Conflict Resolution and Client Management

By Jeff Allen | @JeffAllenUT | President at Hanapin Marketing

I don’t do a lot of things well. I am pretty bad at MLB 14: The Show. I can’t draw, not even stick figures. I can’t sit through any of the Fast and the Furious movies (fell asleep watching film six 2-3 times on the plane to SMX Sydney). But one thing I am decent at is conflict resolution. As Hanapin Marketing’s client roster grows and I spend more of my time on scaling the business I’ve taken a step back to impart some of my philosophies for how to resolve conflict to the team.

The first step was figuring out how to train them and what to train them on (because I mostly work through these situations by following my gut). I work with an executive coach who gave me the two-step process for training others on concepts.

  1. Boil what you do down to the core concept.
  2. Get real comfortable with people doing things differently that you.

This is pretty straightforward but was/is hard for me to do.

When I boil things down to 3-4 bullet points it makes me sad. It makes me feel like what I do is easy. It makes me feel like a replaceable fraud.  Also, it is hard to do because I am not always conscious of my own motives and my own thought processes. It forces reflection, which makes me tired. But in the end, it allows others to see a new way of doing things and for me to be happier about the decisions that are being made because they are being made in alignment with the core concepts.

Another reason this is hard is that I like my way. And I like when people do things my way. It’s comfortable. It’s reassuring. It’s worked out for me both personal and professionally up to this point. Doesn’t it stand to reason that my way works, thus others who do things my way will do things that work, and thus we’ll all be happy? Problem is a) just because it works for me doesn’t mean it is the best way and b) what works for me isn’t going to work for everyone.

I am still working on getting comfortable with the second part of this process, but below is my attempt at boiling conflict resolution down to my core concepts. This is specifically for working through issues with upset clients and bosses.

1.) Find something to agree on immediately

2.) Use data to then validate or adjust that agreement

3.) Create at least two strategies/tactics and get agreement on the preferred option

There is obviously a theme. For me, agreement is the cornerstone of conflict resolution. What tends to happen when we are approached by a person who is challenging our performance is that we run to “here’s why I am right,” “your assumptions are wrong,” or “no that’s not what we should do, what I think we should do is…”.

Instead, we should run towards agreement at every stage. More so, we should feel accountable for finding agreement. Yes, it is our job to find a starting point we can all agree on, to dig into the data to validate the agreement, and to create the plan for improving what we’ve agreed needs to be improved.

1.) Find something to agree on immediately

Here you are attempting to get on the same page. When the client says, “performance is down,” for example, we shouldn’t run to no it’s not, here’s why. Or sure it is, here’s why. We should start by finding out what is being looked out, how they are being compared, and figuring out what everyone can agree on in terms of what the issue is. This may be that you agree that performance could be better even though it is pretty good because certain metrics are down, or that the businesses goals have shifted and so our strategy needs to shift too.

Sometimes what ends up being agreed on isn’t the first issue that’s brought up. It’s common for a client or boss to not want to hurt feelings so they bring up one thing, say that lead volume is down, but really they aren’t happy with how proactive you are being with the account. In this step it’s important to not just try to agree on what is being brought up, but attempt to surface any underlying concerns or frustrations.

2.) Use data to then validate or adjust that agreement

Once we do that we need to look at the data. Are we all looking at the same thing? What’s reasonable to expect based on the external environment? What are the one or two most important metrics where we have to increase performance? At this stage we need to get agreement on what the facts are, what the expectations are and the timeline for getting there.

3.) Create at least two strategies/tactics and get agreement on the preferred option

Lastly, it is your responsibility to create some options. I say options because it is very important that you do not make a business decision on behalf of your client or boss.  That is, you should present options that can get the client to the goal but the client or boss is responsible for actually making the decision on what path is best for the business. The reason for that is the client or boss likely has information that you do not.

This isn’t to say that you can’t decide to do bid changes, ad testing, keyword expansion, etc. without the client or boss telling you so or signing off. This is for cases where strategy is shifting or larger projects (like a complete account restructure) are needed.

Better than resolving conflict is preventing it. If I take a stab at boiling down my approach to creating massive value for our clients, I come up with:

1.) Know the client’s business better than any other agency can

2.) Proactively find ways to apply lessons learned from other accounts and account managers

3.) Do not make business decisions on behalf of the client

4.) Be results and task focused

Those are a topic for another time, though.

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