Anyone in business who works with clients (or customers) knows the importance of having great business relationships. Building these relationships is about being cheerful, attentive, and oozing the reassurance that whatever request is made will be dealt with expertly and promptly. Regular readers of this column will not be surprised to learn that I am not very good at it.
Nobody has ever accused me of having a sunny disposition. My personal inclination is that the glass, rather than being half full, actually contains the merest dribble of liquid which is evaporating at an alarming rate.
Despite this, as a senior person in an advertising agency it was necessary for me to spend a good amount of time with clients while desperately trying not to upset them. There are some naturally capable people in this world who do a great job putting others at ease - but for those of us, who prefer hiding in the kitchen tightly clutching a beer to "working the room", then even being mediocre requires some help. Here are some thoughts.
Truly unpleasant people are rare
Most people in business are actually "alright" and unless particularly stressed we can all rub along together pretty well. It's useful that the majority of criminal elements should have already been weeded out before they get to any positions of seniority.
Apply the waiter test
A key test of suitability to be a human is how an individual treats someone who is of no consequence to them: enter the "waiter test". Observing how somebody treats staff will give you a pretty good idea of who they really are underneath. Anyone who is unnecessarily rude to somebody trying to help them should be strangled on the spot. (Don't worry, the police are fine with this, and will turn a blind eye.)
Don't be obsequious
Unless you are really unpleasant, the best thing you can do is just to be yourself, or at least your nicer side, should you have one. A friend recently informed me that those who don't know me consider me to be an arrogant smart-arse. I was slightly concerned that she didn't volunteer how their view changed once they'd got to know me, but I cling to the hope that it was an improvement.
It's important to listen and understand what your clients want to achieve and how you can mutually assist each other, not just what would be of benefit to you or your organisation.
Rude junior clients
Some clients can be dismissive and demanding even though they are way down the pecking order and have little to back up their attitude. I would speculate that this is because they have been indulged growing up yet find at work that nobody is really interested. Because of this, they like to be difficult and order suppliers around just because they can. Hopefully, they will grow out of this, but in the meantime a quiet word to their boss from the right person can often precipitate a sudden change in attitude.
Sometimes a company's internal culture can be so unpleasant that all dealings with them are fraught, even though the individuals themselves may actually be decent people. I won't name names, but you've probably come across this sort of place. The only real answer is to not work with that organisation anymore. But as that would result in revenue loss and probable redundancies the bean counters would fight such a move. I'm afraid you just have to suck it up, be grateful for your pay packet and thank whoever your god may be that you don't have to work there yourself.
Full and frank discussions
As in any relationship, it's better that differences of opinion be aired early rather than left to ferment. I once had a passionate business discussion (stand-up row) with a client in a taxi queue outside a convention centre in Las Vegas with a couple of hundred bemused eavesdroppers. We had a good working relationship (at least I thought so) and why he chose that very public moment to share his frustrations I don't know. I thought he was being unfair and wasn't going to let him berate me unanswered for things we hadn't done. I'm sure they've heard worse in Las Vegas and hopefully this incident didn't lessen his respect for me (assuming he had any in the first place).
The same only different
On occasion, you may find clients making what you feel are unreasonable demands in terms of timing, cost or quality of delivery. In these cases, it's useful to remember Hanlon's razor: "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity" or, as they're clients, "thoughtlessness".
If you're a client yourself, just try to imagine how you would like to be treated if you were on the other side and act accordingly.
But let's not forget that it's extremely unlikely that your clients are actually perfect.
Statistically, of course, we're all just as mediocre as each other.
• Paul Catmur worked in advertising at a quite good level across New Zealand, the UK and Australia including co-founding an agency in Auckland. This is a series of articles about how to make the best out of maybe not being the best