How to Deal with Difficult Clients
For many, going freelance or starting a business begins with a burst of euphoria. You’re free! You’re your own boss! No more having to deal with your chronically disorganized boss or passive-aggressive cubicle mate! Then, next thing you know, you’re trying to interpret the latest email bomb from perpetually disgruntled Client #1 and praying that Client #2’s missed deadline doesn’t leave you with work to do over Memorial Day weekend.
The fact is, there are difficult people everywhere. Knowing how to deal with them — especially when your business depends on it — is key. “How you think about your customers will determine how you’re able to manage them in their most difficult moments,” says Lori Jo Vest, co-author with Marilyn Suttle of “Who's Your Gladys? How to Turn Even the Most Difficult Customer into Your Biggest Fan.” “Always remember that the end goal is to have a successful company that’s profitable and has a strong loyal customer base. Keeping your customers happy, even when they’re crabby and clueless, will get you there.” Here are nine client types mostly likely to push your buttons, and how to manage them.
He misses conference calls, misplaces invoices and can’t find those specs you sent last week. And since he’s always behind, everything is always a rush job.
Classic line: “Can you resend?”
How to handle it: “If a client doesn’t give you what you need to get the job done, decide if their business is worth the additional time and money it takes to work with them,” says Vest. “If [so], assign a project manager to their account to accommodate the extra effort needed to chase their information and payment.” (Ideally, you can charge them for the extra service.) Before you do, make sure the problem is not of your own making, says Jay Niblick, author of “The Profitable Consultant: Starting, Growing and Selling Your Expertise.” Entrepreneurs often offer a solution or service that’s “too dependent on the client,” he says. To avoid that, try to streamline processes as much as possible and make sure the success of your business relies mostly on your efforts – not theirs.
You need her to send approval or materials before moving onto the next step. She keeps saying she’ll get to it—soon.
Classic line: “We’ll definitely get those back to you next week. Or maybe the one after.”
How to Handle It: It’s not fun, but you’re going to have to be this client’s project manager. “Try to send friendly reminders about deadlines, and make sure to document when you send those,” suggests Ivy N. McQuain, author of “Get Your Head Out of the Clouds, This is Business.” Spell out the consequences politely and in a timely manner. Be clear: ‘If X doesn’t happen by this date, we’ll be delayed by X days.’
When you get to your desk in the morning, you already have several messages. He calls so much you know his number by heart—and cringe when you see it on your Caller ID.
Classic line: “What did you think of the information in my five emails this morning?”
How to Handle It: “A clingy client is usually a novice or has been burned in the past,” says McQuain. “Being detailed — following up phone calls with an email explaining what you just discussed, your timeline and next steps, for example — will go far in reassuring them you’re dependable.” To keep distracting emails to a minimum, try setting up a schedule of pre-arranged check-ins. That way, your client will know he’ll have an opportunity to be heard, and you can use your time to actually work on the project.
She specializes in the 6pm Friday email demanding answers or changes ASAP.
Classic line: “I know you said you were getting married this weekend, but we really need to stay on schedule.”
How to Handle It: “These customers can wreak major havoc on your production schedules and your team’s morale—but if they’re willing to pay a ‘rush charge,’ the effort may be worth it,” says Vest. “Use those funds to pay for freelance help or to reward your staff members who put in extra hours to make the deadline happen.” If you’re unwilling or unable to accommodate the client’s demands, though, make sure that’s clear from the beginning, adds McQuain, “Be detailed in your contracts to let your clients know when you will and will not [be available to] work.” Let them know as far in advance as possible, and send reminders as the date approaches. If you’re away, set up an out-of-office message on your email, with a number to be used only in emergencies.
He’s got you on a tight deadline—but you’re given no instruction, and your emails asking even the most basic questions go unanswered.
Classic line: Nothing. He never returns your emails.
“These clients are typically very busy and prioritize their days according to what they see as being the most urgent tasks. Your job as the service provider is to move your requirement up their priority list—always and ever politely, of course!” says Vest. “If you’re not getting responses to emails, escalate to a telephone call. If you’re not getting responses to telephone calls, then call the front desk of your customer’s business, express your concern, and ask them if they would please help you out, by asking your client to call you back as soon as possible.”
At the same time, McQuain says, “Document everything. If they miss a deadline, don't receive information on time, or anything that may reflect negatively on you, you need to be ready with call logs, email timestamps and text messages.”
The project was supposed to be finished, but it’s seen more amendments than a Congressional bill.
Classic line: “Just one small tweak—it shouldn’t take you much time.”
Make sure you establish explicit details on the scope — the who, how, what, where, when and why — of your project from the beginning, and communicate that effectively, says Niblick.“If you’re too informal then, it can come back to haunt you.” If you didn’t do this sufficiently at the start, go back and get clarity on any gray areas. Then, stick to your guns. “While it can be challenging, saying, ‘We can definitely do that for you, though I’ll need an additional $___ to get it done’ will pay off for you in the long run,” says Vest.
He gets snippy or insulting on the phone or in email.
Classic line: “Is this a joke?!”
Part of your job as a business owner is learning how to spot this species before it’s inside the gate. “Don’t take on anyone who’s difficult, mean, stubborn, or high-maintenance right upfront,” advises Niblick. If a client suddenly starts acting out during your project, “it’s always best to let it roll of your back and stick to the task at hand,” says Vest. “Train yourself and your staff to understand that business is business and attitudes aren’t meaningful when they come from the client side. You can sometimes ‘train’ this type of customer to lose the attitude and focus on the work.” However, if it starts taking too much of an emotional toll on you or your employees, you might have to refer this client — with a smile! — to your favorite competitor.
It’s not that you expect a parade, but this client regularly gives your work such wan reception (while continuing to hire you) that it’s downright depressing.
Classic line: “Well, this is the best we can do, I guess.”
“The passive-aggressive client is a thorn in everyone's side,” says McQuain. “They’re somewhat condescending and never really satisfied.” So, kill them with kindness. “Get their input and tie ownership of the project to them,” says McQuain. “Don't give control away, just ask for their input. They may shy away because it’s always easier to be a critic at a distance than to try to make something work. But giving them the opportunity to be included makes them a part of the project, and they’ll be more invested in its success.”
Mr. and Ms. Non-paying clients
The work is done, but the paycheck is way, way late.
Classic line: “The check is in the mail.”
“Having a process in place for billing and collection is key,” says Vest. “Be sure that a slow paying customer gets a call 10 days after the payment is due, then 15 days, then 20 days, until payment is made. Offer to pick up the payment or take a credit card, if need be. Pay attention to trends, so...you don’t continue to extend credit to them.” If the pattern continues, don’t tolerate it. “More often than not, this is indicative of a larger issue,” says Niblick. “Cut bait quickly and invest your precious time where it will return the most for you.” He recommends an annual client culling program: “Determine what comprises your ‘ideal client’ — pays on time, agreeable, polite, professional, etc. — and once a year, fire the bottom 10 percent. Just imagine the extra joy, success and revenue you could achieve if you replaced the time you spend on them with those on top of that list!”
You might also like: