Clients are like 3-year-olds! Treat them accordingly!

Even though you know kids will cry, you still tell them no. And you should handle clients the same way.

Even though you know kids will cry, you still tell them no. And you should handle clients the same way.

For those of you who manage clients this is not exactly news. As a parent of a 3-year-old, I recently realized there were many parallels between parenting a 3-year-old and managing clients.

1. First and foremost – you have to take care of both of them. Much like a 3-year-old, clients need to be taken care of constantly – you can’t neglect them in any way or bad things will (and should)  happen. While the specific activities may be different, ultimately it comes down to never letting your eye off the ball. Parenting a 3-year-old is a full-time job and so is taking care of clients. If you don’t give your child your full attention they know it immediately, and if you don’t give your clients your full attention, they may not be your clients for very long. 3-year-olds usually take advantage of lack of attention by breaking something andthen proceeding to look cute when you find out.

2. Neither one likes to be told no. When my 3-year-old daughter gets told no – she’ll ask again and again before finally having a meltdown. Clients often do much the same thing. They want what they want when they want it and don’t like to take no for an answer. That’s their right, after all they are (hopefully) signing the checks.  And just as telling a 3-year-old no is an art form, so is communicating the concept of “no” to a client. Misdirection and delay can be a useful strategy for a while, but if the client or child persist you’ll eventually have to stand your ground while waiting for the inevitable tantrum. Of course standing your ground can be excruciatingly difficult when the person throwing the tantrum is the same person who signs the checks.  Then again standing your ground while your 3-year-old throws a tantrum on the grocery store floor isn’t exactly easy, but it’s something every parent has gone through and survived.

3. They love to learn. A 3-year-old acquires knowledge and concepts at a prodigious rate, and the same is true for clients – if you are doing your job. Just as you help a 3-year-old understand the world, so should you help your client understand the business or technical problem your are helping them to solve,  how you are solving it and why its important that it be solved in this way. With 3-year-olds, they only know what you teach them. The same is true for clients until they get a second opinion, and they will eventually get that second opinion. And when that 2nd opinion verifies what you’ve been telling your client all along, you’ll look just that much smarter, kind of like when the grandparents give the same answer to your child’s statement “spiders have 8 legs, spiders make webs and spiders are arachnids”. (I won’t apologize for helping along my daughter ‘s interest in science)

4. Saying goodbye can tough. For both of you. Holding my daughter in my arms before I leave for the airport is tough – she doesn’t want me to go, I don’t want to leave her behind, but I have to because…. I have clients who are depending on me. Saying goodbye to clients can be equally difficult especially after a long engagement. You’ve developed professional and personal friendships and will genuinely miss your client’s staff, and you might have come to depend on the steady consulting paychecks. In fact if you aren’t careful you can become so dependent on those long-term projects that you’ve neglected the necessary search and acquisition of new clients. But the old Navy saying still holds true: “Growl ye may, but go ye must”

5. They both get cranky! With 3-year-olds it usually happens after a busy day when they are tired, but with clients it usually happens late in the project life-cycle, usually close to deadline. The best way to handle these explosions is to patiently listen to the inevitable outbursts, placate them with soothing comments and continue with your work. By the next day all memory of the episode will be forgotten and you can continue working towards the project completion, or building a new Lego castle.

6. Memories are short. When I ask my daughter what she did yesterday she goes “ughhh, I don’t know”. If you ask your client to remember what was agreed to during the last project status meeting, you can expect pretty much the same answer, so you better have meeting notes and agreed upon milestones. Most 3-year-olds aren’t very impressed with notes but that doesn’t mean they can’t be reminded of what was agreed to: “remember, we said you’d clean up your toys before going bed”. Beyond simple things like meeting milestones, don’t expect fond memories from that project you did two years ago to carry much weight with the client today – what matters to them is how you can help them with their newest business or technical issue. 3-year-olds are very similar. You may have had a great day at the Zoo six months ago, the memory of which you’ll treasure forever, but they already forgotten it. You had better be building new memories every day. Luckily it is easy to do and and fun for everyone, this usually applies to clients as well.

7. Under-Promising and Over-Delivering is universal. This isn’t exactly revolutionary but it bears repeating. If you promise something and go above and beyond – everyone’s happy. For a 3-year-old promising to go to the playground is one thing, but going to the playground and getting ice cream afterwards is something else altogether.  For clients, promising that the new web site will be live by the end of the month is expected but finishing it up two-weeks early is something else altogether. Of course the corollary is that if you over-promise and under-deliver no one will be happy – kind of goes without saying doesn’t it.

8. They like new toys. Whether it’s a new dinosaur  book or a new analytical tool they both like the new thing. My daughter gets excited easily – her latest excitement was over a party favor she recently got – a cool pair of kid chopsticks. She couldn’t stop talking about them. For clients it might be the new expense reporting system that gives easy visibility for the first time into the departments and staff generating the highest expenses. For both, you have to balance their excitement over the new with the reality of moment. “Yes, that expense reporting system is awesome, but right now we need to focus on this next big project deadline looming on the horizon” or “yes, we can read your new dinosaur book one more time and then off to bed.”

I can continue the comparisons but ultimately its about building and strengthening your relationships with your children or with clients. What comparisons do you see between parenting and client management? -t

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