Taming Difficult Clients: 4 Ways To Protect Your Business And Your Sanity

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Can’t Live With Them; Can’t Live Without Them. Or Can You?

Difficult clients.  They deserve a sentence all by themselves.  These two words describe the type of clients that conjure strong feelings of frustration and regret for most business leaders.  And I would bet money that someone comes to your mind that fits this description.

Let’s face it, working with difficult clients is an inevitable part of doing business if you are an agency, consultant, or small business that relies on clientele.  How you handle these engagements is critical in preventing negative impact to your business and unnecessary headache.  Wouldn’t you agree?

What are the types of difficult clients and how does each one affect your business?  What are four leadership strategies for taming impossible clients?  Successfully mastering these critical relationships protects you, your resources, and your sanity far more than you may realize.

Warning! The True Cost Of Difficult Clients

First, their unrealistic expectations drain you and your limited resources.  You know this client, the one who doesn’t think twice about calling or emailing you in the middle of the night or multiple times over the weekend.

The more you give, the more this person demands.  And even when you produce your best work before the deadline, they are NEVER satisfied.

This is always a problem for concern, especially if they make up less than 20% of your business sales.  Ultimately, this difficult client is pulling you and your limited resources away from your other clients who may make up a larger piece of your sales portfolio.  In essence, this forces you to short change your more important clients by not delivering them quality work on time.

Secondly, they micromanage to the point of preventing you from delivering your best work.  If you’re rolling your eyes right now, I’ll take it you have experienced this client as well.

These difficult clients insert themselves every step of the way and insist on things being done their way.  They are controlling and critical and often contradict themselves and their own feedback, leaving you scrambling to try and provide agreeable solutions.

These types of clients affect the quality of the output your company provides because they think only they can figure out what will work best. Ultimately, they will dilute your impactful work down to the point that it no longer differentiates itself in the marketplace. Collaboration has its benefit’s but if they completely own the work, why do they need you?

Thirdly, they ruin morale by treating your team disrespectfully.  You know this client. The one who belittles and speaks down to the members of your team.  Even if they don’t speak this way to you directly, they can negatively impact the morale and motivation of your team.  I’ve seen this type of behavior lead to great associates choosing to leave a firm.  This is the last thing you need when trying to deliver your best work on time to your book of clients.  This calls for immediate intervention to prevent the situation from escalating out of control.

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The 5 Basic Types of Difficult Clients

If you’ve been in business a while, you’ve probably worked with each of these types of difficult clients or a combination of them.

  1. The Flake – This difficult client doesn’t know what they want and constantly changes their mind. They have an unspoken expectation that you can read their thoughts. Every time you think you’re headed down the right path with the project, they move the goal line. Consequently, this client is a major drain on you and your resources and will inevitably pull you away from investing time with other important clients.
  2. The Skeptic – This difficult client inherently doesn’t trust you, your team (or anyone) to get the job done right. They have a false sense of grandeur – they are the only one who can successfully pull off the project. You know the client I’m talking about, the one that questions your every decision and the output from your team. They take playing the Devil’s Advocate to a whole new level.  If left unaddressed, this client can make you doubt your own abilities and question why you even chose your profession.
  3. The Hammer – This difficult client doesn’t feel comfortable releasing control and believes the only way to accomplish the work is to micromanage, belittle, and demand more faster. This client’s unreasonable demands and disrespectful approach to doing business negatively impacts the morale of your team.  No one does their best work in this type of environment.  When left unaddressed, these types of clients are usually the ones responsible for your talent choosing to leave the organization.
  4. The Illusionist – This difficult client gives the illusion of being the dream client in the beginning. But as time goes on, he/she doesn’t follow-up with deliverables, feedback, approvals, etc.  One minute you see them, the next they’ve disappeared.  This client will leave you and your team hanging in limbo which can cause unwanted delays to the work and deliverables.
  5. The Sky is Falling – For this difficult client, EVERYTHING is an emergency. Regardless if you’re turning assets and project deliverables in on time, this client will run around as if the sky is falling and you’re the only one who can save them.  This client is notorious for sending multiple emails and texts, fretting over every detail, and anxiously calling to discuss every angle of the project.  They keep you and your team scrambling day and night to put out nonexistent fires.  Have you worked with this client before?

4 Ways To Win With Difficult Clients

There’s one thing you need to remember about difficult clients.  You can’t change them.  So, don’t waste your time trying.  However, you can effectively manage them with the appropriate behaviors.  Applying these four leadership strategies will protect your business and your sanity.

  1. Set Expectations. Clearly communicate expectations, deliverables, timelines, and work processes up front. Ask your client what questions they have regarding these details so you can address them in the work agreement that you will both sign.  This contract holds your client’s feet to the fire and keeps them accountable. It also gives you something to refer back to when difficult clients try to pull scope creep on you. A signed contract is a powerful tool that protects your business from the natural consequences of working with the difficult clients mentioned above. Get everything in writing upfront.
  2. Communicate Confidently. Be quick to apologize but slow to say, “I’m sorry” if the project doesn’t achieve the expected results. Saying “I’m sorry” implies that you knowingly did something wrong and creates distrust with the client. If you’ve kept to your end of the agreement and delivered your best work on time, there are ways to apologize without giving difficult clients the upper hand. For example, if a campaign or project didn’t achieve the results you and your client expected, rather than saying, “We’re very sorry that this didn’t work like we had expected.”  Try saying this instead, “We are surprised the campaign/project didn’t achieve the expected results and my team is looking into this to figure out why so we can make necessary changes on the next launch.  We’ll report our findings and next steps to you as quickly as possible. We appreciate your patience and understanding.” With this response, you’re validating the client’s self-perception (they like to think they are patient and understanding) and maintaining their trust by telling them what you are doing to ensure a better result moving forward.  Be quick to respond and choose your words carefully to maintain trust and credibility.
  3. Resolve Conflict. Don’t turn a blind eye when a client treats your team members disrespectfully. Specifically, in situations where your team is not at fault but subjected to a controlling and demeaning client who thinks it’s okay to take out all their grievances on your team. Ignoring this kind of disrespectful behavior won’t make it go away. Worst-case scenario, you will lose some of your best talent. Talk to your client and provide them with specific examples of how they are impacting your team’s ability to do their best work.  This may sound uncomfortable if you naturally avoid conflict, but this type of situation can quickly escalate out of control if left unaddressed. It’s your job as the leader to deal with it appropriately to prevent further infractions by the client.
  4. Be Brave Enough To Cut Ties. Sometimes, even after you’ve tried all the things listed above, there are just some difficult client relationships that can’t be repaired. No matter what you do.  If you have a client like this and they are negatively impacting your business and your credibility, it may be time to cut them loose.  It’s hard to imagine having to fire a client, but hanging onto these negative resource drains may have bigger implications to your business than they are worth in the long run.  If that’s the case, do yourself a favor and tell the client that it’s not working out on either side and you will both benefit by terminating the engagement. This will free up your time, energy, and resources to allocate to your clients who appreciate and value your work (and will bring your more morey in the long run).
Key Takeaways

In conclusion, If you’re a business leader who relies on clientele, you already know it’s impossible to eliminate the existence of difficult clients.  It’s equally impossible to try and change them.  A more effective strategy relies on understanding the types of difficult clients and how they negatively impact your business.  This knowledge and your ability to apply the appropriate behaviors of setting expectations, communicating confidently, resolving conflict, and cutting ties when necessary will protect your business, valuable resources, and your mental game for the more valuable clients in your portfolio.

What Are Your Thoughts? How Do You Deal With Difficult Clients?

Have you had any experiences where you have used any of this advice in the past or wish you had with difficult clients? Let us know! We’d love to hear your thoughts and approaches.

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