If you’ve ever worked in a client-driven environment, you’ve been there. And depending on the type of leader that was your boss, you either navigated with ease and swam, or you doggy paddled your way through the waves until you sank.
Yes. We know that thanks to clients we generate revenue, profit, and thus earn our paychecks. We know this. To the death. We know that saying “No” to a client can be seen as blasphemy in a fast-paced corporate environment that is diligently focused on hitting those numbers by the end of the fiscal year. But have we yet realized that while clients indeed help generate the dollar signs, your people are the life blood of the business? To some, this may seem like something you’ve learned and talked about over and over at every leadership course or workshop you have attended. But the bleak truth is that many leaders struggle when it comes to balancing the needs of their clients while not neglecting those of their team. Clients will always expect and demand more. But as leaders of teams, of people, how do we manage these competing priorities? How do we tactfully, diplomatically push back on clients when our leadership intuition is telling us to side with our team? Here are a few things to consider:
1. Let’s get realistic.
The first step towards successful client delivery is understanding the scope of the client’s need and timelines. At the same time, you must understand these same things as it relates to your team. When addressing these questions with your client, take notes (both mental and literally). Along the margins of both your mind and notebook, make notes pertaining only to your team: “Have we done this before? How much time did we need to deliver a final product? Where will we need to be innovative or reinvent the wheel? Who on the team has what skills to address this piece of the project?” Now you have key questions to take back to your team before committing to the client. Having addressed these questions proactively before committing your team (and by extent yourself) will save you exasperated team members and clients.
2. So, can my team realistically deliver on this?
Related to the above, it is important to have a pulse on your team’s capacity and bandwidth. Be considerate of what else they have on their plates. One way of doing so is by having regular check-ins with your team (as a manager you should be doing this anyway!) to have a greater understanding of the projects they are involved in, how overwhelmed they may be feeling (or not), and how confident they feel about adding to their plate.
3. Trust your people and assume positive intent.
If a team member informs you that they are at capacity, believe them. Trust their judgment. Don’t assume laziness or hostility. If, however, you have reason for these suspicions, your one-on-one meetings with them will matter even more. Listen to their reasons for pushback. Are they valid? Do their reasons align with their work style, pace, and competence? In the end this is a judgment call you must make, but not before fully understanding your team member’s concerns. If the client need is in fact immediate and stakes are high, discuss the possibility with your team member of delegating some of their current work to a colleague who has greater bandwidth and similar skillset necessary to deliver on the project.
4. Not all client requests need to be treated equally.
As a leader, this may in fact be the toughest part of the process. We never want to say no to a client. Our goal as a business, after all, is client satisfaction in order to maintain long and positive relationships that will continue to generate profitable opportunities. But the utter reality is that not every single business opportunity that comes our way will prove to be profitable or good for the business in the long run. Thus, evaluating business opportunities through a strategic lens is critical. Asking yourself questions as, “What long-term value are we getting from this client? Will this one request make or break our relationship with them? Have we achieved the rapport necessary to negotiate or, if necessary, push back?”
Being a leader is no cakewalk, especially when you find yourself in the middle of shaping and leading a high performing team and making clients happy. Taking a step back from the situation and assessing it through an impartial lens rather than racing to be on the client’s side will ensure that your team remains engaged, trusts you, feels valued, and gives their best performance.