8 Ways to Manage Difficult Clients

If you’re running any kind of service agency, you can probably rank your clients on a nice chart: at the top there’s “A joy to work with” and at the bottom there’s “Break out in hives just from hearing their name.”

Unfortunately, difficult clients are an unavoidable fact of life. There are, however, some tried-and-true methods of dealing with them, which allows you to keep their business while maintaining your sanity.

Don’t Say Yes (Unless It Make Sense)

If you’ve got a demanding client, it can be easy to fall into a pattern of saying “yes” to everything they ask for, just to make them go away. Where does this usually leave you? Devoting your nights and weekends to doing extra work for someone who doesn’t appreciate how hard you’re working, and probably won’t pay you extra for it.

Once you get used to not saying, “ok, I’ll do that,” you can begin the process of having a more equitable relationship with your clients.

But first, you have to learn how to say no.

Don’t Over-Apologize

Similarly, if your client is particularly aggressive or demanding, you might be tempted to apologize for everything. Don’t! While saying “sorry” may placate your client, it also gives substance to the idea that you or your team has messed up.

It’s better to use language that acknowledges your client’s concern, but do so without accepting blame. Saying something like, “yes, it’s unfortunate this happened” lets your client know that you recognize there is a problem, but it does not imply that it’s your fault.

Apologizing without need or real meaning can negatively impact your credibility and simultaneously leave you exposed to additional unpaid work or other financial burden.

Mirror Your Client’s Words

When groups of people mirror one another’s words and body language, they more easily develop a feeling of camaraderie and trust. (Ever notice that groups of teenagers talk and dress the same?)

If you’ve got a client who gets too heated, a powerful strategy is to incorporate their words into your language, using the same phrases they use, even if it’s different than the ones you’d use to describe the work. If they’re using acronyms, you should use acronyms. If they are speaking informally, you should speak informally (to a point).

This technique can help a client feel validated, and should serve to calm down a difficult conversation.

Let the Client Shine

Often clients are difficult because they’re insecure. One simple way around this is to give them the credit for work, even if it’s mostly work you’ve done.

This can be frustrating: after all, you’ve put time and effort into doing good work, and you should be recognized for it. But don’t forget, your client is (often) paying you precisely to make them look good.

Plus, if your work is good, word tends to get around.

Don’t Throw Your Staff Under the Bus

When a difficult client continually points out faults in the work, one instinct is blame staff or co-workers. When you say it’s the fault of Steven* from design, it can seem as if you come out scuff-free.

The problem? You’ve hired Steven for a reason – he does good work, and you like having him on your team. Undermine him when he’s not around, and you’ll lose the support of your team.

Instead, tell your client that you’ve hired good people, you trust the work they do, and if there’s a problem, it’s your responsibility. Your staff will appreciate it (and you’ll be a good leader), and your client will recognize that you’re a trustworthy person.

*To Steven: apologies for picking on you, even if you are a made-up person.

Document Everything (Everything!)

This one’s easy: when dealing with a difficult client, you should document everything. That’s Every. Single. Thing.

Get it all in writing, and keep a paper trail.

Emails, phone calls, meetings, expectations, suggestions, and anything else you can think of. Every time you talk to your client, write everything down, then send an email over asking for confirmation. This is the best way to avoid conflict later, or at least to be armed when having to deal with it.

Use an easy time tracker to document how many hours each project required of you or your team, and share time and remaining budget reports with your client on a weekly basis.

Let the Client Prioritize Tasks

When your client asks too much of you, it can be helpful to make a list of all the tasks necessary to complete a specific project. Put them in a Google Doc and ask your client to prioritize the list for you, ranking the tasks from most to least important.

Then let the client know which tasks can be accomplished with the existing budget and/or timelines.

As you complete tasks, update the shared sheet, and occasionally ask the client if they’d like to re-prioritize items on the list.

This accomplishes two things: it brings your client on board, making them feel like part of the process, and it more subtly lets them know just how much work they’re asking from you. After all, it’s much easier for your client to be demanding at a distance; once they’re in the trenches with you (at least partially), it’ll be tougher for them to ask for more.

Don’t Be an Artist — Be an Entrepreneur

This is the One Rule to Rule Them All. When dealing with difficult clients, the important thing to remember is that you’re a business person, not an artist. What’s the difference? Artists are often temperamental, unreliable, and uncompromising: what matters, above all else, is their work.

Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, value the health of the business over everything else. They know that this means keeping their clients happy (though not at the expense of their sanity). They’re flexible and adaptable, and willing to compromise when necessary.

If you treat difficult clients with this entrepreneurial attitude (“What response here would best help the business?”), interactions become much easier.

Put differently: when dealing with difficult clients, be a willow, not an oak tree. Adapt, understand, and do what you can make the engagement successful for you, your client, and your team.