Written by Karen D. Swim
The “invisible client” has derailed deals, reset budgets and unraveled the best laid plans. Sales reps, insurance agents, and business people across the land have been brought down by this foe of good faith. So who is this puppet master behind the scenes?
The Invisible Client is the decision maker or power broker that you do not initially see. You are hired by a human being (or group) whom you believe to be your client but in reality there’s another who truly holds the control. The invisible client may be a spouse, administrator or C-level executive. Their power has nothing to do with title or perceived position but their influence on your client or prospect.
I was a licensed Life and Health agent at one point in my career. I was warned early on about the “one-legged sit.” The one-legged sit is an appointment where only one half of a couple is present. The prospect may have insisted that they are the decision maker. However meeting with one half of a couple is a surefire way not to close a sale.
In Corporate a variation of the one-legged sit is common. You work your way through levels of decision makers only to discover that a secretary in a different division has a relationship with your competitor AND the influence to sink your deal.
Sometimes you actually close the deal, and begin the work before the squirrely invisible client makes an appearance. You agree on scope and process with your client. You complete the first phase and the client loves your work. Two days later they come back with a “this is not what we wanted, you stupid dunderhead, you dare to call yourself a professional, change the whole thing” list.
More than a mere nuisance, the invisible client if not managed, can disrupt productivity, schedules, budgets and your ability to do your best work. You can however, unveil the mysterious interloper by using the following tips.
- Assume nothing. Don’t assume that the lead person is truly the lead. Probe for information by asking questions such as: Whom beside yourself will be involved in the decision? Can you step me through your internal review process? Let’s review how the process will work. Will I continue working with you or will others be involved? How will this work impact other departments? Would it be helpful for me to speak with them before we move forward?
- Listen for clues. The lead client will often provide clues that an invisible client is lurking behind the scenes. I recently worked with a Career Marketing client but the invisible client was his wife. I heard the clues but did not listen to them. While preparing for the process he mentioned his wife several times. “My wife looked over my old resume and told me it was not effective.” “My wife is a CFO who went through this process 3 years ago.” His wife turned out to be a nightmare control freak who almost derailed the project.
Once you uncover the “real client” you can involve them in the process and gain their approval before you begin work. Work to uncover their motivation and then offer solutions accordingly. For example your lead client may be motivated by the bottom line but the invisible client may be relationship oriented. In a joint meeting you will want to present the bottom line but also reinforce longevity of relationships, your follow-up process, team approach, etc.
When the invisble client is revealed after the fact you can can still involve them in the process. In the case with the CFO wife, I suggested a phone meeting with both parties to “maximize her expertise” and walk through the questions. I gave the wife the power she needed, and as a result I was able to continue doing my job without interference.
Finally, if you uncover the invisible client in advance and it’s clear they will be trouble, walk away! Sometimes the best course of action is to hightail it before trouble brews. Better to walk away with grace than to end up in the middle of a nightmare project you wish you had never accepted.
Have you ever had an invisible client? How did you handle the situation?
Broken stool image© Franz Pfluegl | Dreamstime.com
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Karen Swim says
Hi Joey! It is nice to know that we’re not alone and share tips for managing. 🙂
Hey Karen! I’m sure we’ve all had invisible client horror stories, and it’s nice to know that we’re not alone in dealing with these problematic individuals who loiter around the net 😮
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Nadine Touzet says
I had a severe case of the invisible client recently. Fortunately, the invisible client proved ultimately to be kinder and more open to dialog than the ‘official’ client and it turned out well. (I got paid in the end.)
The official client reported to me that the invisible client was not happy with the translations, and that the official client would only pay if the translations were impeccable. Not only did this sound bad, but there hadn’t been any mention of an invisible client up until the work was completed.
One lesson I drew from this is I should be more systematic in my first interaction with a new client. Had I asked: is this translation for you, or for someone else, can I talk to them? I would no doubt have been informed of the existence of the ‘real’ client.
Nadine Touzets last blog post..Twitter Updates for 2008-08-12
Karen Swim says
Evelyn, LOL! I have coached people to use that in negotiating salary. That does add another spin to the “invisible client!” LOL.
Kimota (JC) Arrrrgh! That does sound painful! Now that’s a tough one for a contractor to navigate since the changing scope seems embedded in the culture. How do your contractors respond?
Melissa, even with a solid work & fee agreement, the invisible client can rear his/her head. I have also dealt with the “clueless” client you talk about, in fact quite often! Those are the people who I fondly remind that my tools are brain and keyboard not magic wand and crystal ball! 🙂
Jaden, thanks for the site compliments! 🙂 The invisible spouse. friend or co-worker is a thorny issue, eh? The invisible partner sounds like they may have security issues. It’s not very nice to make up lies about people. Grrrr..
Jaden @ Screenwriting for Hollywood says
What a stellar article! And your site looks amazing: clean and attractive! I am so impressed with all your new work. You’re glowing darlin’!
Rather than the invisible client, I have had this problem more with the invisible spouse or partner or friend or co-worker or family member… Where I try to see or make arrangements with a person I like a lot, but the mysterious significant other thwarts all efforts. Frustrating indeed! …especially when the invisible partner makes up lies or says nasty things. Urrrr.
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Melissa Donovan says
This is something I haven’t had to deal with yet so I guess I’m pretty lucky. It sounds underhanded to me, making someone do a bunch of work with very little directive only to say the invisible client wanted it this way or that way. Just another reason to make sure the work agreement/contract is solid and signed 😉
On the other hand, I have had clients who want something but don’t know what it is. “Write my home page!” they say. “What’s the purpose of your site?” I ask and they answer, “ummm….”
Melissa Donovans last blog post..A Story for a Song
Our company directors are the invisible clients that constantly shake up the projects my department briefs contractors on. Getting them to sign off on a stage of development usually provokes them into completely changing the brief and sending everyone back to zero. I feel for our contractors, I really do, but these are business men who see a brief as a fluid document rather than as a fixed statement of what is expected for the fee. Painful to watch.
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Evelyn Lim says
I have to confess that I’ve often used the excuse that my husband is the decision maker and that I will need to consult him first, in the event when I need to buy time in front of the sales person. It may sound unbelievable when the item being sold is a vacuum cleaner!
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Karen Swim says
Lillie, LOL! Now that may just be my favorite solution! LOL!
Lillie Ammann says
I dealt with it by selling the interior landscape company and becoming a freelance writer. 🙂 Of course I dealt with for nearly 17 years before then.
The good thing was that everyone bidding on the job—and these situations were frequently competitive bids—had the same challenge. The salesperson who did the best job of figuring out what the invisible client wanted usually got the job.
Karen Swim says
Robert, isn’t that the truth! I love your response, always make them look good! When you uncover their internal motivations and help meet them you’ve got yourself a client and supporter.
Friar, your life is more “real” than you can imagine! LOL! Those darn invisibles do seem to want you to read minds too, don’t they? You have found a way to be efficient and maximize your output. 🙂 Ha!
Brad, I think probing is the key to everything, don’t you? However, even I am guilty of sometimes not doing it then slapping my head after! I hope that you’ll continue to write more on this too. We can all learn a lot from you!
Lillie, goodness that is a challenge. My brother is a contractor and he runs into this a great deal also. How did you deal with it?
Lillie Ammann says
I encountered this all the time in the interior landscape business. We often had to give our proposal to a facilities manager or an administrative person, but the CEO or other high-level executive made the decision. The contact person didn’t know what the budget was or anything about the design the invisible client wanted … but usually we couldn’t even find out who the invisible client was and certainly couldn’t talk to him directly.
Your advice on how to handle the situation is great.
Brad Shorr says
Karen, In industrial sales we called these folks screens or filters, and ran into them all the time. After a while you develop a sixth sense for identifying them. You can usually tell whether you’re dealing with one by asking them pointed questions early on in the relationship. If you get decisive answers, it’s a good sign. If you get a log of hemmin’ and hawin’, you haven’t found the right contact yet.
Brad Shorrs last blog post..Content – Is There Anything New Under the Sun?
My “invisible clients” are numerous. I’m supposed to produce documents I’ve never written before, for anwhere from 5-10 people at a time. Often these people can’t (or won’t) tell me what they want. I have no supervisors to help or mentor me.
But I get scolded if I’m late.
I used to bust my butt, trying to make the content and format perfect. Only to waste countless hours, when the Invisible Client suddenly pops up to tell me what’s wrong.
So the way I deal with it is I submit drafts, doing the minimal work.
Let THEM come to me..and tell ME what they want. I can’t read minds.
(Of course, you probably can’t do this in Real Life, but I find my approach is a good survival techlnique where I work).
Friars last blog post..The Gospel of Action Movies According to Hollywood.
Robert Hruzek says
Oh my, Karen; is this so true! What’s really aggravating is unless you’re actually dealing with the CEO (and sometimes not event then!) it seems like the invisible client is ALWAYS there, somewhere, lurking…
Even worse are the situations when you’re actually working through yet another consultant (like I am now on one particular deal). The best solutions, though, always make that person you ARE dealing look good to THEIR client.
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