From Solopreneur To a Team: Dealing With Upset Clients

You’re a business owner. You started alone, and now you have a team of people that take care of different things. But certain old clients insist on getting you on the phone to get simple things done that can be done by your team, disallowing you from focusing on other more important aspects of business growth.

This is a very good business problem I had to suffer first-hand. The fact that your business grew from a solopreneur stage, where you had to do it all by yourself, to a team stage is a great thing. You are generating enough revenue to justify the staffing costs, and you are able to have each staff specialize in a part of the work flow and have a great delegation mechanism. This is how businesses grow – it’s what you wanted when you started.

“I feel like I’m not being taken care of by the owner/CEO anymore.” – Common complaint of an early stage customer

However the problem arises withold clients who are used to dealing with only you, or used to dealing with the smaller early-stage team, are not happy about the adjustment. Maintaining old clients and continuing to service them is critical to your growth. High client turnover is a bad signal for most businesses (exclusion: funeral homes and pest control!). While most clients are OK with this, there are situations where some people will be upset, mostly for following reasons:

  1. They don’t feel special anymore
  2. They are unfamiliar with the new name (fear of change)

Mitigating these complaints without actually having to step back to the front-lines is something I was very successful at over the last few years. It took a while (and still working on it) to go from the phrase “Call Jeff Kee” to “Contact Brixwork. I do not want people to say “call Jeff” anymore. It’s not the business I intended to grow, and I’m not an individual salesperson. Our clients being Realtors® who, for the most part, are their own salesperson & brand presence, this was a tough concept to get across – but I succeeded so far. Here’s what worked for me.

Train Your Staff Well (DUH)

Clear objectives lead to clear workflows. Make sure they can do the job without you.

For the team to work well and not require the founder/owner/CEO’s presence on everything, your team naturally needs to channel your knowledge in what they do. While I am not available for clients as much, I always make myself available for my team to ask me questions, or seek consult. But ultimately, the conversations, recommendations, and the work is all presented by my team directly, because they know what they are doing. I can proudly say that my team is able to take care of everything on their own, without me being on the frontline.

Clear Objectives, Clear Workflows

Every team member needs to be clearly aware of what the objectives are – both internally (hour targets, completion time, efficiency) and externally (design standards, final product finish, quality control for errors/flaws reduction). Workflows are merely steps to achieve the right outcome. Without a clearly defined outcome, the workflow is bound to lose direction.

Delegate firmly, consistently

Be very clear that your team member takes care of certain things, not you, and stick with it.

When you get the client who says “I want to talk to [insert owner’s name] about this” and it’s clearly not something serious/important enough to be escalated to the top level, gently but firmly delegate by communicating directly to the client (so you make the client aware that the owner is aware of what is going on). “Rebecca will take care of you for [whatever].” Resist the urge to jump back in. If your input is required, pass it to your staff, and he/she should be directly communicating that as the team/corporations voice. By writing this email directly, you’ve soothed the client so he/she understands that you are still involved in the business, but you also put faith in the team. Do not lead the clients to think you have abandoned the ship – let them know you are still there, but in a different role than before.

If the client still insists (and often for no reason other than wanting to feel important, or unable to adapt to change) on talking to you, respond with a firm answer: “Rebecca is better equipped for this type of task. I am not taking care of these parts of the business anymore based on our new workflow.” Being rigid and firm on your answers is very important. Exceptions are how towers crack – and too many of those, it crumbles.

Be consistent with this delegation, even if the specific teammate is busy. You must condition all clients to the idea that they are dealing with a team entity now, not the owner as an individual.

When clients insist on one staff only

Delegation between team members ensures no disruptions when staffing issues arise.

What if one person goes on vacation, or is sick? The other graphic designer or coder should be able to step in and take care of the client, especially if you do not have a project manager hierarchy. And even then, if a certain PM is unavailable, somebody else should be able to take care of any urgent issues should they arise. If your business is structured so that a specific client can ONLY be taken care of by one team member, you are putting all your eggs in one basket. Staff can leave the company as well. Having a transparent workflow, and a proper mechanism to pass the client files on from one team member to another, is important for the long term growth (this is where Dropbox becomes handy). Of course, there are certain project managers who are more familiar with a specific project, in which case you keep that person on it longer for efficiency. But for overall growth it’s important to get clients used to dealing with different team members at different times.

Introductory Meetings With New Staff

Another great to way ease clients into the team environment is to simply have a meeting or a Skype conference with the new person. Often this face-to-face interface takes away the foreign feeling of working with a stranger. Once the rapport is established, it becomes much easier to get a client accustomed to working with the new staff.

Never throw anyone under the bus

Always stand by your team, and hold the company accountable for the mistakes - not the individual.

“John totally messed up! I’ll fix it.” is the most perfect way to tell a client that your staff are incapable, and that the owner has to step in to get anything done. Passing the blame onto the person (even if they did mess up) is a great way to break that team image, and relegate yourself down to individual status again. This tells the client that they are getting sub-par treatment when a staff handles it, and that the only way to get good service is to utilize the owner directly. First of all, the occurrence of mistakes  should be reduced through proper training. Secondly, always have the staff respond with “We made a mistake, sorry about that. The team will work to fix it right away.” When it comes to client communication, it’s not about passing the blame. It’s about solidarity and ownership. Let the clients know you are a team, not a scattered bunch of mercenaries.

The Right Tools for Delegation and Teamwork

Make sure the team is equipped with the tools needed to work as a team without the owner at the forefront.

Apart from a well trained staff, your infrastructure must allow the teamwork as well. Have a common communication queue (such as Freshdesk for customer support). Make sure you have the right collaboration tools on the cloud by utilizing Dropbox, Asana, and other cloud-based solutions for access from all teammates. Making sure your staff have the right tools and equipment to get the job done is your job as a business owner.

Be prepared to lose customers

No matter how hard you try, some cases are lost. Do not sacrifice the workflow or the long term vision.

You’ve done all of the above and you have a well trained team who work as a unified team, and some clients still won’t budge… whether out of ego, or inability to accept change in this modern world, or a false sense of entitlement – doesn’t matter why. Let the client go. Be bold enough to say “It seems like our workflow and our organizational structure is not suited for your needs anymore. I think you would be better off if you hired an in-house team to handle [insert whatever service].” It’s not a good idea for you to alter the smooth & proven workflow for one fussy client. The more exceptions and anomalies you have in your otherwise fluid structure, the higher the chance of mistakes and inefficiencies. This also confuses your staff, as well as other clients. Be strict about the workflow for the long term gains of the corporate team you want to grow. If some clients get in the way of it, cut them loose.

The inability to delegate is one of the biggest problems I see with managers at all levels. - Eli Broad

Source of Quote: Eli Broad is the author of The Art Of Being Unreasonable, a successful entrepreneur and a business leader who gets 8 hours of sleep very night (on Fastcompany.com).