You know the feeling. You’re packing up your things to leave the office on Friday evening, and in comes an urgent text message from your client — again.
Suddenly, you realize that he assumes you’re eagerly waiting to tackle his newest crisis, at any hour of the day or night. Now, you’re faced with a decision: Do you ignore the text, or let his “everything-is-an-emergency mindset” suck you into a downward spiral that ends up wreaking havoc with your work/life balance?
Managing clients with constant emergencies takes moxie and skill, but can be worth the effort. Studies from the U.S. Small Business Administration and U.S. Chamber of Commerce have found that acquiring new customers can cost as much as five to seven times more than simply retaining existing customers. In addition, customer profitability tends to increase over the life of a retained customer, creating more incentive to manage the situation.
Career coaches and business owners who have been there say the first action should be gently forcing the client to prioritize.
“That can be a really tricky conversation,” admits Silvia Beebe, assistant community partnership director with the Children’s Services Council of Broward County. It requires communicating clearly and a getting client to see the big picture. It might even involve asking a client to rank a new request in urgency compared to a prior task.
“When you really question them on how important the new one is,” Beebe says, “you’d be surprised that they may rethink the level of emergency and be honest in saying it can be done tomorrow.”
At times, Beebe says, she is the one asking for the urgent response. She wants her providers to manage her urgency by anticipating what additional information they can offer to alleviate future last-minute demands, she says.
Sometimes, the continuous sense of urgency is just a way of conveying a person’s importance and power — and that needs to be handled strategically.
At one South Florida bank where a specific client makes up 75 percent of the revenue, the manager found herself dealing with frantic phone calls and urgent emails several times a day. Career coach Monique Betty, whose company is based in Boca Raton, says there are times when customers have issues that need to be resolved right away, and diving in immediately is the right thing to do.
But real emergencies don’t happen over and over. Betty, founder of CareerSYNC, suggests educating the client on how he would get a better outcome if you get back with a resolution in a couple of days.
“Some of us have a tendency to do whatever we’re asked without pushing back,” Betty says. “If they think everything is an emergency and you treat it like that, you’re not helping the client.”
Sometimes, good customer service means having a “courageous conversation,” Betty explains. “That’s where you get the point across that you want to deliver on their urgent need but there are potential pitfalls such as errors if the pace is unrealistic or you’re spread too thin.”
In some professions, client emergencies are real and unavoidable — the nature of the industry. But “urgent” doesn’t have to mean “immediate” or “all-consuming.
Lisa Crawford, CEO of Fort Lauderdale’s SitInMySeats VIP Tickets, Travel and Concierge Services, regularly juggles two or more affluent clients at a time with logistic emergencies. She tells her clients to feel free to call at all hours if necessary. When they do, Crawford says, she will listen and try to understand what the customer wants to accomplish.
Experience has helped her to know when immediate action actually is needed. Often, as long as she commits to resolving the situation by a specific time, her client feels heard. “You can never let someone think their request is not important. You have to manage it from within.”
Executive search consultant Jena Abernathy uses another technique to curb client emergencies. On Monday mornings, Abernathy, senior Partner at Witt/Kieffer, sends out a weekly report giving her clients a visual of what she’s working on, copying everyone involved, and making them aware when she will be available to discuss changes.
“I try to manage their timetable and expectations,” she says. “If they need to change a due date, they have time to react early in the week. Now you are managing the client instead of them managing you.”
Taking a different approach, Fort Lauderdale human resources consultant Mary Adams, of The Employee Relations Group, tries to figure out where the constant urgency is coming from — someone wanting to look good to his boss or to please shareholders.
With that in mind, she uses specific language to respond: “You want to validate their sense of urgency, give them calm and make them part of deciding what’s reasonable.” For example, “You might want to say, I’m in a meeting that’s going to last three hours, do I need to step out?”
Adams, who specializes in helping small businesses stay compliant with employment law, says it also helps to plan for client emergencies as much as possible. In her profession, they tend to happen on Friday afternoon, which is why she leaves her schedule open after 11 a.m. on Fridays.
Like Adams, Gary Reshefsky, a principal in Century Risk Advisors in Miami, finds in his business that urgent calls also come in on Friday afternoons. A client will be hosting an event at his home or office and want to know what his insurance policy covers.
Reshefsky says for him, the key is to be the trusted advisor and be prepared for those calls. “We handle urgent by calling back the same day and giving them the straight story.”
Experts say that at some point, managing the “everything is urgent” customer comes down to a judgment call: If you give your cellphone number to clients and they contact you almost every evening with a pending issue when you are eating dinner with your family, you will have to decide whether you should take the call or let it go to voicemail and return it at a later time.
One lawyer I know tells clients that they can call him at home if they have an emergency and that he will not charge for these calls. However, if they call him at home and it is not an emergency, he will add an additional amount to the fee. To make certain that his clients know the difference between an emergency and a non-emergency, he made a list that he gives to all clients.
For him, this type of client management works: “They rarely call me at home.”