99.9999% of the in-house creative team leads I speak with list clients as one of their top three pain points. Okay that's a bit anecdotal and hyperbolic so I'll be more accurate. In the 2014 In-House Creative Services Industry Survey, when in-house leaders were asked what was their biggest challenge, "client behaviors" topped the list with a whopping 70%. Oh yes, and more than 50% of those same leaders are managing groups with no account management team in place. I'll bet my house that all of the creative leaders without AMs are in the 70% group suffering through bad client relationships.

What does this mean? Should you be feeling sorry for yourself and resigned to forever dwelling in bad client hell? Should you accept getting sucked into black holes of endless revisions, being engulfed by scope creep, wandering around dazed and confused by unclear, conflicting or even no client direction or feedback? Well, if you enjoy being a victim and making those uncooperative, unyielding, un-nice clients into the bad guys, then please carry on. The fact of the matter is, though, that dealing with this situation is entirely your responsibility, and it is in your power to address it.

Enter Client Relationship Management (CRM)--a practice, that, when implemented properly, can mitigate many of the difficult issues that often crop up when creative teams partner with their clients on the creation of design deliverables. Actually CRM is already in play within your business, it's just that, most likely, the wrong people are engaged in it, and your group is not embracing CRM best practices.

If your team and business portfolio are big enough to justify the establishment of a dedicated account management team, then, of course this would be your best and most effective next step. Chances are though; this is not an immediate option. Your next best approach would be to train your project managers in the art of client management. Cella and other consulting and professional development firms in the creative and marketing services industry have developed programs designed to school up your PM team in this area.

Given the broad responsibilities your PM team members most likely already have on their plates, you should consider including staff from other functional teams in CRM training so that they can take on client management at appropriate points in the creative process as well. Typically art directors and senior designers, developers and copywriters are used to extensive client contact, so these folks may be best suited for taking on support CRM roles.

So what are some of the basic pillars of effective CRM? At a high level they include:

  • Extensive communication tools and practices such a the use of action memos
  • Robust project documentation including Statements of Work (SOWs), Creative Briefs and project intake forms
  • Effective use of Change Orders
  • Project scheduling best practices
  • Appropriate rules of engagement including Service Level Agreements, assignment of accountability and proper setting of expectations both on the client and creative team sides

Defining the rules of client engagement for every member of your team is as important as making sure you've identified and schooled up the team members who will be in key CRM roles. You'll want to establish escalation guidelines so individual contributors will know how and when to hand off difficult client interactions to the appropriate CRM team member as well as how to manage routine tactical client transactions such as project updates, document exchanges and setting up meeting dates.

In addition to taking specific actions on adopting a CRM model of client engagement, establishing a general customer service ethic within the team is crucial to enhancing client relations. Understanding that difficult clients are most likely reacting to pressures within their own groups and businesses and viewing them as partners who are on the same team with your department as opposed to considering them as adversarial taskmasters, can positively impact your team's behaviors when they interact with your clients.

Once you and your team redefine and refine the way you manage your client relationships, the way work comes into your group and moves through the creative process will become more fluid, efficient and productive, positively impacting the entire tone of your team's culture and their working environment.