5 Difficult Client types and How to Deal with Them

Holding up a boulder representing a difficult client
Dealing with difficult clients

Over my 20+ years of consulting, I’ve dealt with many types of clients. Most have been good clients. They were cooperative and wanted to solve problems in a collaborative environment.

Every once in a while, I’ve run into one that isn’t so cooperative. Perhaps they had a personal agenda. Maybe they had personal issues they were dealing with.

Whatever the issue, they succeeded in making my life there a living hell. Over the years, I’ve been able to categorize them into five distinct groups.

1) The Passive-Aggressive Client

The passive-aggressive client is difficult because he is friendly to your face. He will nod his head when you make a suggestion. He may even outwardly agree with you. But when the meeting is over and he will go back to his office and send an email shooting your idea down. He may copy a dozen or so others just to add humiliation to your anger.

Other forms of passive-aggressive behavior include not responding to emails until it’s too late to take action and sabotaging your work behind your back while they appear to be supporting you.

How to deal with it

Sometimes it takes a while to recognize the passive-aggressive client. You may think they are supporting you for a long time before you even see evidence of their sneakiness.

When an agreement is made in a meeting, it is best – whether you suspect P-A behavior or not – to follow up the meeting with meeting minutes detailing what was agreed upon. This documents the decision and implies agreement. If someone disputes it later, you have documented evidence of the decision and its distribution.

You may argue that this smells of CYA (cover your ass). In reality, you’re making sure everyone is on the same page. They are free to dispute it and you can make a correction. The passive-aggressive client isn’t likely to publicly dispute it. CYA is simply a by-product.

If the P-A client has a habit of making verbal agreements, only to change his tune in front of others, I’ll often document the conversation in an email copying anyone who might be interested.  I’ll write something like, “To document our conversation of June 1st, we agreed that…”

This accomplishes two things. The P-A client has to either publicly dispute it or live with the decision.  It also may act as a disincentive to play the game if he knows you will publicly call him out on any private decisions.

For more information, see Client Relations for Consultants

2) In Your Face Client

Unlike the passive-aggressive client, this one is simply aggressive. She can be – and usually is – very critical of everything you do. When you do something well or go above and beyond, you have merely met her expectation. If you don’t meet her expectation, you can be chastised and scolded.

She might ask, “Why are we paying this much money for you to produce crap like this?” Or, when you produce stellar results, “Well, it’s about time you guys started showing some results.”

It is sometimes the case that that’s just her management style. She may even treat her own employees like that. But chances are, even if she treats her employees like that, she treats the consultants worse. She knows she can get away with it with the consultants, who can’t complain to HR.

How to deal with it

There are two likely approaches to this type of client. If they are over the top abusive, the consultant or the firm may decide that it’s not worth the grief to put up with them. If the consulting firm sees a significant drop in morale or an increase in turnover, they may find that they are money ahead finding a client that will work collaboratively with them rather than as an adversary.

Part of being a consultant, however, is being able to deal with a difficult client. When facing an aggressive, in-your-face client, make her your biggest challenge. Strive to exceed her expectations at all times.

The most difficult to please clients are sometimes hard to win over. But, once won over, they may become your greatest fan. Once the difficult client is your fan, you are her trusted advisor that she will turn to time and again.

3) You Tell Me, You’re the Expert

Some clients turn to consultants as their go-to decision makers. Consultants should strive to be the client’s trusted advisor, not the trusted decision maker. Nobody knows one’s business as well as the client. The consultant can give advice, provide options based on industry best practices and past experience. These options should include the pros and cons of each option. The consultant can even provide opinions. The ultimate decision should lie with the client.

How to deal with it

Clients can sometimes expect the consultant to know everything. That may come from the consultant acting as if he does. Regardless of the expectation of the consultant’s knowledge, he should be comfortable saying “I don’t know.” The client should be able to accept the situations when the consultant doesn’t know.  Consultants should be able to do research on an issue and advise the client. But being a walking Google should not be the expectation.

See my related post: Dealing with a Condescending Client

4) The Bypass Specialist

Some clients don’t see the value of the consultant. Perhaps the consultant was plopped in his lap by his boss. He may see the consultant as a spy, an intruder, or just an unnecessary annoyance.

When a client fails to see the value of the consultant, he tends to exclude the consultant unless absolutely necessary. Meetings are scheduled without an invitation to the consultant. Decisions are made without the consultant. The consultant is left out of the loop in many situations where he or she should be included.

How to deal with it

This can be a difficult situation for the consultant. At some level, the consultant wants to develop a relationship of trust with the non-believer. Going over his head to the client’s boss could destroy any chance of developing that trusting relationship.

The consultant should work toward convincing the distrusting client of his purpose. Consultants are there to help the client’s business achieve a goal. If the client has an alternative agenda, he may not be on board. But the consultant should work hard to gain the client’s trust.

If the client proves to be chronically untrusting, the consultant may have no other choice but to go over his head. When this is done, he should take care not to throw the client under the bus. The consultant should work with the client executive to help gain the trust of his employee.

5) The True Fan

One would think that having a true fan as a client would not make them a difficult client. That’s true. But the worse thing a consultant can do once they get a true fan is to take them for granted. Once you’ve gone to all the hard work of earning a true fan, the worst thing you can do is assume you have them in your hip pocket. Losing your focus on that client so that you can spend your time getting new true fans may result in no longer having any true fans.

How to deal with it

It’s good to have as many true fans as possible. But gaining new true fans at the expense of an existing one is not a good strategy. Once a client sees you as her trusted advisor, spend the extra time it takes to maintain that relationship. Continue to go over and above to exceed that client’s expectations.

Continue to spend the same time and money you spent developing the relationship in order to maintain it. Continue considering their problems as yours. Be proactive and anticipate the client’s problems before they occur.

Continue trying to earn other true fans. But don’t leave one behind in order to gain another.

What types of difficult clients have you had to deal with?

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.

If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting

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  • MrMakingUsmile

    Burning bridges is definitely a lesson learned. The world is large but based on your career field it can be a small world. Very nice article.