By Andrew Sobel and Olivier Jacob
Early in my consulting career, I had a client who became increasingly abusive. When we first met, he was relaxed, confident, professional and even charming. But underneath that veneer, he was a petty tyrant. Over time, he became more and more demanding and even vicious. One day I walked into his office with a three-page note I had written summarizing our findings. He noticed a typo on the second page and started yelling at me angrily. "This is shoddy, unprofessional work," he yelled across the table, his eyes bugging out and his face turning red. "How could you show me this? This is totally unacceptable!" His rant lasted a full minute. I was only 28 years old and felt completely trapped in the project.
This man was an extreme case, and fortunately I've only met a few like him in the 25 years since. But the fact is, you meet difficult clients all the time.
Here are seven types of difficult customers you need to know about and strategies for dealing with them. I've listed them roughly in order of severity, from most manageable to least tolerable.
Seven types of difficult clients:
1. The insecure
These clients are very anxious and insecure. They are difficult to work for because they tend to "micro-manage" you. They have trouble trusting strangers and will not let you build relationships with their boss or other executives in their organization - they keep you to themselves. Insecure clients may have trouble trusting you when you do new and different things for them. They review your work over and over again.
Build more trust and reduce their perception of risk. This means investing in more contact time, reassuring them that your product or service will be delivered, showing them what you are doing at key stages of engagement, increasing communications, and demonstrating total reliability and consistency. Convince them that you should go to their boss together, so you can have a relationship with them as well. Explain to them the program you are working on together and the benefits they will have gained.
2. The borderless
Clients with this type of profile perceive no separation between 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 is really important and urgent and a task or problem that is just a "to do" on your schedule. They contaminate your personal life and leave you feeling overwhelmed and out of sorts.
Explain your limits at the very beginning of the relationship, especially if you suspect that it may become a problem. During office hours, emails are answered within four hours unless it's really 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 respond Monday morning.
There are clients who never move forward and never get things done. You meet with them, talk, commit to next steps, etc., but then nothing. This is more of a frustrating client than a "difficult" client. In fact, you could have a very good and pleasant relationship with a Do Nothing executive.
Explore what is behind your client's inaction. Is it insecurity and fear (see insecure type)? Do they have a boss or manager who blocks them? Do they have a risk-averse, survival-first organizational culture?
There are many different reasons why a customer doesn't act, and you need to diagnose why in order to know how to remedy the inaction.
Can you work with them to reassure them of your approach, perhaps even connect them with another client? Can you help them deal with stakeholders who might get 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 are dealing with is really urgent and if it holds importance. Perhaps the client's priorities have changed.
This client thinks they know more than you do about what you do and constantly tells you how to do your job. They give you far too many suggestions in areas that are really outside their expertise. They are too directive. I've had clients, who themselves sucked at group facilitation, try to tell me how to run a training workshop. Others wanted to impose their own retention models while having hired me to suggest one.
Re-establish your respective roles. If gentle reprimands don't work ("After many years of doing this, I've found this to be the most effective approach..."), you need to get down on one knee with one of these clients. Confront them. Tell them that they hired you because of your expertise and experience, and they need to give you the appropriate place to practice it on their behalf. Twice I've had to say this to clients (it was suggested to me by author Alan Weiss):
"Let me ask you something: When you buy a Mercedes Benz car, do you tell the salesperson that you want to go to Germany to inspect the production line and give them suggestions on how to assemble your car? I don't think so, because you know that Mercedes is a great brand and they know how to make cars. Likewise, you have to let me do my job for you. Either way, the customer laughed and backed off. "
If a Know-it-all client does not stop their behavior, you must either resign the engagement or terminate your contract and never work for them again.
Some customers treat you like a salesperson and resist all your efforts to establish a real relationship. They are often very professional, and can be perfectly pleasant when you are with them. But this is a purely independent relationship.
Learn more about their program to help them accomplish it. You may not have really understood this client's priorities, needs and underlying goals. What is important to them right now? What are they trying to accomplish this year? Everyone has a goal - have you figured out what that is for this particular setting? Once you do, you will be in a better position to help them and go "beyond" the letter of your contract. Also, try to find out how your client views the relationship - they may think the relationship is perfectly fine and doesn't need to be anything other than what it is now.
6. The Insatiables
This type of client feels like the work is never good enough, and they also manage everything you do. Their behavior can absolutely wear you down. You never feel like you are succeeding. This individual may be suffering from feelings of inadequacy themselves, but who knows what may be behind such behavior!
Carefully calibrate expectations at the beginning of each engagement or transaction. IT companies have "service level agreements" (SLAs) - perhaps you need to go the extra mile by agreeing to more details about the type, quality and format of your output for the client. Don't be too needy about getting compliments and positive feedback - this is a client, not your spouse, and as long as you do a good job for them and meet the agreed-upon goals, you shouldn't worry about getting a constant stream of compliments. In the end, and if that doesn't work for you, you can choose to simply move on and work with clients who appreciate and support you more.
7. The tyrant
They have personality and emotional problems. They treat their team - and maybe you - terribly. Everyone who works for them hates them. Sometimes this is directed at you, the vendor or the consultant. Sometimes it's directed at people in the client's organization and their own team members. Who knows why someone acts this way - there are many possible reasons. They may have a good heart but have an anger management problem, or they may be really mean, like one of my clients years ago.
If the client is nice to you, but tyrannical to their team, you may be able to coach and influence them to change their behavior, unless you are specifically in a coaching relationship. However, they may not be open to this type of personal feedback. If the client treats you badly, move on. Life is too short to spend time in abusive relationships, whether at work or in your personal life!
In summary: When faced with a difficult customer, consider these four steps:
- Assess and diagnose why the person is acting this way. What is behind the behaviour?
- Develop an action plan. Identify corrective actions you can take to address the underlying dynamic. (For example, if a client is micromanaging you due to insecurity, what steps can you take to build trust?)
- Take action. If necessary, confront the client about their behavior. (For example, point out that they doubt your expertise and experience, and ask them to stop.)
- Build or cut bridges. Decide what your boundaries are and if you've had enough; move on and focus on more successful relationships.
About the authors
Andrew Sobel is the leading authority on the strategies and skills needed to develop clients for life. He is the world's most published author on the subject, having written eight best-selling books on customer relationships, including the international bestsellers Customers for Life and Power Matters. More than 100 leading companies, such as PwC, Citibank, UBS, Booz Allen Hamilton, Cognizant, Deloitte and many others have used his book Clients for Life to develop trusted advisor skills and increase revenues for their clients.
Olivier Jacob has decades of expertise as a coach, trainer, and conference facilitator on the topics of management and sales. Author of the book "Make your business grow" and passionate about personal effectiveness, strategy, sales, commitment and new technologies, he created Inéa Conseil in 2008 to help companies sell more and better, and managers better mobilize their employees.