The Difficult Client Types

Written by lewsauder

January 30, 2012

Difficult Client

The Difficult Client

I’ve worked in very few organizations that didn’t have a jerk or two walking around.  Over the years I’ve learned to deal with them.

In the one situation where the jerk was my boss, I worked for several years – too long – to deal with it, and eventually moved on.  Life is too short to work that closely for a jerk for any length of time.

Deal with it

But you can’t change jobs every time you encounter one.  At some point, you have to learn to deal with them.

Dealing with a difficult client is another story.  If you change jobs every time you encounter a difficult client you may run out of places to work.  If you request a new client because your current client is a jerk, you will lose credibility with your firm quickly.

I’m not talking about people who are over-the-top verbally abusive.  These people should be reported, and your firm should take steps to deal with them.

I’m talking about your basic run of the mill difficult client that’s more of an irritant than anything else.

For more information, see Client Relations for Consultants

The many types of difficult client

There are many types of client jerks.  Some of the most common ones include:

  • The Project Sponsor Jerk: Has ownership of the project and feels the need to establish his authority.  Persistently lets the consultant know his place.  Persistently asks questions in a condescending tone like “How many billable hours did this take?”
  •     Client “Manajerk”: Another manager on the project – or related to it.  Often resents the consulting firm’s presence and fears they will expose him or her for any practices or processes deemed inefficient.  Tends to spend more time trying to make consultants look bad, so he or she can look good.
  • The Pest: Usually a lower level manager or employee that enjoys getting under a consultant’s skin.  Sees the consultant as an outsider and treats them like one.  Was probably a bully in their school days.
  • The Incompetent: Similar to the pest, this person is often a lower-level manager that has reached his or her peak.  Tries too hard to make a difference, pointing out non-issues or making too large of a fuss of small issues.  The Incompetent rarely has credibility within the client ranks, but the client management team will not admit that in front of the consultants.  This results in excessive time fighting unnecessary fires that were fanned by The Incompetent.  One distinct difference between this jerk and the others is that he doesn’t know he’s a jerk.

There are various strategies to deal with a client jerk.  One approach is to kill him with kindness; otherwise known as ass-kissing.  Many times they are just trying to wield power they don’t have internally and find the outsider consultants to be an easy target.  When I recognize this, I’ll give them extra attention.  If they want to meet to review risks, I give them their venue; let them air their grievances and then work with someone of real authority to provide input on prioritization.  This appeases the jerk, letting him feel as though his voice was heard and often reduces the noise he makes going forward.

Another strategy is to anticipate the questions she may ask.  If her strategy is to embarrass you in a meeting – showing that she thought of details that the highly-payed consultant didn’t – prepare answers to as many questions as you can anticipate in your back pocket.  This may disarm her and result in fewer challenges in the future.

The worst strategy a consultant can employ is to be a jerk back at them. A client can sometimes get away with being condescending and negative, but a consultant should always take the high road.  There is nothing to be gained from embarrassing the client back or getting revenge in some way.  Two wrongs never make a right.  Diplomacy and professionalism should always be followed.

The client jerk does serve a purpose.  I’ve done some of my best work when a client jerk is involved because they kept me on my toes.  I accepted the client jerk as a challenge.  I wasn’t going to let him or her get to me or ever let them beat me.  I strived to exceed their expectations and be prepared – diplomatically – for any questions or criticisms they may have.  Many client jerks are simply testing your mettle to see if you can handle the pressure.  Once you prove that you can handle it, they have a higher level of respect for you.

Finally, the client jerk is not all that prevalent.  For every client jerk you encounter, there are scores of cooperative, well-balanced client humans.  They understand that you are trying to serve them and provide value.  They will usually work with you cooperatively to help you get the job done.

See my related post: Keeping Your Cool Under Pressure

Unless you’re a consultant jerk, which would be an excellent future blog topic.

Have you ever worked with a jerk before?  How did you deal with it?

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

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms

Lew’s Books at Amazon:

Project Management 101
Consulting 101
The Reluctant Mentor

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