winning in difficult situations

Episode 77: Winning In Difficult Situations

Some weeks it feels like all we do is fight fires. This can be exhausting and demoralizing. But worse that that, it can serve to cause us to take our eyes off our goals, lose perspective, and make decisions that might alleviate the short term pain, but work to undermine the long term strategic objective. Here’s how to win in difficult situations.

In thinking through this post, I had originally intended to discuss how best to win with difficult clients. I decided against that for a simple reason. Basically, most clients are not difficult; they are simply people in difficult situations who need your help. If they didn’t need your help, they wouldn’t have hired you. That isn’t to say that there are no genuinely difficult clients, just that they tend to be a small minority. For those that are difficult, and unnecessarily so, my best recommendation is to document the issue and make their supervisor aware of this. They would likely be unhappy with how they are representing their brand. If this is not the case, and the abusive behaviour flows from the top of the organization, you need to revisit whether it is worth it to keep working with this brand. I recognize that generating revenue is the top priority in any company, but the impact it can have on morale and profitability can be well beyond that single account; it is likely to bleed into work for other clients.

So beyond the small minority of situations that are personality driven, what do you need to do to win in difficult situations?

First, here’s what you don’t do. You don’t try to tackle it by yourself. Doing so not only puts unnecessary pressure on you, it reduces the chance of working through the situation and isolates you if something goes wrong. You also don’t bring forward a torrent of problems to the group without also identifying potential solutions. You don’t get overly emotional about the situation; this helps no-one. Finally, the words ‘we are doing everything we can’ should never be communicated to the client. The implication here is that you simply can’t help them, and it invites them to look elsewhere and to another provider for a solution.

In order to win in difficult situations, the first thing to do is to have a degree of context. You aren’t going to win every time. Sometimes, no matter what you do, circumstances turn against you. To that end,  focus only on the things that you can control, either directly or indirectly. To do otherwise is to stress yourself endlessly and unnecessarily.

Second, don’t look at difficult situations as challenges, but regard them as opportunities. You and your client find yourselves in this situation because you have the wrong solution in place. This is an opportunity to get creative and figure out if you have the right type of engagement, and potentially grow it into one that addresses the core challenge facing the client.

Third, gain consensus on the right approach. You will need a team to not only figure out the solution, but also to execute it. Also, consensus means more than getting agreement on the right way forward, it means achieving collective responsibility for the outcome. If there are any that strenuously object to the approach you are championing, ask them to put forward an alternative recommendation and have them take responsibility for seeing it through.

Fourth, try to get to the basis of the difficult situation. The pain you feel is usually a symptom of an underlying problem that may not be immediately apparent. Getting to the bottom of this issue may take you in an entirely different direction.

Which brings us to the most important element to work through the current problem, communication. Communicating often and openly not only helps you figure out the underlying problem and the solution, it helps your client understand that you are actively working on solving it with them. It gives them a sense of ownership in the solution. It also means helping them in communicating to their internal stakeholders, potentially relieving pressure on them, and in turn on you. As part of this communication, make sure you stay calm, that you don’t take any commentary personally, and that you are always focused on finding ways to move forward. Also remember that a client who is direct and clear about their expectations is better than one who is not, who is too nice to tell you where you’re not meeting expectations and who ultimately moves the business. I would always rather over-communicate with my client than work in ignorance about their current feelings. Communication helps us provide context. Communication provides opportunities for new solutions. And communication gets the client to feel ownership in the solution and outcome. In short, communication is the key to winning in difficult situations.

Next week on octopus, we will change our focus away from the work to the people and explore the role of the digital strategist. Please visit for notes and transcripts and to comment on content. I’d love to hear from you. Please subscribe for alerts about new episodes and content. Thank you for listening to octopus. I’m Nasser Sahlool.

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