How to Work With Cautious, Risk-averse Clients


How to Work With Cautious, Risk-averse Clients

‘Innovate or die’ is the mantra of today’s business.

If we can’t adapt to the changing business climate and find creative solutions to our clients’ (or our own) problems, we will soon fall out of the game. For creatives like us Small Business owners, thinking outside the box can also be a lot of fun, so working with clients who wish to stay in their comfort zone can be rather frustrating.

What can we do when our clients say no to any ideas that appear even remotely risky? Instead of banging our head against the wall, I suggest that we review our own toolbox. In my experience, many of us are so conditioned to look for innovative ideas that we discard tried and tested solutions that actually work just fine.

If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
– paraphrased from Abraham Maslow.

Perhaps it’s time for us to become more comfortable offering ‘unoriginal’ solutions to our clients. This doesn’t mean that we submit to mediocrity. Expertise, by definition, means that we know what works and what doesn’t, and therefore we are able to reduce the risk for our clients.

The body of our collective knowledge, in any domain, is only growing each day. In addition, we have better tools to access this information than ever before in history. So, if we do nothing else but dig into existing knowledge, we should be able to come up with some really decent, low-risk, high-impact response to our clients’ issues.

If this still sounds unexciting to you, let me share my ethos for working with ‘risk-averse’ clients:

1. Don’t judge clients for playing safe.

People are not either always adventurous nor always cautious. We can be one or the other, depending on the context.

For example, twice in my life, I moved to countries where I knew no-one. I have also had a couple of bold career changes. I often travel to little-known places without doing much research or making detailed plans. And I’m willing to taste pretty much any exotic culinary item as long as it’s clean. On the other hand, when I go to the hairdresser I want my usual haircut; save the creative styling for others, please! I’m also quite conservative when it comes to fashion, medicine or investments.

Interestingly, psychologists find that people often adjust their behaviour to compensate for the perceived level of risk in the situation they are in. Put simply, they play safe in risky situations and take more risk in safe conditions. For example, motorists tend to drive more dangerously in cars with stronger frames and better brakes.

It seems we all have a limited quota of risk that we are willing to accept. As business owners, this means that if we are able to address some of our clients’ fears and make them feel more secure, they may loosen up a bit and start to show interest in inventive ideas. Which leads to my next point.

2. Understand their real problems – find out about their fears.

We must, of course, understand our clients’ problems really well in order to be able to help them. But it’s just as important to find out what rational and irrational fears might hold them from making the best decisions.

Have you ever come across an innovative idea; perhaps some marketing advice, an investment opportunity, or a design for your collateral; that you actually liked, but was so ‘out there’ that you simply felt uncomfortable acting on it? Perhaps something went really wrong when you had tried something that adventurous in the past. Or perhaps you were concerned that some of your business partners or clients wouldn’t support such an eccentric decision.

Whatever the reason for your hesitation, you took the more conservative path. Chances are that you were not at all proud of playing safe and that you were battling some internal conflicts. You knew you needed to make a bold step but were not yet ready. In this situation, the last thing you needed was to be criticised for your hesitancy or pushed to take the risk. First and foremost, you wanted to be understood … And were you?

Our ‘risk-averse’ clients might be going through similar internal battles, and in my opinion, the greatest favour we can do is to meet them where they are. We need to ask some deep questions and hold their hand.

3. Build solid foundations – then innovation may emerge.

Many challenges our clients are facing are common problems which have already been solved somewhere else.

For example, many of my clients, organisational leaders looking to improve their office environment, struggle with productivity, communication and engagement issues among their staff. While I know of a range of cutting-edge workplace solutions that would likely address these issues, I must admit that some of these can be rather confronting to employers and employees who are set in their ways of working or have been on the receiving end of failed change projects in the past.

So, when I work with cautious clients, I first give them a set of well-researched, reliable, proven recommendations for the design of their office space that will definitely work. After all, that’s part of my expertise. And as we keep working together and getting to know each other better, they may become more relaxed and adventurous. Or they may not …

But either way, they will end up with a good quality design that meets their needs. And if I’ve done my job well, listened deeply, and tailored my advice to the specific goals and needs of the organisation, the outcome will be as unique and innovative as the organisation itself. I don’t think that’s a bad result.

Looking ahead.

As an ex-architect, I have a vision; that one day we will live in cities that are designed around people, and where the streets and squares are beautiful places to be. I much prefer that to seeing building after building that all try to stand out because their designers have failed to keep their egos in check.

And as a consultant, I trust that one day we will form an ecosystem of service providers where innovation and good old-fashioned craftsmanship are both valued, and where we are happy to meet our clients on common ground, regardless of how courageous they are.

If they happen to be on the cautious side, we listen to them with curiosity, make them feel safe, and help them gently get out of their shell.

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