Tough Customers

Tips On How To Deal With A Difficult Client

Difficult ClientsA business consultant and customer relationship expert provides ways to deal with seven different types of difficult clients.

Your company may be a service superstar or a sales master or a marketing guru. You may have that je-ne-sais-quoi that has led your business to success.

And yet... you still have that one client (or, more likely, few clients) that is so difficult to deal with that you question nearly everything you do. It’s the type of client that takes up too much of your organization’s time for too little payoff. They’re so hard to deal with you can’t get to a place where you can prove your value.

Sound familiar? It should. From time to time, all companies have struggled with a client who seems indifferent, constantly questions your judgment, or calls your cell phone demanding attention on a Saturday night. Even in the consulting business, we deal with customers who simply can’t be won over.

Early in my consulting career, I once had a client who became downright abusive. He initially was relaxed, confident, professional and even charming. But underneath that veneer he was a mean-spirited tyrant. As time passed, he became ever-more demanding and even vicious.

After my company created a presentation of our suggestions for his organization, he quickly harped on a typo on the second page. He began angrily yelling. “This is shoddy, unprofessional work,” he shouted across the table, his eyes bulging and face turning red. “How could you show this to me? This is totally unacceptable!”

His rant continued for a full minute. This, of course, was an extreme case, as this was a person who didn’t want to accept anything from anybody. However, difficult clients like these show up in every business just about every day. Most managers and their teams will, at some point, have to deal with them. The good news is you can often connect with these people and even turn them into loyal fans.

Sure, there may be the occasional need to fire a client, but for the most part, you can salvage the relationship. It’s just a matter of mastering some basic relationship rules and putting them into practice.

Here’s how to recognize the different types of difficult clients that your company could do business with, as well as strategies for how to turn those customers into loyal business partners. Yes, patience goes a long way when dealing with these types of people, but tested tactics are even better.

The Insecure Client
These clients are unsure of themselves and it manifests as them being unsure of you and nervous about failing or looking bad. They are difficult to work for because they micromanage you. They find it hard to trust outsiders and won’t let you build relationships with their boss or other executives in their organization.

Ultimately, they keep you for themselves, which sets up more of a closed and secretive relationship that surely won’t be productive. Insecure clients may also have difficulty trusting you to do new and different things for them, and they review your work over and over.

The key with these types of customers is to build more trust and reduce their perception of risk. This means investing in more face time, reassuring them about your product or service delivery, showing them what you’re doing at key stages of the engagement, increasing communications, and demonstrating utter reliability and consistency.

Convince the insecure client that you should go together to see their boss, so that you will also have a relationship with him or her. Explain how this will ultimately help them and the program you’re working on together. You need to frequently reassure this type of client and give them a sense of control.

The Do-Nothing Customer
There are some clients who just never move ahead and get things done. You meet with them, you talk, you agree on next steps and so on – but then, nothing. This is more of a frustrating client than a “difficult” one. In fact, your company might have a very good and pleasant relationship with a do-nothing executive. Still, you need to produce, and that requires the client to move ahead.

This is where probing for a customer’s needs can help your business move forward. Explore what’s behind your client’s inaction. Is it insecurity and fear? Are they hemmed in by a boss or another executive who is blocking them from taking action? Do they work in an organizational culture that is risk averse and prizes survival above all? There are many different reasons why a client doesn’t act, and you need to diagnose why so that you know how to address the inaction.

Ask yourself if you might be able to work with them to reassure them about your approach – perhaps even having them talk to another client. Can you help them manage the stakeholders that may be getting in the way? Can you increase their sense of urgency by illustrating the costs of not acting?

Also, ask yourself if the problem or issue you’re addressing is truly an urgent, important one. Maybe the client’s priorities have shifted. If so, you need to know that so you can help the client accomplish something that does provide value.

The Know-It-All
This client thinks they know more about what you do than you and is constantly telling you how to do your job. They give you way too many suggestions in areas that are really outside their expertise. And, probably worst of all, they are overly directive.

Ever have that type of client who just wants to tell you everything about the promotional business? They tell what an item should cost, how long it should take to produce and what kind of packaging should be available for it. It probably leaves you wondering why they’re working with you at all.

The key to winning over this type of know-it-all customer is to reestablish your respective roles. If gentle rebukes don’t work (“Through many years of doing this, I’ve found this is the most effective approach…”), you have to put your foot down with a Know-It-All client. Confront them. Tell them they have hired you because of your expertise and experience, and that they need to give you the proper space and leeway to exercise it on their behalf.

Twice I have had to say to clients, ‘When you buy a Mercedes-Benz car, do you tell the salesman that you want to travel to Germany to inspect the production line and make suggestions to them about how to assemble your car? Similarly, you need to let me do my job for you and not advise me on my own expertise.’ In both cases, the client laughed and backed off.

Mr. or Ms. Aloof
Some clients treat you like a vendor and resist all efforts to build a real relationship. They are often very professional and can be perfectly pleasant when you’re with them. But it’s a purely arm’s-length relationship, which seriously limits how much you’re able to help them achieve.

You and your salespeople simply have to learn more about the client’s agenda and help them accomplish it. You may not truly understand their priorities – their underlying needs and goals. What’s important to them right now? What are they trying to accomplish this year?

Everyone has a hot button – and it’s imperative upon a service provider to uncover this for every single client you do business with. Once you do, you’ll be in a better position to help them and go “above and beyond” the letter of your contract.

Also, try and find out how your client views the relationship with your company. It may just be that he or she feels the relationship is perfectly fine and doesn’t need it to be anything more than what it is. And that may be good enough for now.

The Boundary Pusher
Clients like this perceive no boundaries around you and your work. They will call and e-mail you at all hours of the day and night, expecting an immediate response. They don’t distinguish between something that’s truly important and urgent and an issue that’s just a simple “to do.” They invade your personal life and leave you feeling swarmed and even overwhelmed.

To mitigate the effects of a client like this on your whole organization, it’s best to explain your boundaries at the very start of the relationship, especially if you suspect this may become an issue. Say (or write), “On workdays, we respond to e-mails within four hours unless it’s clearly urgent, in which case we’ll get back to you within the hour. If something comes up over the weekend, unless it’s an emergency, we’ll respond Monday morning.

If you didn’t set clear boundaries early on – or if you did, but the client is ignoring them – you can still alter their behavior without direct confrontation. Simply answer the e-mail you get on Saturday on Sunday night or Monday morning; or, write a one-liner back that says, “Steve, I’ll respond first thing Monday when I’m at my office.”

Also, regularly prioritize with your client. Just say: ‘Mary, right now my priority is getting that analysis that we discussed in shape. Can this wait until Thursday?’ That kind of approach lets the customer know that you’re working for them and trying to get their project done – but it also gives them some boundaries on what should be discussed at that moment.

The Insatiable Client
This client feels the work is never, ever good enough, and they also micromanage you – although for different reasons from the insecure client. Their behavior can absolutely wear you down. You never feel like you’re succeeding. These people have carping, critical personalities and seem totally averse to giving out compliments.

Carefully calibrate expectations at the beginning of each engagement or transaction to make relationships with these types of customer more fruitful. IT firms have “service level agreements” (SLAs) – maybe you need to go deeper into specifics around the type, quality and format of your output for the client.

Don’t become overly needy about getting compliments and positive feedback, because that will just be counterproductive with a client like this. This is a client, not your spouse, and as long as you’re doing a good job and achieving the agreed-upon goals, you shouldn’t worry about getting a constant stream of praise.

The Tyrant
They have personality and emotional issues and treat their people – and perhaps you – terribly. Everyone who works for them hates them. Who knows why someone acts like this? There are many possible reasons. The tyrannical executive could be a good-hearted person who happens to have an anger management issue, or they could be genuinely mean.

If the client is nice to you, but acts like a tyrant with their team, you may be able to coach them and influence them to change their behavior. Unless you’re specifically in a coaching relationship, however, they may not be open to that kind of personal feedback. If the client is treating you or your colleagues badly, consider moving on.

Life is too short to spend time in abusive relationships, be they at work or in our personal lives. Occasionally you may be able to have a frank discussion with a tyrant that results in improvement, but generally, if bad behavior is that extreme, the person will not be able to hide their true colors forever.

Take a shot at calling them on it when they use abusive language or react in ferocious ways when the smallest thing goes wrong. But, short of that, sometimes the best companies recognize when they should remove themselves from a bad client relationship. This is probably one of those times.

– Andrew Sobel is the co-author of Power Relationships: 26 Irrefutable Laws for Building Extraordinary Relationships. He can be reached at

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