The Zentropist Casebook: Ten Tips for Dealing with Difficult Clients

Anyone who has been in business for a meaningful length of time has encountered the “difficult client.” Of course, this moniker can be attached to a variety of individual habits and behavioral attributes, running the gamut from minor quirks and annoying predilections to full-blown pathologies. The reality is, if you want to stay in business, developing the skills and techniques to mitigate or otherwise counteract “difficult” behavior is vitally important and will affect your bottom line.

Following are 10 time-proven techniques and approaches that have passed muster with the Zentropist and provided some measure of succor when confronting less than cooperative yet paying clients:

  1. Set Expectations Early (And Often). This cannot be overstated. Even during the courtship phase, a service provider must be forthright and honest in what the client can expect in terms of resources, deliverables and energy expended in service of the project. And your word must be your bond. Individuals and companies that promise the moon to make the sale and then treat the fulfillment process as an afterthought are courting rancor and bad juju. And quite frankly, they deserve it.
  2. Define Your Deliverables. Attention to detail is extremely important at every stage of the process. It’s essential that you are very clear about what it is you (or your representatives) are selling and what you intend to deliver. I’ve seen numerous companies get themselves into hot water by failing to adequately utilize inclusionary and/or exclusionary language when listing a product they intend to create. For example, The Huffington Post is a blog. So is Tao of the Zentropist. You’ll brook no argument from me that the scale, scope and corresponding expenses of the two are radically different. And budgets aside, if a client expects to receive a deliverable listed as a “blog” with no further description of its functionality, there’s a good chance they’ll be looking for all of the bells and whistles that you failed to account for.
  3. Clear Communication Trumps Head in the Sand. We all know the adage about killing the messenger. Nobody likes to deliver anything but good news. Yet sometimes this is necessary. A large number of projects start to go downhill and coast rapidly towards failure due to the inability of stakeholders to openly communicate, address issues as they arise, and find solutions that are agreeable to all. Don’t make this mistake. Provide updates to your client in writing, at least on a weekly basis, and if need be, on a daily one. Problems generally don’t solve themselves or otherwise go away. Deal with them and move on.
  4. Report Progress and Impediments Equally. Consider this one a corollary to #3 above. While it’s important to acknowledge the success in achieving stated objectives and milestones, if a project is facing delays (regardless of the cause), figure out what can be done to get things back on track. This isn’t about assigning blame (at least not at the outset), but dealing with a factual reality (i.e. “We’re behind schedule”) and finding ways to correct course. Such proactive behavior helps negate the argument down the road that you were aware of things going sideways but failed to act in a timely manner or otherwise alert the client.
  5. Tie Payments to Progress Milestones and/or Hard Dates. Depending on the scope of the project, anticipated duration, risk assessments and other considerations, a service provider is likely to only secure a percentage advance on total fees due. While in some situations, “half up front and half upon delivery” may work from a cash flow and risk perspective to both parties, this is not always the case. If you are concerned about a client possibly unreasonably holding back fees or causing delays in delivery due to indecisiveness or failure to provide feedback in a timely fashion, you may want to consider developing a payment schedule which calls for more frequent payments tied to key milestones in the schedule, with a hard date attached as well. For example, “25 percent of fees are due upon delivery of preliminary draft of narrative or by [insert desired date], whichever comes first.”
  6. Put Yourself in the Client’s Shoes. When negotiating or even debating, it’s a recommended practice to look at the situation from the other party’s perspective, to understand what their concerns and agenda are likely to be and to place yourself in a position to counter these as necessary. Understand that as a service provider, you may be an unknown variable to the buyer, who may be risking substantial capital, time and opportunity in engaging your services. Showing some empathy can go a long way in earning trust and breaking down barriers, especially if the client has been burned before. And remember, if you walk a mile in someone’s shoes, at the end of it you’ve gone a mile and you’re wearing their shoes.
  7. Sometimes Listening Wins Converts. One of the hardest lessons for most of us to learn is the art of active listening. Actually paying attention to what another party is saying without interruption or immediate judgment. Try it sometime. Many people who are perceived as “difficult” may be that way because of insecurities or because they feel unheard. By listening to them, you will gain valuable insight, which may in turn provide leverage in managing them. The majority of people love to talk about themselves. Let them.
  8. The Customer is Always Right – Until They Are Not. It’s a delicate balancing act, when a client becomes demanding or feels entitled to things that were never part of the agreement. Sometimes in the spirit of goodwill and cooperation, you bend, as a willow does in a storm. But with that being said, if you allow yourself to be walked on and taken advantage of, invariably that’s exactly what will happen. It’s perfectly fine to give a client enough rope to hang themselves — and once they’ve done so, you can extricate them without gloating and educate them as to the error of their ways.  Your mileage may vary in the application of this axiom, so use it judiciously.
  9. Know Where “The Line” Is – And Have a Plan if Crossed. As service providers, we all have different thresholds for risk and pain. Make sure you understand where yours is for a particular project and have a contingency plan in place to deal with the situation if the Rubicon is crossed.
  10. Know When to Walk Away – And When to Run. While it’s debatable whether Kenny Rogers knows good chicken or not, he nailed this premise in his lyrics to “The Gambler.” Sometimes a client will simply prove to be impossible to deal with (see #9) and there’s simply no reasonable way of completing the project and retaining your sanity or any semblance of profit margin. It’s always a good idea to have a contract that provides language to allow both parties to give notice and walk away from the deal if necessary, and if there comes a time that you need to invoke this clause, that’s why it’s there.

While we all hope to have long, financially lucrative careers that avoid the necessity of interacting with troublesome personalities, it’s best to be prepared for the latter, especially in pursuit of the former. Understanding what makes a client difficult and how to manage them is an art in of itself, and one worth mastering in the course of business.

2 thoughts on “The Zentropist Casebook: Ten Tips for Dealing with Difficult Clients

  1. Hey, I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say GREAT blog!…..I”ll be checking in on a regularly now….Keep up the good work! 🙂

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