Dealing with a Difficult Client

Written by lewsauder

July 24, 2020

difficult client

I have been asked many times if I have ever dealt with a difficult client. Although I have had many, one person’s face appears in my mind. He was definitely the most difficult of difficult clients.

It happened early in my consulting career. And while I hated dealing with this person, I am glad it happened. By dealing with him, I learned many strategies to deal with a difficult client; strategies I have had to implement many times.

Many types of difficult clients

Keep in mind that a difficult client comes in many shapes and sizes. Some difficult clients are like that because they have high standards for their consultants. They are paying top dollar for your skills. They want their money’s worth. There is nothing wrong with having high standards to get value for your dollar.

Some clients go to an extreme, wanting to pay for very little and getting essentially free consulting. This can be managed through strict scope management.

Other types of difficult clients are belligerent and rude. The reasons are varied. Some people resent consultants. They see them as elitists who overcharge for their services. Others are just unhappy people who know they can take out their frustrations on consultants. They have to deal with HR if they treat their own people like that. Some just treat everybody badly.

I have never had a problem with clients with high standards. They push me to meet their expectations. If consulting were easy, anyone could do it. I will focus here on the belligerent clients that try their best to make a consultant’s life a living hell.

Kill them with kindness

I have found that many people in positions of so-called importance are actually very insecure. Perhaps they suffer from imposter syndrome, where they do not believe they have the skills to do this important job. But I have found that they mistreat people – namely consultants – out of this frustration. If they can make these smart people look bad, it may make them look better.

To combat that insecurity, I have found that killing them with kindness often works. It strokes their ego and fulfills their need to feel important. There is a fine line between killing them with kindness and kissing up to them. It is important that the difficult client does not see it as kissing up.

Killing them with kindness is not about complementing their sweater or telling them how smart they are. It is about smiling and moving on when you want to smack them in the face. It is about being diplomatic when they call your idea stupid.

Have A thick skin

It is hard to kill the client with kindness if you are unable to take their abuse. A good consultant needs to be knowledgeable of the client’s business and able to solve problems for them. But a good consultant can also take a difficult client’s sideways comments and let them roll off of their back.

When the client says something unprofessional and insulting, a consultant recognizes that the problem is with the client and not the consultant. The consultant’s focus should be on solving the problem.

Let’s go back to my example where the client says the consultant’s idea is stupid. A normal human being may get defensive and explain that the idea was based on input from the client. Another response is to throw your hands in the air and say, “I don’t see you coming up with any better solutions!”

But a consultant always has to stay in problem solving mode. A proper response is to try to understand why the idea will not work. How can we take this idea and improve on it?

Taking this approach allows the client to give their input to improve on an idea. It also shows them that you can take whatever they throw at you.

Realize that it is not personal

A consultant has to understand that when a client blows up it is not about you personally. They may focus on you and go off on a mistake that you made. But the rudeness is about the client. This is how the client chose to respond to the situation.

I have been in meetings where a difficult client will shout and holler and berate me or a peer. It can be very uncomfortable and awkward. In those situations, I tell myself that it is not about me personally. I imagine myself as a faceless symbol of the consulting firm (or the consulting industry). I am sitting there as a box in a chair, waiting for the flow of client frustration to end. And it always does. At some point, they always run out of energy.

If I make a mistake, I apologize –once. I also work to come up with a solution to fix any mistake I made. If it is truly about the mistake and it cannot be fixed, the client will likely remove the offender from the project. That is rare. In most cases, they are just blowing off steam.

Have a release valve

When the client blows off steam, there is the human tendency to blow it right back. That rarely, if ever, ends well. But just as the client needs to blow off steam, I have found that I sometimes need to do the same.

On one project I was on, I had a peer that became a good friend. Every once in a while, when we had been “over-steamed”, we would go out to lunch and dump on the other. It is always good to have someone to talk to that knows the territory and understands what you are talking about. Those lunches were usually worth ten times their cost at the time. I would come back in a much better frame of mind.

Another release I would use is the commute home. Sometimes I would blare may favorite music as loud as my speakers could handle. Screw the other cars seeing me sing at the top of my lungs.

Additionally, I have always been an avid listener of audio books. I generally alternate between non-fiction business/self-help and fiction books.

I would always have a good John Grisham book or a book from the Harry Potter series to listen to after difficult client days. Books like that helped transport me a million miles away from any stress that occurred at work. By the time I got home, much of it was forgotten.

Don’t bring it home

On that note, it is important to leave work at work. This is easier said than done. Whether you are coming home to a house full of loved ones, a roommate, or you just live alone, you cannot brood about it once you get home. Sometimes I would think of the door from my garage to the house as the Willie Wonka door. That door that Wonka took the golden ticket winners through to get to the chocolate factory. I would put that into my mind and suddenly the difficult client world no longer existed. I was in my own world. The client was not in my house or in my head. It worked most of the time.

Escalation

A good consultant can solve problems independently. A good consultant also knows when to turn for help. If a client is truly abusive, you may need to escalate it to someone within your firm. If you are an independent consultant, you may have the option to go to the client’s HR department. Bullying or any form of harassment should not be tolerated in any form.

Conclusion

Difficult clients are where consultants earn their high billing rates. Whether difficult clients have very high standards or are just difficult people to get along with, there are professional and diplomatic strategies for a consultant to be successful.

How have you dealt with a difficult client?

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 at Amazon.com 

Image courtesy of Sira Anamwong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Lew’s Books at Amazon:

Project Management 101
Consulting 101
The Reluctant Mentor

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