Managing Difficult Clients


- Lance Johnson 02.09.2016

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No matter what industry you are involved in, clients are generally your number one concern. It’s necessary for you to keep all your clients happy including those who, by themselves, may not contribute substantially to your revenue. 

However, some clients may not be very considerate and, in fact, can even be pretty hard to deal with. They may demand a lot of your time and resources, make irrational demands, frustrate your entire team that works with them, and generally wreak havoc. Some of these clients may be large revenue streams for your organization and it becomes imperative that, despite their behavior, you be courteous and handle them effectively without causing any offense, accidentally or otherwise.

How to deal with difficult clients

The first step in working with a difficult client is to understand their peculiarities. Anticipate common problematic situations/difficult client tendencies and design a strategy for each. You can then begin to recognize which of your clients slip into these tendencies or give rise to these situations and what they bring to the problem that is unique. Based on their quirks, build out your strategies to fit each client more particularly. To get you a head start, here’s a few common client problems/problem scenarios and some tips on how you can handle them. 

Micromanaging. Your client may feel the need to constantly monitor every single aspect of the project; they are just not happy to let you do your work. This is where you ahave to set boundaries – let your clients know that they have the right to give feedback, but the feedback has to be given according to a set schedule and your client has to wait for you to respond to the feedback, again according to a schedule. You should also make it clear to your clients that they may contact you only during your working hours, unless it is an emergency.

It is an emergency.  Your client may believe that he needs something done “right now!”. This can be avoided before you start working on the project. You should make it clear to your clients that once a time table is set, you will stick to it and your client cannot ask you to make changes to it, at least not without incurring additional costs. It is also helpful to have a high hourly rate for “Emergency” work. Make sure it’s clear to your client that you are willing to prioritize their work in a legitimate emergency situation, but that your hourly rate under those conditions is higher than the hourly rate charged for standard service requests. When the emergency call comes in, make sure you notify the client that in order to prioritize their request, you will be billing at your emergency rate.

Fickle. They have a lot of different options in mind and ask you to implement them one after the other just because they are not sure of they want; they want to implement all the designs and then choose. Before you start working on any project, decide on one approach with your client. Stress on your client that major deviations from the agreed-to approach will cost them. Establish the number of drafts and revisions they are allotted before addiction costs are incurred, and be a broken record when it comes to reminding them. The 50th time you say, “Ok, we can change that, but we have used all our originally allotted revisions, so revising now will incur additional costs,” might actually stick.

Friend of a friend? Your client may have a friend, who has a friend who wants to use your services. Emphasize to your client that you will not take up any project without first meeting the prospective clients and discussing with them project details. Also don’t give the impression of having a standard discount for work of friends of clients. You may opt to extend a discount if you wish, and it may be a great move in terms of your client relationship. But don’t make it policy.

Presumptuous. Your client may tell you “Oh! I thought this was a given!”. You may agree to do work on “this”, but only after letting your client know that, since it was not specifically mentioned in the project details, you will charge them for it. This is always an uncomfortable conversation and can really damage your client relationship. We cannot emphasize the value of a clear project outline and clear terms enough. Scope your projects out thoroughly—really thoroughly. Get it all in writing and get it signed. Be totally up front about what your plans are and about the bounds of the project from the get-go. 

Sometimes clients get difficult as a result of how we’ve dealt with them in the past. We don’t want to pretend that a tenuous client relationship is always a one-way street.   It may also happen that your lack of attention to your client will cause them to get a little difficult. You have to do your bit and ensure that you do not give cause for clients to be difficult. A lot of the above problems can be avoided if you make clear and frequent communication with your clients a priority, understand what they need, what they expect from you, and let them know your style of working, and what you need and expect from them. All of this must be taken care of before you undertake the project and you must have everything set in writing, in the form of a contract. 

When to cut ties?

There may be occasions when dealing with your client goes beyond difficult and becomes impossible. There are times when working with your client is just not worth the time, resources, and effort that you spend on them; in fact, working with the client may also lead to losses, or at least, may not earn you any profit. What should you do in such situations? Cut your losses; if this requires you to stop working with your clients, so be it. 

You may also have to cut ties if dealing with a client means not having time to deal with any of your other clients or take care of other business matters. Another situation that may require an extreme response is if your client abuses either you or your staff. While your client may bring you revenue, as a manager, you need to be an advocate for your staff, and as an individual, you need to be an advocate for yourself. If you and your staff are behaving appropriately and doing good work, you should not be in the line of fire for a client. We’re not talking about appropriate professional critique or even expression of dissatisfaction here. We’re talking abuse of any kind. It is better to lose a client than to prolong a bad client relationship—it’s going nowhere good.

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