Edina Lessack's client was seeking a very specific site: He wanted to schedule a convention on a boat in a location convenient to Canada, where his company had some important clients. No problem, said Lessack, president of Chicago-based Meetings & Events USA, who was happy to help. She assigned a staffer to research half a dozen destinations and put together a report comparing airfares, hotel room rates, possible activities, and more. Then she waited.
Nothing. No call. Not even a response to her voice-mail messages.
After a month or two, she decided to try again, and the client picked up the phone. “I meant to call you,” he said. Turns out one of the board members decided to hold the meeting in Las Vegas. Thehad already been signed. “But next year you can do it,” he promised.
“Next year, you can do it yourself,” she replied, and kissed that relationship goodbye.
Lessack says it was a matter of principle. “Clients sometimes take advantage, and that's not acceptable. I will work my tail off and do extra things that are not part of my contract — but don't screw me.”
Because referrals and reputation are so crucial to independent planners' success, they often summon every ounce of tact to manage those conflicts and keep the customer happy. But sometimes, as Lessack found, it's better to just walk away.
He Said, She Said
Teresa Ferris, a partner with the Chicago firm Createvents, divides client clashes into categories: miscommunications, mistakes, and those she labels “We-just-don't-get-along.”
She considers miscommunication to be the thorniest challenge of all. For example, her firm recently designed an invitation for a group. Working closely with her primary contact, she presented a design that matched what she thought had been requested, only to be told it was off the mark. Even though Ferris and her contact agreed that they had each heard a different directive, she decided not to fight it. “I've missed some piece of communication, and I'm sorry,” Ferris told the group, which decided to bring the invitation design in-house.
Lessack has had similar disconcerting experiences with clients ignoring her advice. Last fall, she was negotiating a contract for an incentive program at a posh Phoenix resort, complete with golf and fishing outings, hospitality suites, and other perks. Then September 11 happened, and the company decided to reschedule. Lessack was ready to suggest alternatives when she was told that the firm had moved the program to a considerably less swanky hotel in Dallas. She tried to talk the client out of it, to no avail. As she feared, the hotel paled in comparison with the sites normally chosen for the company's incentives. “It just wasn't the kind of place for this group,” she says.
But Lessack says her role as an independent planner hinders how strongly she can voice her opinion in such a situation. “There's only so much I can say. I don't want to run the risk of pissing them off and losing them.”
Time Is Money
Unreasonable demands on a planner's time are another major source of clashes. “If you've got a client who expects or requires you to talk to them two or three times a day and hold their hand, you have to decide if it's worth it,” says Jim Daggett, an independent planner based in Las Vegas.
“You can often tell in the proposal stage if someone is going to need lots of information.” Beware, he says: Early waffling is a sure sign of a potentially difficult customer.
Rod Abraham, president of the Professional Meeting Planners Network in Durham, N.C., advises factoring in extra fees for clients who make heavy demands on your time. “Once you know that the client needs more TLC than others, you can reflect it in subsequent pricing.”
But sometimes that's not enough. “If the account becomes too high maintenance, we will, with regret, resign the account,” Abraham says. “Sometimes this is done by pricing ourselves out of the business.”
A Matter of Trust
Power clashes can present another tricky problem. Larry Huttinger, who owns D. Lawrence Planners in Atlantic City, N.J., has had clients take over designing brochures or hiring musicians, even though the contract clearly defines that as his firm's responsibility. “Sometimes they have such a need to control that you just have to step away.”
Ferris has been debating what to do about a retainer agreement with a client that has suddenly started scrutinizing her bills and demanding details for every charge. “We've always had a very wonderful, trusting relationship,” she says. “But something is causing them to be overly financially sensitive, more than in the past.” She suspects it is a result of belt-tightening. “We need to be honest with them and say, ‘If you're this cost-conscious this year, you may not need us.’”
Walking away from business can be just as difficult as developing clients — but sometimes it's the only alternative. And some people are simply impossible to please.
“Money is important and one barometer of success,” says Huttinger. “But another is seeing you've done a good job — and that the client recognizes that.”
Megan Rowe is a freelance writer based in Cleveland. She is a frequent contributor to CMI.