It hasn’t happened often, but I’ve worked with some very unreasonable clients. Either they have exaggerated expectations of their highly paid consultants, or they know that they can get away with abuse without the threat of us going to Human Resources. I’ve never taken it personally and I’ve found that if I look closely enough, I’m not the only target for these people.
Considering the rates they’re paying, I’ve never been able to figure out why they don’t work with consultants rather than against us. I suspect each difficult client has their own reason. Some people like to stir the pot and exhibit their power over other people. Another observation I’ve made is that they like to push people’s buttons to see how far they can go, and consultants are easy targets. Maybe they were bullies when they were in grade school.
Working under pressure
With this type of client, I’ve found that the worst thing you can do is let them get to you. They may rant and rave about how badly you or your firm as screwed up. I had one client tell me that I was just a paper pusher and he had to walk behind me doing damage control. I had to wonder, if all I did was push papers, how much damage could I have caused? But I didn’t bring that up. I tried to stay calm under pressure and ask questions. In the most non-confrontational way, I would try to diffuse the situation and ask him to provide specifics in an effort to help resolve the problem. I knew he was being irrational and just blowing off steam. I could have yelled and called him an asshole, but for me to get angry in response would have just escalated it and potentially gotten me removed from the project so he could save face.
For more information, see Client Relations for Consultants
Speaking of saving face, I’ve found that sometimes, they are so irrational, it’s a no-win situation. If the client thinks you’ve done something wrong, it may be best to fall on your sword, apologize and ask what you can do to rectify the situation. This is a particularly good strategy when the client is right. Denying that you screwed up when you really did looks much worse than just admitting you are wrong.
Remove the emotion
The key tactic is to remove emotion. Whether they are trying to get under your nerves or doing it unintentionally, you must maintain your professionalism and keep your composure. There is nothing to be gained by heating the argument up further.
This applies even more so when it comes to emails. If a client sends you an unfairly critical email, you may have a first instinct to flame one back at them. But documenting your angry tirade will only give them evidence to support removing you from a project.
You may think that being removed from a project like that is a good solution if it will get you away from this jerk. But if you leave because you couldn’t handle a client, that could be a black mark on you within the firm, that will last the rest of your time in their employ. Rolling off of the project could also land you on the bench reducing your utilization, and by extension, your evaluation rating, your raise and your bonus. It’s best to suffer through to the end of the project and move on. That’s one of the great things about consulting; right about the time you’ve grown weary of a client, you get to move on to the next project at the next client.
When a client flies off the handle, there could be a thousand reasons ranging from their boss being a jerk, to personal issues at home. It can be for any number of reasons. Even if they have a legitimate argument, it’s no fun to be ridiculed unnecessarily.
Fall on your sword
If you can say something to ease the tension or help solve the problem, that’s great. Sometimes though, you just need to be the sacrificial lamb and take their wrath.
What about your experiences? Have you ever had to deal with an unreasonable or bad-tempered client? How have you dealt with it? Did you retaliate with your own anger or let them have their say and move on?
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
As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.