally. That doesn’t mean you won’t create your paper trail, but it does mean you’ll always check in with a call if something is important. On the other hand, if your client seems overwhelmed when you explain things, you might make a point of giving them more written material that they can take their time with. Communicating your way might make your day go more smoothly, but communicating their way will make the relationship go more smoothly.
- Explore their decision-making. If your client is making bad decisions, or asking you to do things that don’t seem like the best idea to you, or refusing to take your advice when you know that you know better, take the time to explore their reasons. You might just find the seed of a future dispute in their thinking.
Preventable Conflict #2
They don’t think you’re very nice.
In almost every lawyer-client dispute I’ve mediated, the client thinks the lawyer is a jerk. (The few cases I’ve mediated where the client liked the lawyer settled in less than two hours.) People who like you, and who feel liked by you, are more comfortable raising issues early, more cooperative in problem solving, and less likely to escalate a conflict even if you can’t resolve it to their satisfaction.
So, it is worth developing those people skills!
You can’t make people like you, but you can make them feel liked and respected. If you create a genuine connection with your client, they are going to be happier with your work. How you create that connection depends on you and them – we are talking about relationships, and those look very different depending on the personalities involved. But do not underestimate the power of your “bedside manner,” no matter what profession you are in!
To maximize your chances of having a conflict-proof relationship with your client:
- Pay attention to what they tell you, even if it isn’t directly relevant to your work. In the course of a relationship with a client, you’re likely to learn things about them that go beyond the scope of your work. They might tell you about vacation plans, family situations, challenges they’re going through, or important life events. Don’t shut down, ignore, or rush through that part of the conversation. Pay attention. Write it down. And follow up. Consider nothing your client tells you irrelevant. We like people who remember the things we tell them, because it is an expression of caring. And, showing that you care about your client outside of the specific context of your work can be very powerful in creating a real connection with them.
- Express genuine interest in their goals, needs, and reasons, not just in the task at hand. You can work for a client with a surface level understanding of what they need from you, and in many cases, you can do a good job with that level of understanding… but you’d be neglecting something valuable. Find out why your client needs you. What motivates them? What do they hope for? Being interested in their needs at a deeper level gets you the information you need to serve them better, and makes them feel important, valuable, and like they are having a real human interaction, and not just handing over money for a product.
- Treat them like people you care about. Imagine that you referred your mom, dad, favorite sibling, best friend, or wonderful grandmother to a professional – how would you want that person to be treated? Use that as your benchmark for how you treat your clients.
Preventable Conflict #3
The squeaky wheel problem
Most professionals are juggling a lot. Multiple clients, the demands of running an office, networking, marketing… it’s a lot. And it is easy to fall into a situation where most of your attention is going to whatever is on fire, whether that’s a difficult employee, an extra-demanding client, or a pressing deadline. And a lot of the clients I’ve seen in fee dispute mediations were not the ones who demanded attention. They were quiet… until they got fed up.
Client disputes can seem to come out of nowhere, but they are almost always discoverable at an early stage if you look for them. But who wants to look for problems?
From now on, you do.
Remind yourself that an unhappy client might not be talking to you, but they’re talking to everyone else they know – their cousin in law school, their neighbor who used to be a paralegal, that one friend who always tells them they’re right – and you do not want to be the last person they address an issue with.
You always want to catch conflicts before they grow!
- Never assume a quiet client is a happy client. It is so easy to neglect the people who aren’t complaining, but make a point of regularly checking in with them. Ask how things are going, how they feel about your services, and if they want you to do anything differently… and welcome whatever answers they give you! Some people feel like it is risky to complain while they are relying on you to do an important job for them, so make it safe to tell you whatever is bothering them.
- Be curious about any expression of dissatisfaction. If a client tells you they are upset about something, even if it is minor and easily fixed, explained, or brushed off, ask friendly, open follow-up questions to make sure you’re not looking at the tip of an unhappy-client iceberg. This can feel really unnatural at first, because we all want criticism to go away as quickly as possible, but it will pay off in the long run. If they tell you something is wrong, explore it to get at everything that’s wrong.
- Don’t just put a Band-Aid on it. Even with good intentions, you may be leaving opportunities to solve problems on the table in favor of quick fixes. As professionals we are problem solvers, so if someone gives us a problem, we are often very efficient at solving it… which is great, if they gave us the actual problem. But the minor problem a client raises – for example, difficulty paying a bill, or questions about some aspect of a strategy – isn’t necessarily the whole problem. And, by solving whatever they raised without getting to the root of it, you might just be leaving the problem to grow under the surface. So, before you offer a payment plan, change your strategy to accommodate your client, or do anything else that quickly fixes whatever they brought to you, take the time to explore their issue in detail. Your payment plan does little good if their financial issues are serious and ongoing, or if their reluctance to pay is a result of dissatisfaction with your work. And that change in strategy might make things worse if they are asking for it because they don’t understand what you’re doing, or their needs or goals have changed in a way that you don’t know about.
Ok, now that we’ve addressed three really preventable areas where lawyers and other professionals can end up in conflict with their clients, we’re going to talk about some strategies for resolving conflicts once they do arise. I’ll post that next week.
Thank you for reading!