How do I deal with difficult partners?

Posted on: July 21, 2007

I presented a session on “How to deal with difficult partners” in February at the PSMG and an article appears on its site. The key points covered included:

Are partners difficult or do we just choose to see them that way? Are they deliberately difficult or are they simply protecting themselves from inner, hidden fears? Are they aware of the problems that they might be causing? Whatever the reality, many professional service marketers feel their lives are blighted and their effectiveness thwarted because of the “difficult partners” with whom they must deal each day.

This year marks my 20th anniversary of working with professional service firms and I have worked with nearly 200 different legal, accounting and property practices and that has bought me into contact with a huge number of partners. The vast majority of those partners were a delight to work with and taught me a lot. But I have encountered a few of the difficult variety too – and here some thoughts on how to cope (“to contend on an equal basis in a planned and purposeful way”).

Attempting to change the behaviour of older and more experienced fee-earners is an ambitious target. It is easier to change yourself. Change your perceptions – and you will automatically behave differently – and this may be enough to provoke a change in their reaction. For example, realise that simply by applying that label of “difficult” means that your mind will work to ensure that you always see the person that way – so try to “reframe” them as something more positive – such as your most challenging client, innovative thinker, or a key influencer.

Use an E number

Empathy

A leading psychologist, George Kelly, said that you need to learn to understand from the inside. He argued that you can only influence others when you see them as they are – not as you wish they were. Dale Carnegie, master of the art of winning friends, advised you to “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”. Empathy is a core element of emotional intelligence that is defined as “the power of identifying oneself mentally with a person or object of contemplation”. So, start learning how partners feel and try to understand the myriad reasons why they behave the way they do.

Evolution

Whilst many firms have developed extremely sophisticated marketing cultures, there are many which are at the traditional end of the spectrum. It is therefore likely that in those firms whose understanding and familiarity of marketing is limited will appear to have a higher proportion of “difficult” partners.

Educate

Whilst it is natural to want to educate the partners in the role of marketing and its processes, you need to think about their motivation for doing so. You should also start a little closer to home – by educating yourself in the technical areas, clients and markets concerned. If you invest time in educating yourself, you will gain credibility and it is more likely that they will feel inclined to learn about marketing.

Environment

An office can be a distracting place – clients keep telephoning, juniors keep popping in, the inbox constantly pings with new emails and the sight of piles of untidy files all over the desk engenders a sense of panic. So try talking to the partner in a different environment – whether this is in a more relaxed, social context or simply in a different meeting room. It is easier to break out of repeated (poor) behaviour patterns if the usual triggers are removed.

Engage, enthuse and excite

Partners are usually under incredible pressure and strain. They are often tired and sapped of energy. So try to always be engaging, enthusiastic and excited by the possibilities presented by developing their practice – regardless of how frustrating you find your role at times. It will be recognised and appreciated.

Expectations

A structured marketing analysis and planning process will help partners articulate what they are expecting to achieve with any particular campaign or activity. Even if there isn’t time for this, an early discussion about what they hope might result – and on what timescale – will ensure that they are not unnecessarily disappointed. But don’t over promise and under deliver.

Experts and Egos

Many of our professionals have spent many, many years honing their skills and they command significant amounts of money from clients for their time. Lawyers and, to a lesser extent, accountants are trained to find the fault in anything that is presented to them. They are therefore intolerant of people who do not take as much time and effort to develop their knowledge – of their profession and of their clients – or who put forward wishy-washy ideas or work that contains silly mistakes. Get a professional qualification, learn about what they do (i.e. develop your technical product knowledge), show that you appreciate their vast expertise and get it right first time.

Evidence

Some partners respond well to a carefully researched argument that sets out the facts, the options and the results achieved from similar exercises. By helping them to focus on hard evidence of what marketing and business development can achieve – it reduces the need to create a relationship between what might be two very different individuals.

Elevate and exit

Whilst you should not resort to elevating issues to more senior people unless it is absolutely necessary, it remains a strategy for dealing with particularly difficult partners. And you can exit any particular situation that gets too heated or unreasonable to allow things to calm down. And, of course, if there are simply too many difficult partners in your area or firm, then you may have to consider the ultimate exit – a new job. But don’t give up too easily!

Other strategies

Of course, there are many other strategies for dealing with difficult partners. Some that were discussed at the session included finding a champion to help ease communication and motivating partners by identifying their needs and focusing on the benefits to them as individuals.

Visualisation techniques and depersonalisation were used to reduce the impact of a partner’s difficult behaviour on your confidence and stress levels. Others celebrate the differences – it would be a very dull world (and we are likely to be out of a job anyway) if we all thought, felt and acted the same. We also talked about the psychological rewards of bullying and suggested that one way to deal with this was by substituting responses – reacting in a way that is different to what you naturally feel like saying or doing.

Some marketers see themselves as consultants and regard their partners as clients – and treat them accordingly – with a focus on understanding their needs, regular and formal communications to check briefs, reports on progress and results and professionalism at every turn.

Then there are my favourite “George Michael” solutions – these include “Praying for time” and “Patience”. Twenty years ago one of my most favourite partners advised wisely that I should observe the “Slowly, slowly catchee monkey” approach. Remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day!

Common varieties of difficult partner

At the event, I presented a taxonomy of difficult partner types – including Shrek, Volcano, Bulldozer, Artful Dodger, Invisible Man, Ceasar, Marvin the Paranoid Android, Perfectionist, Diabolo and Hurt Child. We considered the nature of the difficult behaviours and the possibly reasons for it, how the behaviour makes us feel and the appropriate behaviours that marketing professionals should avoid and adopt to make dealing with these characters easier. Please email me if you would like a copy of the summary table.

Let me leave you with a saying from one of my Native American ancestors:

“Oh Great Spirit
Grant that I may never find fault with my neighbour
Until I have walked the trail of life in his moccasins”

I do not restrict access to the FAQs but I politely request that you let me know by email and acknowledge the source (www.kimtasso.com) if you wish to use the material anywhere.

As always, if there are particular topics you would like me to address in the future, please let me know. You will also find a source of more and up to date information on a broad range of management and marketing issues in the professions by checking out the blog where I also post regular reviews of books that might be helpful.

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