In business relationships, a client’s failure to follow through on agreed-upon actions can cause irritating delays that are especially problematic for small business owners. What is the best way to react when a client, who was eager or even in a hurry to order a service, suddenly takes her sweet time in providing a promised draft or responses to questions?
“If I have to keep reminding a client to comment on a design and I don’t hear back from them for a while, the work is no longer fresh in my mind when they finally do give me feedback,” says Mary, a graphic designer. “That means the delay causes extra work, and I get paid later than expected.”
Procrastination can be a sign that something is not going according to plan, but our standard response is not always a constructive solution. This article explores three ways of approaching delayed client responses from a different perspective. Anticipating potential delays in negotiations and exploring alternative communication modes can be effective tools to break through the procrastination loop.
Anticipate obstacles in contract negotiations
When negotiating a larger business contract, it is a good idea to bring up the topic of potential delays. Don’t be afraid to talk about communication scenarios in advance. Without judgment, ask whether the client foresees any obstacles, and how will they be addressed. What will happen, for example, if tasks are delegated to employees who are busy and can’t address them on time? Which other situations may occur? Work with the client to define an appropriate response time and establish what should happen if that period is exceeded. For everyone’s reference, these responses should be recorded in writing. How will payment for multiple delivery phases be affected if the client fails to engage in the process? Obviously, bringing up this topic requires some sensitivity, but advance preparation can prevent conflict and resentment down the road.
Treat delayed responses as an alarm signal
Your first response to a client’s procrastination may be to send reminders or follow up in the same communication mode as before. However, keep in mind that waiting and grumbling or repetitive messages (“This message is a second reminder…”) are not likely to produce effective results. Change the channel: if you’ve been emailing, call or arrange a meeting. If you’ve been calling, write a message.
Silence and procrastination may be signals that something is not working for the client. Instead of reminding, investigate. Ask friendly questions, and listen carefully to the answers. The client may not be happy with the project scope, feel overwhelmed by indecision, or be surprised about how much work is expected of them. There could also be some confusion about the instructions and formats you provided or the terms you used to explain them.
Use the opportunity
Make an attempt to explore what is going on beyond standard excuses (“Things got busy”) by steering the conversation back to the original purpose of the contract, focusing on the client’s long-term goals and perspective. Find out what the client considers the best way to move forward with the project and agree to specific steps both sides can take. Ultimately, your efforts to help a client overcome hesitation represent an opportunity to move beyond a run-of-the-mill business transaction. Think about your own daily business interactions as a consumer or user of business services: When was the last time a business showed sincere concern, beyond the superficial sales level, about the way you think and work? The time spent in following up and engaging with a client makes you stand out as a provider and creates a service that is both memorable and personal – the image every business strives for.
Client procrastination isn’t a nuisance to accept grudgingly, but an opportunity to try a fresh approach. Since a non-responsive client is most likely well aware of delays, reminders are not an effective tool to resolve the situation. Discussing a scenario of potential obstacles in advance during contract negotiations provides a helpful framework, but a constructive approach to a client’s failure to follow through on agreed-upon responses is essential to move the relationship forward. Finding a work system that works for the client will bring a project to a satisfactory close and is sure to generate future referrals.
Note: A previous version of this article was published in NAPO News, Edition June 2017, p. 26.