First off, no one should tolerate someone being rude, nasty or making your team miserable. Life is too short and when we let go of something negative it creates space for something better to come along.

What is “a difficult client”?

It’s worth defining what a difficult client means to you. In the “client analysis matrix” I talk about ideal clients, best buyers, squeaky wheels and tough nuts. Squeaky wheels need the most oil, they’re bad clients and they’re not profitable. Your tough nuts are question marks and might not grow your business. But the latter two aren’t necessarily bad clients.

Here’s a link back to the client analysis matrix as all clients whether squeaky wheels or tough nuts are a good source of learning and there’s a heap on client retention there.

Difficult clients are the ones who increase stress, they make out-of-scope demands, maybe they expect out-of-hours responses, and they’re unreasonable, rude, dismissive, and awkward.

How to handle a difficult client

Understand what makes them tick

I’m going to reference the six human needs. The core basic needs that drive our decisions and ultimately our behaviour. Understanding these will help you understand why you and your clients do the things we do.

I learned these needs from Tony Robbins, I acknowledge and credit his content for these and you can read more on the TR blog here.

The Six Human Needs

Certainty: assurance you can avoid pain and gain pleasure 

Uncertainty/variety: the need for change, new stimuli 

Significance: feeling important, special, needed 

Connection/love: with others, team, close relationships  

Growth: expansion of capacity, capability and understanding 

Contribution: sense of service, focus on helping, giving and supporting 

Depending on how you prioritise the basic needs and whether they are being met or not being met will have a great impact on behaviours, whether it’s conscious or subconscious.

Approach the situation and the difficult client with genuine interest or curiosity, what needs are driving them and their behaviour, what do things look like from their perspective, do they have valid concerns? Try to not get defensive, be an observer.

By the fact that we’re talking about difficult clients, I’m going to make an assumption that they may very well have a high need for significance. If they don’t feel seen, heard, important, or validated they could very well be acting out.

When you can understand what makes your clients tick, you can adapt your communications and your approach to suit the situation. That’s not easy because we’re busy and we’re not mind readers, we can’t whip out a questionnaire and ask them what makes them tick. I really do encourage you to explore this further as it’ll help you not only with the difficult clients but with your other clients, team and relationships.

The quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives

Esther Perel

Ok, we don’t all have the time to become armchair psychologists so let’s move on.

Say it how it is

Very often, people act and do irrational things when they are stressed, triggered or there’s something deeper going on. It’s never an excuse to treat you or your team badly of course. But there could be something going on.

When something is off, it doesn’t feel right, it doesn’t feel good we have to name the elephant in the room. Opening the conversation will allow you to dig and find out what is really going on. You can’t change or fix something if you don’t know what it is so sometimes you have to simply say it how it is.

You can also arm yourself and your team with phrases to get a client to open up. If they’re being dismissive, not paying attention in a meeting, they’re saying one thing and acting out. Here are some examples…

“I’ve noticed there’s friction here” 

“Let’s realign with your expectations” 

“We’re getting off track” 

“I want to understand where you’re coming from” 

“What’s your biggest concern?” 

“What do you need right now to feel more certain?” 

Having those in your arsenal and being the person who can take a deep breath, count to ten and open the conversation will feel really good.

I’ve had clients be really difficult and when I cracked at the nut I’ve often found that they were experiencing really stressful events and they didn’t realise they were being so awful.

That’s all well and good, sometimes it takes a more formal approach.

Reset the relationship

When things get to a certain point, a full frontal squaring up is required. You can renegotiate your contract or walk away. It’s totally possible to turn things around, a reset starts with a full and frank conversation. 

In life, we sometimes and other people (like difficult clients) base our success, and worth on whether we’re winning or losing. That means someone else fails but that is a zero-sum game. 

If you walk away from your difficult client, it’s a lose/lose. You lose revenue, the client loses a team who knows their business and has to find a new agency or service provider. That’s going to cost time and no doubt more money. 

So if we take a different approach, life and business can be cooperative, collaborative and not competitive. 

We need to create a win-win outcome. 

I highly recommend Stephen Covey’s win-win approach. It’s Habit number 4 in his book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”.  He talks about a win-win not as a strategy but more a philosophy.

What we’re looking for is a frame of mind, we’re looking for mutual benefit in all interactions.

This isn’t easy. And Stephen Covey says, “we have to create a belief that it’s not “your way” or “my way” but a higher way.

I love his win-win or no-deal framework. I also like to think of it as a win-win-win. In other words, your client, you and your team all feel good about it and are committed to an action plan that’s going to review, reset and refocus the relationship.

So how do you go about creating the action plan?

First, it starts by getting real. Write down all the obstacles and issues with this client, what are all the possible barriers to creating a win-win-win outcome?

Next, you and your team want to write down explicitly what you think a good solution is for everyone. Make three columns on a flip chart and workshop it out, do whatever it takes to get a clear vision of what a good outcome looks like.

And finally, you’re going to have to ask your difficult client to come to a reset meeting. Don’t ambush them but ask them if they’re willing to communicate openly about their needs and to keep going deeper and deeper until we all know exactly what a mutually beneficial relationship looks like.

There you have three steps or three strategies to deal with a difficult client.

When is it time to resign a difficult client?

If the disrespect and their behaviour are inappropriate, abusive, sexist, racist or any of those things then it’s an absolute no-brainer to get rid of them. No one should ever tolerate abuse no matter how much revenue they may bring in.

If their unrealistic expectations are repeatedly draining your team, they’re only headed for burnout. It’s time to hit the road.

If your difficult client consistently delays payment, disputes invoices, or violates your terms, it’s time to cash out.

If your difficult client fails to listen to your team and your advice and then throws a hissy fit when they don’t get the results they wanted, that can damage your reputation so send them packing.

Your time and your energy are really all you have, you get to decide how to expend it. And remember, we get to decide our way to a better business and better life.

On a closing note want to say that if this difficult client makes up for more than 20% of your revenue, if at all possible try to have a strategy to replace that revenue so you’re ready and confident to pull the pin.

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