Client management lessons I learned from Handle with Care by the Traveling Wilburys

This article was first published in Beloved by Clients, and you can read it here.

What do you get when a one-hit-wonder crosses with a group of the greatest apparent rock usicians together? You get only one song in that Venn diagram: Handle with Care by the Traveling Wilburys.

This song could also be, almost verbatim, the lamentations of any client who has been sufficiently burned in the past, but not so much that he’s given up hope. It’s the 40 year old’s anthem: he’s been around and see how it goes, but not the exasperated, angry 60 year old. (Perhaps 60 year olds sang the song to imply they’re younger versions of themselves, no longer able to pretend to be the 25 year old superstars they once were when they were even younger.)

Just hear in your head the opening lines:


Been beat up and battered around

Been sent up, and I’ve been shot down

You’re the best thing that I’ve ever found

Handle me with care

Yes, and that says it all. Once you’ve experienced clients not paying huge amounts, demanding insane changes done yesterday, changing their minds daily for months ongoing, when every request has the urgency of urgencies, when you’ve had meetings after meetings of being humiliated in front of your colleagues for no reason, usually when you’re the only one speaking the truth–you definitely end up feeling beat up and battered.

The superstars go on:


Reputation’s changeable

Situation’s tolerable

But baby, you’re adorable

Handle me with care


More great client insights right here. Reputations do change. As the mostly-forgotten saying goes, reputations are built over years but lost in an instant.

And the “situation’s tolerable” feels like a summary of far too much client work. Just barely good enough to go on, but not good enough to be excited about. That’s tolerable, and that’s also the worst case scenario for me–personally, I’d rather be really into it, or not do it at all.

And then they go on:


I’m so tired of being lonely

I still have some love to give

Won’t you show me that you really care?


AH ha! The client hasn’t yet given up hope, there is that flicker of light still remaining.

The more common version of this type of client is the one who is cynical, singing, “Won’t you show me that you don’t care?” With that cynical expectation. But, as the song shows, some do have that hope. They want to be woo-ed.

This implies an interesting question for anyone working with clients: how do you best manage clients who have also been, to use the song’s awesome words, “I’ve been fobbed off, and I’ve been fooled, I’ve been robbed and ridiculed”? Do they need to be managed differently than normal clients?

Well, first, I’d argue that there isn’t a “normal” client anywhere. But beyond that, the answer is a few fold. One part of the answer is the song’s title itself: “Handle with Care.” They need to be handled with care.

But another part–or perhaps a part of being handled with care!–is that you basically need to engage in many trust-building exercises with them. They will treat you suspiciously for reasons that have nothing to do with you, just having had their hearts, errr, wallets burned many times beforehand.

And how do you do that? What are these trust-building exercises? There are many parts to this and this is what a lot of Beloved by Clients is about, but the heart of it is: transparency combined with dealing with difficult issues upfront and directly (especially when you mess up yourself.) These two alone go a long way because they’re the hallmark issues of what the non-trustworthy do.

And this is precisely your role, and why you’re hired. You’re not hired just to do the work. You’re hired to be someone reliable that your client or boss will know will be there when needed. In fact, the song then says this pretty directly:

Everybody’s got somebody to lean on

You’re there not only to do the marketing or legal work or whatever your role is; but to be leaned on precisely when needed.

Note that the converse is also true: the failed relationship–work or any–is the one that, in precisely the moment of difficulty, that’s when you don’t “man up” to use an ancient and politically incorrect phrase to do the difficult and right thing you need to. The bad consultant is the “fair weather friend” indeed.

And what’s the reward for doing this, of handling your clients with care, building their trust through transparency and integrity? The song ends with precisely that–so perfectly! They deserve their superstar titles!–“Oh, the sweet smell of success.”

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