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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 September 2018

Workplace doctor: How can I forge a better working relationship with a 'very demanding" client?

An office expert offers help in a situation where a client insists on short deadlines – but fails to help meet them

Workplace doctor Yolande Basson suggests finding out what drives the client's demands. Getty Images
Workplace doctor Yolande Basson suggests finding out what drives the client's demands. Getty Images

QI have a business relationship with an organisation that regularly sets very demanding deadlines for me and my team to respond to complex requests. However, they themselves take an age to respond to our questions and requests, regularly missing deadlines I try to impose. How can I rectify the situation? TD, Abu Dhabi

AThank you for the highly relevant and challenging question. Many people from different industry sectors will closely relate to the issue you have raised. This is not a simple problem to solve but, rather, a complex dilemma to try and unlock.

So let’s start by trying to understand the nature of this dilemma. On the one hand, to meet demanding deadlines, you might provide more “templated” or “off the shelf” solutions to ensure you respond quickly and on time. On the other hand, to respond to the complex nature of the requests, you ideally want carefully considered input from a number of resources, which takes time. In these situations, compromises of time or quality are not good enough and hence the dilemma.

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Furthermore, in today’s competitive environment, it is also unrealistic to have resources on standby, ready and available to act when the demanding deadlines come in, and then to be standing idle the rest of the time. So what can you do?

It sounds as though you are dealing with the same client organisation on an ongoing basis, which would suggest the possibility of exploring potential interdependencies of your businesses to build a mutually beneficial relationship.

What this would require is a deeper understanding and appreciation of each other’s business drivers and priorities. Start by seeking to understand the business imperatives behind your client’s demanding deadlines. Who are their clients or stakeholders? What needs are they trying to satisfy? Why are they so urgent? Are they always the same in terms of urgency and complexity? Through this line of inquiry and understanding, you may begin to identify some patterns and be able to categorise needs with appropriate corresponding responses.

This may lead to some creative and innovative thinking, such as a new multi-tier business agreement, where you do provide highly customised and comprehensive solutions within a very short time period, but at a higher price. They may be prepared to pay a premium for this, as it would provide them with a significant competitive or ­reputational advantage with their stakeholders and you are able to factor in the additional cost of bringing in extra hands or expertise on demand. In other instances, you may be able to offer a lower price for responses that can afford a longer lead time.

To illustrate the former, a simple example may be useful. If you sell ice-cream and on a particularly nice day over a long weekend you run out of ice-cream because everyone was out enjoying the good weather, what would you say if your supplier could only restock the same day at 20 per cent higher cost? “No” – because it’s more expensive – or “yes”, because even at a higher cost, you know it is still worth your while? Once you feel you understand their business and have exhausted all potential innovative approaches, work towards them understanding your business context, in other words the potential trade-offs or challenges of providing the quality solutions that they require (costly overtime working or less than optimal solutions), when demanding deadlines are imposed.

This would also be a good time to emphasise how important quick responses to your queries are to ensure you meet these challenging deadlines. Again, always be creative and look for the best solutions that will work for both sides, perhaps suggesting that you meet the deadline with a critical part of the project instead of all of it.

This type of joint exploratory communication and mut­ual understanding can lead to what we call “effective contracting” or agreeing operating principles of productive business relationships

Doctor’s prescription:

Having a better understanding of what informs the client’s demanding deadlines, coupled with the client gaining some appreciation of the level of involvement and intricacy required when dealing with complex requests, will allow for more transparency and a mutually successful and sustainable business relationship. If you cannot achieve a new way of working with your client and in instances where they do not respond quickly to your queries then, knowing your business and market sectors well, you may have to base your solutions on documented assumptions. Understanding the pattern of requests, develop a series of “90 per cent” solutions to the most common demands so you can quickly tailor the final 10 per cent at short notice.

Yolande Basson is an executive coach and consultant at Ashridge Executive Education

– Middle East

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