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High-Profile Clients—Worth the Hand-Holding?

How to keep big-deal clients happy without making yourself miserable.

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by Elaine Pofeldt

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John Mooney tries to avoid taking business phone calls during busy weekends when he’s running to sporting events with his children “out of respect for what I’m doing at the moment.” But sometimes Mooney, 48, who runs his own public relations firm in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, knows he must make exceptions to that rule. If he gets a call from one particular client–a high-powered recruiting executive who works with pro sports teams–he’ll put everything else on hold to take the call, because it’s next to impossible to reach the executive by phone otherwise. “He travels so much—interviewing candidates and meeting with sports teams—that you can never get the guy,” says Mooney.

It’s very possible to work with high-profile customers without going crazy, as long as you enter these relationships with eyes wide open. Such collaborations can make for entertaining dinner-table stories and raise the profile of your business, but almost without question, you’ll have to work around the schedule, personalities and needs of these clients – or they’ll quickly find someone else who will. Whether they’re celebrities or CEOs, these folks have some of the busiest lives on the planet. Since they’re in the public eye, they expect a high level of privacy, and big egos often come with the territory.

     See also: 5 Crucial Steps To Renegotiate a Client Contract

You’ll have to be willing to live with all that -- but it’s important to set some limits, so they don’t wreak havoc in your business and your personal life. “You really have to try to keep your star-struckness in check,” advises Jonathan Alpert, a New York City psychotherapist and coach, who works with high-profile clients in fields ranging from Wall Street to the entertainment industry.

Here, the best advice from professionals who work with high-profile clients regularly on how to make the relationships mutually beneficial.

Expect to be vetted. Dan Nainan, a comedian who has performed for audiences that included President Obama, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, doesn’t get offended if the assistant of a high profile prospect goes into “attack dog” mode in the first phone call to vet him thoroughly before booking him. “There are so many people trying to work for these people that the assistants are used to being a sort of gate keeper and fending people off,” he says. He tries to be proactive about sharing his track record by including in his email signature a link to a YouTube video showing President Obama commenting on his work.

      See also: How To Make Your Small Business Look Bigger

Stay up-to-date on their doings. No matter how busy you are,make sure that before any meeting or phone call with high-powered clients you’re well informed about developments in their professional world -- whether he just won a Grammy or she just orchestrated a big business deal. “You’ll be starting at a much higher level,” where you can quickly dive into an analysis and help them in making critical decisions, says Stefanie Smith, 46, who leads New York City executive consulting firm Stratex, where she works with many high-profile executives, doctors and attorneys. Simply setting up a Google alert with your client’s name is a good way to keep up. Or build a relationship with the client’s assistant so you can call for a briefing in advance of your conversation. Given the demands on such clients’ time, “you want them to get the maximum value from every conversation and project,” Smith says.

Focus on getting work done. Jewelry designerRick Antona, 41, principal at Uptown Diamond in Houston, Texas, works with clients ranging from high-net-worth individuals to owners of major sports teams that want tournament rings. While telling them how much he values their business, he spends most of his time with them gathering information on exactly what they desire -- in detail. “People will let a high-net-worth client talk, talk, talk--and get back to their office and say, `What does he want?’” he says. While some clients are initially caught off guard by his directness, he says, “I think they appreciate me being up front.”

      See also: Successful Meetings: How To Read the Room

Build safety hatches into your business. While you do need to be flexible with high-profile clients, some are likely to push this to the limit—and you need to be prepared. Alpert, author of Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days, says that in his practice, “There are patients who feel that because of their wealth or status, they should get special treatment: They should be able to get appointments whenever they want and have access whenever they want.” Rather than cancel appointments with other patients to shoehorn them in, Alpert suggests alternatives. “I offer them options, like phone or Skype sessions,” he says. Mooney, the publicist, turns off the ringer on his mobile phone on Sunday mornings. “Before noon, what’s really happening that’s that urgent?” he says. “I’m not working for the FBI.”

Do a reality check. While working with star customers can bring valuable cachet—and revenue—to your business, it can also be taxing. You can guard your time to some degree. However, it can be hard to protect yourself from the kind of ego bruising being unable to meet a client's demands can entail. “I think you have to ask yourself, `Is it worth it emotionally?’” says Alpert. “It might be worth it financially, but at the end of the day, how do you feel? Do you walk out of the meetings stressed out, anxious and demeaned--or fulfilled, as if you are providing a good service?’” If you’re lying awake nights stewing about how badly a celebrity client is treating you, you may find you’re far happier serving the average Joe or Jane.

Elaine Pofeldt is co-editor of the $200KFreelancer (200kfreelancer.com), a site aimed at helping independent professionals earn a good living.

Photo credit:: Mark Evans/Getty Images