Early in my consulting career I had a client who slowly became downright abusive. When we first met he 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. One day, I walked into his office with a three-page memo I had written to summarize our conclusions. He noticed a typo on the second page and began angrily yelling at me. “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. I was only 28, and felt utterly trapped in the project.
This man was an extreme case, and I have fortunately only run into a few like him during the ensuing 25 years. But the fact is, you encounter difficult clients all the time.
Here are seven types of tough clients you need to be aware of, and the strategies for dealing with them. I have listed these roughly in order of severity, from the most manageable to the least tolerable.
Seven Types of Difficult Clients
1. Insecure: These clients are highly insecure and unsure of themselves. They are difficult to work for because they tend to micro-manage you. They find it hard to trust outsiders, and won’t let you build relationships with their boss or other executives in their organization–they keep you for themselves. Insecure clients may have difficulty trusting you to do new and different things for them, and they review your work over and over.
The Prescription: 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 them 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 together on.
2. No Boundaries: Clients like this perceive no boundaries around you and your work. They will call and email 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 a task or issue that’s just a simple “to do.” They invade your personal life and leave you feeling swarmed and even overwhelmed.
The Prescription: Explain your boundaries at the very start of the relationship, especially if you suspect this may become an issue—e.g., “On workdays, we respond to emails 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.” When this becomes a problem, you can begin to establish boundaries by your behavior rather than direct confrontation. Simply answer the email 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. Say: “Mary, right now my priority is getting that analysis that we discussed in shape. Can this wait until Thursday?” Carefully set expectations with a client like this.
3. Do Nothing: There are some clients who just never move ahead and get things done. You meet with them, you talk, you agree to next steps, and so on—but then, nothing. This is more of a frustrating than a “difficult” client. In fact, you might have a very good and pleasant relationship with a Do Nothing executive.
The Prescription: Explore what’s behind your client’s inaction. Is it insecurity and fear (see type one)? Are they being hemmed in by their boss or another executive who is blocking them? 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. Can you 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.
4. 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. They are overly directive. I’ve had clients, who themselves were terrible at group facilitation, try and tell me how to facilitate a training workshop. Others would try and impose their own models for client loyalty, having just hired me to give them mine.
The Prescription: Re-establish 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 berth to exercise it on their behalf. Twice I have had to say this to clients (this was suggested to me by author Alan Weiss): “Let me ask you something: 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? I didn’t think so, because you know Mercedes is a great brand and understands how to make cars. Similarly, you need to let me do my job for you.” In both cases, the client laughed and backed off. If a Know-It-All client won’t stop their behavior, you should either resign the engagement or finish your contract and never work for them again.
5. 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 arms-length relationship.
The Prescription: Learn more about their agenda and help them accomplish it. You may not have truly understood this client’s 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—have you discovered what it is for this particular executive? 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—it may just be that he or she feels the relationship is perfectly fine and doesn’t need to be anything more than what it is now.
6. Insatiable: This type of client feels the work is never, ever good enough, and they also micro manage everything you do. Their behavior can absolutely wear you down. You never feel like you’re succeeding. This individual may themselves suffer from feelings of inadequacy—but, who knows what can be behind such behavior!
The Prescription: Carefully calibrate expectations at the beginning of each engagement or transaction. IT firms have “service level agreements” (SLAs)—maybe you need to go deeper in agreeing to more specifics around the type, quality, and format of your output for the client. Don’t become overly needy about getting compliments and positive feedback—this is a client, not your spouse, and as long as you’re doing a good job for them and achieving the agreed upon goals, you shouldn’t worry about getting a constant stream of praise. Ultimately, however, you may choose to simply move on and work with clients who are more appreciative and supportive.
7. The Tyrant: They have personality and emotional issues and treat their people—and perhaps you—terribly. Everyone who works for them hates them. Sometimes, this is directed against you—the supplier or advisor. Sometimes, it’s directed against the people in the client’s organization and their own team members. Who knows why someone acts like this—there are many possible reasons. They could be good-hearted but have an anger management issue, or they could be genuinely mean—like my client from years ago.
The Prescription: If the client is nice to you, but tyrannical 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 badly, move on. Life is too short to spend time in abusive relationships, be they at work or in our personal lives!
In summary: When faced with a difficult client, think about these four steps:
- Assess. Diagnose why the person is acting that way. What’s behind the behavior?
- Make an action plan. Identify remedial actions you can take to address the underlying dynamic. (E.g., if a client is micro-managing you because of insecurity, what steps can you take to build greater trust?)
- Confront. If appropriate, confront the client with their behavior. (E.g., point out they are second-guessing your expertise and experience, and ask them to stop).
- Fish or cut bait. Decide what your boundaries are, and if you’ve had enough, move on and focus on more fruitful relationships.
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