How to Deal with Difficult Clients

by Dave Erickson
8 mins read
  1. Business
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We would always like all our clients or customers to be easy to work with, and we count ourselves lucky that we have such great clients and customers. The reality is that not all clients are easy to work with, and if all your clients are easy to work with; you don’t have many clients and/or you might have a problem you don’t recognize.

Clients change over time. Things never stay the same, people change, management changes, life changes, pandemics happen and business always provides new challenges. Things are good, but get difficult; Clients or customers start to become difficult to deal with. When that happens, your focus will need to be on how do you deal this challenge.

The following are some techniques you can use whether you are a client rep, product manager, developer or any client facing person, and hopefully they will help make it easier to deal with a difficult client or customer:

#1 Listen

“How to deal with difficult customers” has been a subject of business for thousands of years; with 30 years of my own business experience, I can say that the number one thing to do is really listen.

To actively listen, you have to ask questions about what you are hearing from them, this in itself communicates that you are actively listening. Leaving space for the other person can talk, and really focus on what information they are communicating both in their words but also with their emotions is a key factor.

If they are attacking you personally or trying to use emotion to put you on the defensive, let it pass through you and focus on what information they are actually giving you so you can respond in a positive way that helps resolve the situation.

# 2 It’s not Personal, it’s Just Business

Everyone seems to want to be best friends with their clients, and many are friends with their clients and customers. It is actually better not to be “friends”, because sometimes you have to make tough decisions related to your clients, or give them bad news. It is harder to do that to a friend, and you might not give them the hard news accurately in an effort to keep them as a “friend”.

The trick is to keep these client or customer relationships friendly, but with enough emotional distance that it remains a business relationship versus a friendship. At the end of the day, you need to deliver a result or product, and they need to pay for it. That is not friendship, that is business.

# 3 Emotional Level

When emotion is high: when you have a knot in your stomach before you talk to someone: when the conversation gets heated: when you sense something is not right, it is time to voice your concerns.

This needs to be done without judgement and as a recognition that the situation is not positive. That it is time to really understand what is going on. Acknowledging the situation will allow a smoother start for working to making it better by listening to how the other side responds to this acknowledgement and what solutions they offer.

#4 It’s about how you start

Difficult clients are usually very nice in the very beginning of a relationship, and it is with time that they become frustrated or “difficult” because they are not getting what they think they should be getting out of the relationship.

It is best to start new relationships with a clear purpose driven outcome expectation. Tell the client what you are trying to do in relation to the purpose of the business, and ask them what their expectations are. That way both sides know from the beginning what they are trying to accomplish and what to expect from the relationship. This can help prevent clients from becoming difficult clients.

#5 Rules of the Road

Think about how you want to have a relationship with a client or customer. If you know how you want your relationship to consist of, you can set up rules for solid communication, respect and boundaries on how to treat each other under all circumstances.

It is important to agree before starting a project the expectation of mutual treatment in the relationship. These are not always easy conversations, but many problems in client relationships are the result of not creating the proper atmosphere from the start. This will prevent the mistreatment of the people involved on both sides and damage the relationship later on.

#6 Recovery

You can’t always predict if a client will be difficult, but it is a good idea to have a conversation in the beginning about if things get stressful in the relationship, how do you want to resolve them.

For one client, in which I knew it was going to be a stressful and difficult project, I asked him what we would do if it got stressful and emotional; we agreed to make time to have lunch to decide on how best to deal with things. We had to do that twice, and each time after lunch we were able to work it out and walk away with an action plan for both sides.

#8 Recognize Personality Types

People are not all the same, and although most people have behavior patterns that fit within the social norms, there is a percentage of people who don’t. These can be extreme personality disorders such as psychopaths and sociopaths, but in the business world it is the more subtle and highly functional personality disorders you might encounter such as Narcissism, Obsessive-Compulsive, Histrionic and Dependent personality disorders.

It is good to have knowledge of what these disorders are like and how to deal with them; so if you encounter the behavior patterns of these disorders from someone you are working with, you will have an understanding how best to deal with them.

#9 Be Positive

It is difficult to stay positive when you are dealing with a difficult person when emotions are high or you are being attacked or blamed for something. Even so, it is very important to remain positive and to have grace. Let the negative things flow pass by, and focus on the positive.

Remember, the other side is also struggling to stay positive, and by staying positive and graceful you can help lead the other person to a calmer and better place. That in itself will present an opportunity to turn down the heat. Even in situations where it is obvious that it is not workable, staying positive and having grace will allow things to end on a more positive note.

#10 Reinforcements

Sometimes it is best to bring in someone else to deal with the client, which may give an opportunity to get them in a position to focus more on the solutions to the issues without the barrier of clashing of personalities. A second set of eyes may see things from a different angle or perspective and that could lead to an understanding that allows for a more positive relationship.

Relationships are valuable, Hopefully these tips and techniques on how to deal with difficult clients/customers, will be useful to you. They have they helped me over the years to maintain positive business relationships with a wide range of people and personalities.

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