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Client Management | Peer-Reviewed Research

When Clients Just Don't Understand

How Clueless Clients Can Hurt Your Business — And How To Enlighten Them

Based on research Erik Dane, Heather C. Vough, M.Teresa Cardador, Jeffrey S. Bednar and Michael G. Pratt

How Clueless Clients Can Hurt Your Business — And How To Enlighten Them

  • When clients lack a complete understanding of your professional role and the complexity of your work, it can lead to unmet expectations and diminished trust.
  • Solutions include providing information, demonstrating your work and building personal relationships with clients.
  • Start talking with your clients ASAP about your work and connect with them on a personal level to garner goodwill.

Clueless clients are aggravating. Worse, they can cost professionals money and hinder productivity, according to research co-authored by Erik Dane, a former management professor at Rice Business. Dane’s team devised a model that more precisely explains what some clients are clueless about — and the costs of their ignorance.

Perhaps more importantly, the model describes tactics you can use to mitigate the consequences of dealing with clients who don't get what you do.

Analyzing interviews with 85 professionals from four different fields let Dane and his co-authors go beyond theory to gain in-depth knowledge from real work experiences. In other words, rather than imposing a preconceived model upon the professionals’ experience with clients, they allowed the model to emerge directly from the mouths of the professionals themselves. As a result, their research provides managers with a valuable understanding of problematic professional-client interactions that is grounded in reality.

The researchers’ first step was to understand exactly what the professionals thought people didn’t fully grasp about their work. Two clear themes emerged in the study, which the researchers call role-based image discrepancies. These discrepancies arise when professionals think that outsiders’ idea of what they do differs considerably from the reality of what they do. Firstly, professionals think outsiders lack a complete understanding of the scope of the work they do. Secondly, they think outsiders may not completely understand the level of complexity or difficulty of their work.

These discrepancies become problematic when someone who doesn’t understand becomes a client. Clients may devalue the profession because they underestimate the importance of the work, or they may have impractical or skeptical expectations about timelines, services and the intentions of the professional.

The researchers discovered that these misalignments result in unmet expectations and diminished trust, which can impede productivity on three fronts. First, collaboration may be impaired if clients don’t give necessary information to professionals or if they unintentionally slow the progress of projects. Second, clients may question the amount they are being charged, which may make professionals feel pressure to complete their work without adequate time or not bill for hours they worked if they suspect the client will object. Finally, productivity (and income) may suffer when clients bypass professionals for some tasks because they don’t understand the true value of their work.

But Dane and his colleagues discovered several tactics that can help — and they stressed the importance of employing these tactics before the detrimental effects of clueless clients rear their ugly heads. If a professional does nothing to prevent these effects, Dane warns, she may find herself in a vicious, self-reinforcing spiral of unmet expectations, damaged trust and impaired collaboration.

One tactic is to inform clients about the work process right from the start. Once things go awry, it can be difficult to regain trust or repair the relationship. Professionals should give their clients a big-picture overview of their work and its value, as well as its scope and complexity. They should not, however, try to convey the nitty-gritty technical details of their work, which could confuse and alienate clients.

When possible, professionals should also demonstrate their work for clients. Doing so may reassure clients not only that complex work is getting done, but also that the professional is a capable expert. Of course, this tactic is easier to accomplish in some professions than others, notably those in which tangible objects can be manipulated in front of the clients’ eyes.

And last but not least, Dane and his team advise professionals to build friendly relationships. By developing personal connections and rapport with their clients, professionals can garner goodwill that may overcome misconceptions about their roles and work. Moreover, the conscious effort to nurture these personal relationships promises to streamline the working relationship and sidestep the productivity costs associated with problematic client interactions.

The takeaway? Get out from behind the curtain and start talking with your clients as soon as possible. Give them an overview of what you do, how you do it and why it is valuable. When you can, let them watch you do some of your work so that they can see for themselves how complex and specialized it is. And perhaps most importantly, connect with them as people, not just as clients.

Erik Dane is a former professor and was the Jones School Distinguished Associate Professor of Management in organizational behavior at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

To learn more, please see: Vough, H. C., Cardador, M. T., Bednar, J. S.,  Dane, E., & Pratt, M. G. (2013). What clients don’t get about my profession: A model of perceived role-based image discrepanciesAcademy of Management Journal, 56(4), 1050-1080.

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